The way forward for the Australian curriculum - The Centre for Independent Studies
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The way forward for the Australian curriculum

Few taxpayers realise that the Australian curriculum – agreed to a decade ago by all education ministers and supposed to set the learning expectations for all students across the country – is under review again.

The hope is that by the end of 2021, the process of “refining, realigning and decluttering” will ensure that the national document can justify its self-described ‘world class’ status.

Major decisions are being made about what and how children should learn.

Every Australian has a stake in this work, particularly given the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the national psyche and economy and the importance of bringing people together to recuperate and flourish once again.

These difficult times should stimulate deep thinking about nationhood and how young Australians can really learn to be “reflective, active and informed decision-makers, [who] will be well placed to contribute to an evolving and healthy democracy that fosters the wellbeing of Australia as a democratic nation” – as the goals state.

An effective national curriculum is the most powerful vehicle for reinforcing the foundations of citizenship.

That requires at least some agreement on what Australia is, how it came to be, and what it wants to be, with clear connections made between its national heritage and its national goals.

Part of that means learning to debate freely and intelligently on the basis of extensive knowledge.

Students, teachers, parents, employers and all other interested stakeholders deserve a clear line of sight between the official aims of education and their own efforts and aspirations.

But the most critical component needed to guide the Australian curriculum review – an intellectually sophisticated, transparent and practical framework – is nowhere to be found.

A framework of that quality – just as necessary in a successful business or other enterprise – would establish the basis for decisions about what to keep, modify or throw out, and identify the precise strategies and resources needed to get the job done.

Centering the curriculum on Australia’s cultural and intellectual heritage would provide a solid, cohesive foundation for all subject areas and create logical spaces for teachers to weave in material appropriate to local students and communities.

As with the very different approaches to school closures during the pandemic, the status of civics and citizenship within the Australian curriculum highlights the weaknesses and inconsistencies of education in this country.

The 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration is at the top of the list of documents guiding the review.

It is clear about the need to “teach young Australians the value of our nation’s rich history”, and expresses this in the context of “welcoming and valuing the local, regional and national cultural knowledge and the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

In contrast, despite stated aims of instilling “an understanding of Australia’s system of government, its histories, religions and culture”, the declaration never formally acknowledges the richness and complexity of thousands of years of Western civilisation.

If students are to develop a sense of belonging and motivation to contribute to the national wellbeing, they need consistent and connected exposure to great ideas, events and people from history.

For example, Australia’s commitment to the principle of justice lends itself to a streamlined approach to the study of languages and literature, history, economics, the arts, science (especially medical) and other subjects.

According to its rationale, the Australian curriculum “contributes to improving the quality, equity and transparency of Australia’s education system”.

However, there was no public consultation prior to publishing the terms of reference, and the schedule contains only a brief window of opportunity for comment on the proposals for change.

This only compounds the essential problem: that too few see education as an issue of significance – and even fewer seem keen to ensure that it helps to build a nation.