One would think that a national curriculum was the equivalent to the Second Coming, the way that both Labor and Liberal education spokespeople were speaking (or spruiking is probably the more accurate term!).
Let’s not pretend that this is nothing more than a political point scoring debate; it’s not really about education. It’s about power and control. It’s about creating a false dichotomy, it’s about drumming up fear, it’s about allocating blame, it’s about making the states accountable to the federal government, it’s about using the education of our young people as one of those advertising dirigibles which is big enough to be easily identifiable as a target and easily inflated by a lot of hot air. Education is something that is experienced by all but understood by few.
As W. B. Yeats says in his poem titled The Second Coming:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre..
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
There’s certainly been lots of turning in this debate (I have a visual of ‘education’ as the piñata with Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith wielding the sticks; taking swipes at the poor thing as it twirls helplessly).
The reasons we have heard for a national curriculum have included a desire to improve standards via a centrally determined and consistent approach to the teaching of English, history, mathematics and science. We have heard that Australia is rated as 29th in the developed world in our standard of numeracy. This statistic was taken from a recent OECD conference where the delegates’ opinions were surveyed. It isn’t based on any testing. On international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, Australia features very highly in both literacy and numeracy. To what standards are these spokespeople referring that need to be improved?
The other prominent reason given for a consistent, national curriculum is to ease the transition for interstate travellers. Is this a reality? Students from overseas seem to be able to cope pretty well with the transition between countries and adjust relatively quickly to any minor differences in content.
Education is about encouraging young people to think critically, to think creatively and to think reflectively. It does this through, in secondary schooling, the vehicles of various disciplines. These disciplines have content and they have concepts or ideas pertinent to the discipline. The acquisition of knowledge is more than acquiring content. As teachers, I think we want our students to develop the capacities to act responsibly and with resilience. We teach with these things in mind. We want to develop an independent intellectuality in our students. Surely our government wants these same things for its teachers? I suppose what I’m getting at here is that we want our students to develop as autonomous individuals yet this proposal detracts from teachers’ level of autonomy over the curriculum they teach. I need more time to write a complete analysis of what I think a national curriculum could mean to education, but my ‘gut feeling’ is that centralisation takes something important away from teachers. By taking away the responsibility for developing an appropriate curriculum, the government is essentially disenfranchising teachers and condemning their voices to not be heard in a curriculum sense. I’m not sure we can engage, with vigour as well as with rigour, with a curriculum that has been determined by a central body.
I think it is time for people to argue the case on authentic educational grounds, rather than political ones, with the same level of conviction and passionate intensity as those who have currently taken the stage in this debate.