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Julia Gillard's Baccalaureate

By John Ridd - posted Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Over four years ago the Howard government pushed for an Australian Certificate of Education (ACE). Their published paper Australian Certificate of Education: Exploring a way forward aimed to “set nationally consistent high standards” and “improve the comparability of results across Australia”. It was a laudable objective but failed because of the constitutional fact that education is the responsibility of each State and Territory.

Each jurisdiction has its own assessment system and all guard that power jealously. It seems evident that the only way that the then government could get the various Education departments to meet together to discuss an Australia-wide Certificate was to agree from the start that the States would be allowed to keep their own assessment systems. Phrases such as “… there will continue to be flexibility in how evidence is collected …” leave no room for doubt.

In an On Line Opinion article “Floating gently on a waft of Edudribble” I argued that the assessment system operated by the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA) was a pathetic shadow of its former excellence, being unreliable, totally opaque, non numerate, dependent on student items of dubious provenance, gave no indication as to the worth of a piece of assessment and, because of their dependence on “assignments”, was socially and sexually discriminatory.


It is a fact that the Australian Certificate idea died. To what extent the cause was simple parochialism or party political differences is hard to tell; but it is certain that the differences in assessment systems was by itself a sufficient reason to kill it. There was never going to be the required level of trust in each others States systems to make it feasible. In particular it would be most unlikely that any State or Territory would have trust in the situation in Queensland. I remarked at the time that “for any state to agree to being involved it will want to be certain that an ACE emanating from all the other States will be based on syllabi and assessment systems that are defined, reliable and valid. Current structures in Queensland fail completely to meet those requirements.”

The inherent problems that killed off the ACE still exist and, short of major constitutional change, will remain into the future.

The ALP, as a part of election discussions has put forward the idea of an Australian Baccalaureate.

It is important, perhaps, to note that the best information as to the ALP’s intentions is an ALP release Let’s move Australia forward which has been issued during an election campaign. Such a document does not have the significance of a government white or green paper. Nevertheless it is a significant document in that it indicates that the ALP sees the problems that exist within Australia due to what it describes as “limited national consistency in senior qualifications and certificates”.

The suggestion for an Australian Baccalaureate (AB) tries to avoid the problems that killed off the ACE by suggesting that it would be a “new voluntary qualification that … will sit alongside existing senior secondary school qualifications as a voluntary credential … it will not replace them”. Clearly that is an attempt to placate the various States’ Boards of Study.

As is always the case for anything to do with education these days much of the description of the AB is capable of multiple interpretations, so it is hard/impossible to tell exactly what is intended especially in the crucial area of assessment.


Baccalaureate style qualifications are, I believe, essentially external exams based. That is also the case for UK Advanced level qualification that is held up in the proposal as being “of international standing”. The current proposal uses phrases such as “develop a certificate structure and achievement standards which are benchmarked against the world’s best systems and standards …” and “… leverage work on the senior national curriculum …”

The statement that “it is envisaged that the AB will provide an option for high performing students …”, indicates that individual students will be able to opt to take the AB if they wish to. Whether that student would then also receive the local State certification/Tertiary Entrance score (under whatever name) is unclear. Either way the individual school would have to provide the necessary support, facilities and teaching for the student to succeed at the AB. If it did not then the student has been deprived of the AB opportunity.

Within the realities of actual schools that is going to be very hard to do. In particular the less popular subjects - rigorous maths, the numerical sciences, modern languages, both Ancient and Modern History for example - will be placed in a very difficult position. Enrolments in such subjects are often very small. Many schools struggle to keep those subjects going at all. Unless there is a close similarity between the syllabus contents of the State subject and the AB (which there should be), but also the way in which the subjects are taught and assessed then it is highly likely that two classes would have to be run for each subject. That cannot possibly happen because of staffing restrictions.

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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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