SCHOOLS: by Paul McCormackNews Weekly
The national curriculum's ideological agenda
, May 25, 2013
The ALP government’s national curriculum is a bad model with misplaced priorities, argues News South Wales secondary school teacher Paul McCormack.
As the election approaches, certain policy areas tend to dominate the political agenda, and very few of them capture as much attention as education.
Unfortunately, the debate about education at election time is about quantity rather than quality. It focuses on the financial commitments that either major party is prepared to make towards schools and students. Hence, the news articles report the difference between the ALP and the Coalition on budgetary measures such as the retention or abolition of the “schoolkids’ bonus” and the proposed Gonski reforms.
Meanwhile, the more important issue such as the quality and content within our education system, a factor that is ultimately not determined by financial measures, is overlooked. The result is that we lose sight of the forest for the trees. It is a cause for concern among many people who harbour strong reservations about the national curriculum that is being developed, particularly its priorities.
Many arguments have been employed for and against the system of a national curriculum, which has been scheduled for implementation through a staged process beginning next year.
In-principle supporters for a national system argue that the essential content of particular subject areas should not change according to state boundaries. For example, the laws of physics, the formulae used in mathematics, the equations in chemistry, etc., are universal; so they should not require a separate syllabus in each Australian state or territory.
Another argument is that the integration of the best elements from each state and territory curriculum will provide the best of all worlds in educational quality. Advocates can also point to the increased interstate movement and relocation among many Australians as a sign that the nation is far more national in its orientation than it was in past eras, and that a state-based curriculum is therefore anachronistic and more of a hindrance than a help at a practical level.
Suffice to say that the logical extension of this argument is to question the role of state governments altogether in the present era, although the Australian Constitution ensures that state governments have a fundamental role in our federal system.
In-principle opponents of the national curriculum argue that the new system is contrary to the principle of subsidiarity, the belief that a larger entity should not perform a function that can effectively be carried out by a smaller entity. In this case, the smaller entity — that is, a state government — should not merely be relegated to the role of administering education departments; each state should also be able to develop its own syllabus free of intrusion and interference from the larger entity, the Commonwealth government.
Opponents also argue that a one-size-fits-all approach does not allow for competitive curricula, innovation and overall improvement. For example, an education system that enables different models to operate at a local level can better cater to, and involve, local interests and provides a useful means for comparative analysis of which models work best.
Opponents of the national curriculum are also able to use the analogy of the superior performance of the market economy over a centrally-planned economy. The national curriculum is the equivalent of the latter model, whereas curriculum that is developed at the local level offers the sorts of advantages that come from a market economy.
In addition, opponents of the national curriculum claim that this scheme is yet another step taken by the Commonwealth in centralising authority and subsuming services that traditionally have been within the primary jurisdiction of state governments.
Despite the persuasive arguments against a national curriculum, the national political debate over education has scarcely touched upon them. Instead, the government’s scheme has been widely accepted as a fait accompli.
This would be objectionable enough if it simply reflected public indifference to yet another blow to the heart of federalism by an ever-expansive Commonwealth government. However, there are also strong grounds for objecting to the proposed content of the Australian curriculum, namely, in the area called “cross-curriculum priorities”.
These priorities are themes that the curriculum stipulates must be addressed in each subject area. There are three cross-curriculum priorities in the Australian curriculum: 1) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, 2) Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and 3) Sustainability.
The decision to focus on these three areas is primarily based on accommodating and advancing an ideological agenda in Australian schools.
The designation of these priority areas also makes a mockery of the fashionable concepts of “inclusion” and “diversity” because they are explicitly exclusive. For example, it gives special priority to Aboriginal history and culture, but seriously downplays our British historical and cultural heritage; it gives special priority to engaging with Asia, but overlooks engagement with the United States of America, a key ally of Australia.
Moreover, the use of these cross-curriculum priorities ignores historical truth and clearly fails the common-sense test. The Australian curriculum website contains statements that attempt to explain the relevance of the three cross-curriculum priorities to individual subjects. In so doing, it reveals the ideological basis of the new curriculum.
English is an interesting case study. In relation to the first priority, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, the following prescription is given to connect it to the subject of English:
“Students will be taught that there are many languages and dialects spoken in Australia, including Aboriginal English and Yumplatok (Torres Strait Islander Creole), and that these languages may have different writing systems and oral traditions. These languages can be used to enhance enquiry and understanding of English literacy.”
There are many problems in giving undue priority to Aboriginal English in the English syllabus, not the least of which is that it ignores the basic reality that most Australian students do not speak Aboriginal English. It also draws a false conclusion that knowing Aboriginal English can enhance understanding of English literacy.
There is no evidence to support this opinion, and one can legitimately ask questions such as: How does knowledge of the existence of Yumplatok enhance a student’s knowledge of standard English spelling, grammar and language conventions?
The second cross-curriculum priority, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, is incorporated into the English syllabus with the following statement:
“English enables students to explore and appreciate the diverse range of traditional and contemporary texts from and about the peoples and countries of Asia, including texts written by Australians of Asian heritage. It enables students to understand how Australian culture and the English language have been influenced by the many Asian languages used in Australian homes, classrooms and communities.”
There is a strong argument that the study of Asian languages should be encouraged through the LOTE (Language Other Than English) subject, and many students will benefit from learning an Asian language as their LOTE. However, there is no evidence that Asian languages have significantly influenced the English language.
The predominant foreign language influences on the English language are Latin, French and Germanic, yet this fact is completely and conveniently ignored. Moreover, in its priority of exploring Asian texts, students are deprived of exploring the depth and richness of the canon of English literature. Instead of studying novels on the basis of the quality of prose and the storylines contained in them, this priority of the national curriculum is to study novels on the basis of the author’s connection with Asia.
The final cross-curriculum priority, Sustainability, indicates an implicit belief that English is not studied in order to improve one’s appreciation and talent for the art of communication and expression. Instead, it is a vehicle for students to pursue environmental action campaigns:
“English assists students to develop the skills necessary to investigate, analyse and communicate ideas and information related to sustainability, and to advocate, generate and evaluate actions for sustainable futures. The content in the language, literature and literacy strands is key to developing and sharing knowledge about social, economic and ecological systems and world views that promote social justice.”
There is clearly other content that would be of greater benefit to students in English than the study of ecological systems — for example, content that develops and shares knowledge about other goods such as life, the development of friendships, service, heroism, virtue, the human condition and human values.
Hence, it is evident that the cross-curriculum priorities of the national curriculum are intended to serve an ideological agenda rather than the best interests of Australian students. These priority areas are more suited to particular subjects that are already included in the current curriculum’s syllabus.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures are already a focus of study in Stage 4 of the mandatory history syllabus of New South Wales; Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia is already taught through Asian language LOTE courses and at Stage 5 of the mandatory geography syllabus; and Sustainability is already a theme of the Stage 4 science syllabus.
However, an attempt to narrowly focus on these three themes and prioritise them in every subject area of the national curriculum is misconceived. It not only downplays more significant themes relevant to particular subjects; it is also the equivalent of trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
An analysis of the new Australian curriculum makes it clear that the pursuit of an ideological agenda has been given priority over the goal of giving Australian students the quality of education they deserve.
Paul McCormack is a secondary school teacher and deputy principal of Saint Mary MacKillop Colleges in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia.