National curriculum draws criticism

October 29, 2010

The first stage of the national school curriculum is scheduled to begin in 2011, and not many people are happy about it.

The idea of a national curriculum was initially raised by the Hawke Labor government in the late 1980s, and later echoed by Coalition prime minister John Howard.

It was realised by former Labor PM Kevin Rudd and then education minister Julia Gillard in 2008, with the establishment of the interim National Curriculum Board, which in turn led to the creation of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. ACARA was charged with developing the national curriculum.

The ACARA website said: “Australia should have one curriculum for school students, rather than the eight different arrangements that exist at the moment.” On the surface this seems logical. But the concerns lie in the content of the curriculum.

First-phase subjects — English, history, mathematics and science — will be introduced across the country next year. The October 15 Age said: “[ACARA] says 58 per cent of the feedback it received highlighted overcrowding across the draft curriculum and [explained] ‘that this may detract from the depth and quality of understanding achievable.’”

In the case of mathematics, it is anticipated that up to 15% of content area will be deleted.

In August, the NSW Board of Studies released a damning criticism of the planned national curriculum. Its report, titled New South Wales Response to the Draft K-10 Australian Curriculum for English, History, Mathematics and Science, said ACARA’s curriculum had no clear overarching framework for learning, a lack of coherence and major flaws and inconsistencies.

It also questioned the adjustment in time allocations for some subjects, and sought clarification on this. The Board of Studies said the national curriculum was inferior to the existing NSW curriculum.

The NSW English Teachers Association said: “The Draft Australian Curriculum: English does not reflect a world-class curriculum nor does it adequately prepare students for living and working in the 21st century as it does not embody notions of change, flexibility, problem solving and creativity.”

The lack of a creative approach is consistent with Gillard’s approach to education. On many occasions, she has said the focus of education should be on “the three ‘Rs” — reading, writing and “’rithmetic”.

Literacy and numeracy are already taught in schools, but Gillard has failled to address issues affecting educational outcomes, such as underfunding, under-resourcing and large class sizes.

Gillard has been the driving force behind neoliberal education “reform”, including the MySchool website, which she has hailed as one of her proudest achievements. The website publishes school numeracy and literacy test results, and has resulted in damaging league tables being published in the media.

Perhaps more devastating is the government’s push to use school funding as a “reward” for improved literacy and numeracy results. Gillard announced in August that, by 2014, up to 1000 schools may receive “annual reward payments”, said the August 10 Sydney Morning Herald.

There is undoubtedly a connection between the national curriculum and Gillard’s neoliberal education agenda. The “core” subjects of English, mathematics, science and history are not only politically loaded (the October 30 SMH said the Vietnam War had been “culled” as a “study option”), but also more easily tied into standardised testing.

In the new national curriculum, these four subjects will receive an increase in time allocation at the expense of the arts and technology. The subjects have received a 65% increase in teaching hours in years 7-10.

In contrast, the arts would receive a huge cut in allocated hours, along with a significant assault on the intellectual quality of subjects such as visual art, music and drama.

In the draft national curriculum, the arts consist of five subjects: visual art, music, drama, dance and media art. For each band (Years K-2, 3-4, 5-6 and 7-8), the teaching of these subjects is compulsory.

However, only 160 hours for each band has been allocated. This equates to 16 hours for each subject annually, which works out to 24 minutes per week. Visual art will be merely a psychological experience — rather than a subject grounded in a social context — making it impossible to assess.

At an October 27 meeting at Penrith’s Regional Art gallery in Western Sydney, visual art teachers said school principals were excited by the prospect of cutting the school art budget.

Others pointed out that, according to the time allocations, two excursions would technically cover the art component for the year, under the new curriculum.

The concept of a national curriculum is not necessarily problematic. But the speed at which the Gillard government is trying to implement it is drawing much criticism. The overwhelming response by teachers, parents and other stakeholders has been a call for more consultation, and to postpone its implementation for at least a year.

It is clear that there are many serious issues and severe flaws with the draft national curriculum in its current form. It is crucial that adequate time be taken to form a well-developed curriculum based on student need, rather than political agendas.

[Members of the community can view the draft curriculum and provide feedback and complete surveys. The arts online questionnaire can be found here. Submissions will be open until December 17. Vivian Messimeris is a visual arts teacher, rank-and-file NSW Teachers’ Federation member and a Socialist Alliance activist.]

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