Future generations will be let down if reforms are just the latest fad

Fiona Mueller

23 October 2019 | The Sydney Morning Herald

Few will argue with the NSW Curriculum Review’s overarching finding that change is needed. Far too many Australian students lack confidence and competence in reading, writing and mathematics — especially in comparison with their peers in Europe and Asia. It is well past time to address the fundamentals in these areas.

Most parents, taxpayers and employers will shake their heads at the scale of change recommended in this interim report. They are entitled to ask how yet another expensive, 18-month long investigation (and stretching until at least halfway through 2020) has concluded that Australian schooling is not serving the nation well. Why aren’t we further down the path to improvement?

As part of “nurturing wonder and igniting passion”, the proposed NSW reforms include redesigning the curriculum, moving away from year-level syllabuses to “attainment levels” that reflect individual progress, and consolidating the courses offered to Years 11 and 12 to prepare them better for life beyond school.

Moving from a year-based curriculum to one based on attainment levels would be a substantial restructure, and it isn’t clear that this time-consuming and expensive change is justified by the evidence, or has been successfully implemented in any other school systems.

It also does not do justice for children who start schooling at a disadvantage, potentially relegating them to a low-expectations trap.

And all of this should have taxpayers asking about the status of the Australian Curriculum. That national document, approved by all education ministers in 2015, “describes to teachers, parents, students and others in the wider community what is to be taught and the quality of learning expected of young people as they progress through school”.

The Australian Curriculum is to be reviewed in 2020, so we could be looking at another expensive duplication of effort.

It is critical to remember that curriculum is just one of the three key pillars of school education, intricately tied to teacher quality and effective assessment practices.

The NSW review rightly points to high-performing countries that “create strong alignment of the various elements of their schooling systems, including the curriculum, examinations and other assessments, reporting processes, pedagogical practices, initial teacher education, teacher professional learning, school leadership, school organisation, education system support, and enabling legislation”.

Without a strong commitment to this sort of integrated approach, curriculum reform is pointless.

One very welcome result of the proposed NSW reforms would be the consolidation of Year 11 and 12 courses that integrate theory and application and cater better for students on vocational and academic pathways.

Senior secondary courses vary in quality throughout Australia, and the disconnect between senior secondary expectations and the earlier years of schooling is unhelpful.

NSW can be proud of the rigour that currently exists in the HSC. We have to be very careful we don’t dumb it down when making sweeping changes to the curriculum.

Many of the NSW proposals seem to draw on international approaches, such as the “big ideas” used in British Columbia and Singapore, as well as the notion of “project-based learning” seen in Finland.

We need evidence to support the adoption of these in the Australian context if we are to avoid letting down future generations of children. Reforms are not simply about grabbing yet more fads.

The difference between us and those countries is that we lost the education plot a while ago.  We have fallen for one trendy fashion after another, and let standards slide instead of using evidence to determine what works best in our education systems.  When the foundations are strong, it is far easier to experiment and tweak. Australian education does not have that luxury.

Dr Fiona Mueller is Director of the Education Program at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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