What's wrong with the national curriculum?

March 6, 2010

On February 25, federal education minister Julia Gillard announced the release of the new national curriculum. She sounded like a consultant for a private education firm, yet at the same time revealed her utter ignorance of education in this country.

Her speech outlined her vision of educational neoliberalism, focusing on the next steps in the government's agenda to corporatise education and attack teachers' unions.

She said a draft for a national curriculum "in the first four subjects — maths, English, science and history" would be released on March 1. There is nothing inherently problematic with the idea of a national curriculum. Indeed, the idea makes a lot of sense.

But as with most of the Labor government's initiatives as part of its "education revolution" — such as league tables, performance pay for teachers, national testing — the ideological motivation behind it means it is full of problems.

It is increasingly clear that Labor is pursuing the failed "New York model" of education. The model is neoliberal — corporatising the public education system and running schools as businesses rather than supportive, educational communities. The educational content in such a system focuses on preparing students for work, rather than educating and developing full human beings.

So how does the new national curriculum fit into this schema?

Gillard told the National Press Club she believed "every child is entitled to a world class education, regardless of their background or their family circumstances. And for far too long we have let children down."

She failed to mention that wherever league tables have been introduced, they have led to further educational and socio-economic polarisation and inequality — far from educational opportunity for people of all backgrounds and circumstances.

New South Wales Teachers' Federation (NSWTF) president Bob Lipscombe responded on the union's website: "Listening to [Gillard] … one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much of value happened in our schools before her arrival on the scene.

"At times, it has even sounded like Australia has a third-rate education system, rather than one that, by international measures, ranks among the best in the world."

Apart from the agenda behind it, the other main problem with the national curriculum is how it is being introduced.

A March 1 statement from the federation said: "Teachers are disappointed that the National Curriculum … has been developed without genuine consultation with the teaching profession. Teachers, who are trained and experienced in development and implementation of curriculum, have been sidelined.

Similarly, the schedule for its implementation will make it difficult for teachers to have meaningful input: the consultation period is to finish by the end of May.

Despite her "passion about the future of Australian schooling" and her apparent concern for quality teaching, Gillard's proposed schedule to implement the national curriculum by 2011 shows her ignorance about the way schooling takes place and teachers work.

The final documents will only become available in August or September at the earliest, which means there will not be adequate time for teachers to develop the new programs and resources that will be needed to deliver the new curriculum by the beginning of the 2011 school year.

So much for the promotion of quality teaching and education.

[Pat Donohoe is a councillor of the NSWTF, secretary of Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers Association and a Socialist Alliance activist.]

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