States, teachers lock horns over curriculum

Mar 25, 2013 by

Chris Tolhurst

A uniform approach sounds good in theory, but the fine-tuning is causing some angst.

Unconvinced: Debra Bateman believes the draft of the national curriculum has conceptual and procedural flaws. Photo: Eddie Jim

For many teachers and parents, the introduction of a uniform national curriculum that covers all educational bases from prep to year 12 is a victory for common sense. More than 80,000 children move interstate each year and many experience a deep disconnection when they go to a new school with a regional curriculum a world away from what they know.

There is a compelling argument about equality of opportunity, too. Why should children in year 8 at a Darwin high school be taught an English or science curriculum that’s below the standard of courses studied by year 8 children in Sydney or Melbourne?

It was arguments such as these that saw the federal government and the states and territories agree to establish a national curriculum in 2008.

But the rollout of the Australia-wide curriculum is running behind schedule and its implementation is mired in controversy. This is especially so in the larger states where experienced curriculum writers have spent decades developing state-based curriculums. The Victorian Education Department argues that its courses of study, to a much greater degree than is proposed in the national curriculum, give teachers the scope to specialise and vary their approach.

It’s not just the big states and the Commonwealth that are locking horns over the new curriculum. Victorian teachers are concerned they haven’t received adequate support to implement the curriculum and recently voted to delay its introduction.

Some teachers fear they will lose flexibility. State Education Minister Martin Dixon says the draft national curriculum is ”so cluttered”, it will overwhelm schools and undermine Victoria’s highly autonomous system of school education. He says there are ”gaps and deficiencies” in the proposed content and standards, compared with Victoria’s existing curriculums, in both traditional subjects such as mathematics and interdisciplinary subjects such as critical and creative thinking.

Debra Bateman, who lectures at Deakin University’s school of education, says the idea of offering all students the same learning experiences and opportunities is, in principle, a good one.

But she says the draft of the national curriculum, which is at various stages of implementation across Australia, has conceptual and procedural flaws. ”And by simply mandating a core curriculum and content that all students will learn does not mean the playing field is then level,” she says.

Curriculum is what is taught and learnt. It’s often presented as a published guide to plan the learning that takes place in classrooms. At the coalface, teachers talk about ”enacted curriculum” – the ways schools and teachers interpret a policy document and craft relevant lessons and activities around it.

The Commonwealth has taken an ever-growing interest in curriculums since it entered the school funding field in the 1960s. In 1994, Paul Keating’s Labor government proposed a national curriculum. It failed to get up, but 14 years later the states and territories agreed to substantially implement the four ”phase-one” national curriculum subjects of maths, English, history and science by 2013.

Implementation won’t be happening in Victoria this year, though. Five months ago, Victorian primary and secondary teachers placed an industrial ban on implementing the national curriculum’s AusVELS framework until 2014. It’s expected AusVELS will replace the Victorian Essential Learning Standards, or VELS, curriculum framework, which has been developed here since 1994.

Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace says there has been substantial confrontation between the teaching profession and the federal government on the development of the curriculum. ”But as a general initiative we think it is a move in the right direction,” she says.

She says the VELS curriculum framework is very similar to the national curriculum, but this is not the case with most other state-developed curriculums.

Under VELS there are educational requirements and targets that teachers must meet, but they have the flexibility to choose lessons and activities they think will best engage their students. ”That flexibility is important and I think that’s been one of the strengths of the Victorian curriculum,” Ms Peace, a former maths teacher, says. ”Other states have much more prescriptive curricula.”

Last year Mr Dixon warned that the draft national curriculum for languages would ”drive down the standards of languages education in Victoria”. In a submission to the national curriculum authority, Victoria said there was ”widespread concern” among language teachers that the hours allocated for learning languages in the draft paper were less than the state guidelines. The Victorian Education Department recommends some 150 minutes a week in primary school, which works out to 700 hours before year 7.

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which made the submission on behalf of government, independent and Catholic schools, also criticised the curriculum for using jargon terms such as ”ideational functions” and ”rhetorical organisation”.

The criticism came after the NSW Board of Studies slammed the national curriculum authority for ”ignoring” classical languages and failing to address an ”alarming” decline in languages education caused by a focus on literacy and numeracy.

If Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wins the federal election in September, there could be pressure from the conservative states to kill or water down the new curriculum. Mr Dixon says nothing about the national curriculum suggests Victorian schools will benefit from a nationally uniform approach to curriculum content. But Ms Peace and Grattan Institute schools education director Ben Jensen insist the national revamp is here to stay because some national subjects have been rolled out. Dr Jensen says the most challenging aspect of delivering the national curriculum is dealing with the states. ”The tensions were there even when the states all had Labor governments,” he says. ”If you look at the way the curriculum boards have responded in each state, it has got little to do with Liberal and Labor. The tension has to do with a belief in the curriculum each state has developed individually. They don’t want that taken away or have another national curriculum imposed on them.”

Dr Bateman is critical of ”the limited scope” of the phase-one subjects, which, she says, have a one-size-fits-all approach. She says there is increasing tension between state and federal curriculum controllers. ”In Victoria there is great pride in the way curriculum has developed since the [national teacher quality initiative] National Frameworks of 1994. The VELS framework has had much success.”

One thing seems certain: the national curriculum will have a positive impact on schooling in smaller states and particularly in Australia’s two territories, which are widely seen as suffering from educational disadvantage. The big question is: will a uniform approach to teaching and learning drag down standards in Victoria and NSW?

Victoria’s Education Department believes this is a possibility. Mr Dixon says the cluttered style of the new curriculum is ”inconsistent with evidence about the most effective ways to support deep student learning”.

The wider picture is that the quality of student learning counts for a good deal in a globalised economy. Dr Jensen says his concern is for Australia’s future. ”If you go to grade 5 maths in Victoria and you compare it to grade 5 maths in Singapore, it is pretty different – Singapore is at a different level.”

via States, teachers lock horns over curriculum.

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