April 14th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms

EDITORIAL: The high cost of 'symbolic' politics

THE ENVIRONMENT: Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

WATER: Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

NSW STATE ELECTION: When will Liberals, Nationals ever learn?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

SCHOOLS: Labor's standard threat to schools

MEDICAL SCIENCE: New developments in stem-cell science

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

SRI LANKA: Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

OPINION: An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide


Millions squandered (letter)

Regional rail networks (letter)

Labor's Mugabe dilemma (letter)

David Hicks (letter)

Russia's Putin should not be demonised (letter)

CINEMA: Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

BOOKS: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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Labor's standard threat to schools

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, April 14, 2007
The ALP's national curriculum plan is deeply flawed, warns Kevin Donnelly.

Education is one area where the Opposition has got the jump on the Government. At a political level, the ALP has stolen the initiative from federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, and there is much to recommend in the policies put forward by Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd and his education spokesman, Stephen Smith.

After all, at the level of rhetoric, arguing for a national curriculum that is clear, concise, teacher-friendly, academically rigorous and year-level specific, all Rudd and Smith have done is to copy the recommendations outlined in my book, Dumbing Down.

The decision to scrap the Mark Latham-inspired hit list of non-government schools also makes a good deal of sense. Many so-called aspirational voters in marginal seats are deserting government schools in favour of non-government schools and parental choice should be supported.

Significant flaws

Notwithstanding the pluses, there are several significant flaws and tensions in Labor's plans for Australian schools.

Much of education in Australia suffers from provider capture: official bodies such as the Curriculum Corporation, the Australian Council for Educational Research and equivalent bodies at the state and territory level have monopolised curriculum development since the early 1990s.

Not only are such bodies responsible for the politically correct, dumbed-down state of Australian education, represented by failed experiments such as Tasmania's Essential Learnings and Western Australia's outcomes-based new senior school certificate, but educrats such as ACER chief executive Geoff Masters are staunch advocates of the much maligned outcomes-based model of education.

That Rudd, as signalled in the ALP national curriculum paper, has agreed to put bodies such as the ACER and the Curriculum Corporation in charge of developing such a curriculum is like agreeing to put Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

As demonstrated by the development of the failed Keating Government's national statements and profiles during the early '90s, the devil is in the detail and once curriculum design is given over to the educational bureaucrats, problems arise. One needs only to note the damaging influence of fads such as whole language and fuzzy maths to realise how destructive a national curriculum would be if it were forced on all schools.

That those responsible for Australian education, ranging from subject associations to professional groups such as the Australian Curriculum Studies Association and educrats such as former director-general of NSW education Ken Boston, support Rudd's national curriculum plans should set alarm bells ringing.

Recent figures demonstrate that parents demand choice and diversity in education and that increasing numbers are choosing non-government schools for that reason. Research suggests that parents make the choice not because non-government schools are better resourced but because they believe independent schools adopt a more traditional academic approach to the curriculum, with a greater emphasis on competitive examinations and teacher-directed lessons.

The question has to be asked: how effective is parental choice if, as the ALP intends, all schools, government and non-government, are roped into the state system with a centrally mandated curriculum that all schools must implement?

While some non-government schools are as politically correct as government schools, the benefit of the non-government system is that there is greater curriculum autonomy at the local level and, when compared with the state system, there is a better chance of escaping educational fads.

By imposing a national curriculum on all schools and holding teachers accountable for teaching and measuring learning outcomes, parental choice will be largely irrelevant. Regardless of whether a student attends a government or a non-government school, they will be taught the state-mandated curriculum, one that, for all intents and purposes, will be developed by those responsible for the past 20 years or so of curriculum failure.


It should be noted that if the Coalition Government, as has been signalled, decides to force a national curriculum on Australian schools by tying its adoption to federal funding, then the same dangers will arise.

One safeguard, within general guidelines, would be to allow autonomy at the local level and to give schools the freedom to choose a curriculum that best suits their needs. Many schools across Australia offer the International Baccalaureate as an alternative to state-sponsored senior school certificates and many New Zealand schools, such as Auckland Grammar, offer the international Cambridge certificate.

In the US, schools are teaching mathematics syllabuses from Japan and Singapore in competition with local approaches.

Instead of privileging state-sponsored, centrally mandated curriculums, why not open our education system to international competition and ensure that what is taught in schools is truly the world's best?

- Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Strategies in Melbourne and author of Dumbing Down (Hardie Grant Books), available from News Weekly.

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