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Detailing devils in Australian English curriculum

By David Long - posted Monday, 13 January 2014

When she released the Australian Curriculum: English, 1-10 for public discussion on 1st March 2011, the Education Minister, Julia Gillard endorsed the use of c-a-t phonics as a method of teaching reading and then added: "As a nation we have to be able to reassure ourselves that we have got a high-quality curriculum being taught to every child in every school .. "

To say that prior to receiving any public feedback was exceedingly brave. Still it's not unfair to say that apart from some minor alarmist comments from the education unions about teacher retraining and an auto response from academics to the mention of phonics (which education academics despise), public criticism of the curriculum has, so far, been largely mute.

(The recent comments of the Education Minister, Christopher Pyne give some hope that the curriculum will be seriously reviewed by someone reasonable.)


The curriculum was the product of Professor Barry McGaw, an education scientist from Melbourne University, who is reported to have said: "Australia will have a world class curriculum and maybe even a world's best curriculum." As Prof. McGaw chaired the curriculum committee it is nothing less than expected.

The irony of his comment about the world's best curriculum, however, would not be lost on those who are familiar with the assumptions of the positivist methodology of the social sciences, the hallmark of which is the distinction it makes between facts and values. Facts are objective and provable. Values, on the other hand, that is, whether something is good or bad, ugly or beautiful, effective or ineffective, reasonable or unreasonable, just or unjust, are merely irrational, subjective tastes. Thus, while education science might claim to know the most efficient teaching methods, it can offer no judgement about what constitutes the best curriculum, whether in English or otherwise. Such judgements are value judgements, subjective, irrational preferences.

Membership of the Board of the curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the body responsible for developing the draft curriculum was composed of men and women who are either education academics or, what is almost the same thing, bureaucrats who are responsible for State currricula that the National curriculum will replace. It will remain an enduring riddle why the people responsible for defective state curricula would be in charge of developing a new one. So perhaps someone should ask Ms Gillard that question.

To say that the drafters of the National curriculum have no particular literacy or even literary aim would be an understatement. The curriculum is concerned with the inculcation of appropriate opinions in young minds and makes no promises in respect of students' literacy achievements.

The curriculum states that it will introduce students to reading, writing and comprehension of what it calls increasingly complex and sophisticated texts, but it gives no indication of what it understands by complex and sophisticated texts. Texts, however, include the amorphous category called multimodal texts, which contains material such as cartoons, greeting cards, tween magazines and cook books, but not motor vehicle, cricket or football magazines. One might ask why a curriculum would include such vulgar material as suitable for children to read, as if they contribute to literacy when, in fact, they contribute to illiteracy. One could make the further criticism that even here, there is a biased choice in favour of vulgar material that appeals to girls but omits vulgar material relating to sporting activities that boys enjoy.

It is difficult to imagine a more contentious statement of principle than the following:


The study of English helps students to extend and deepen their relationships, to understand their identities and their place in a changing world, and to become citizens and workers who are ethical, thoughtful and informed.

It is not clear from the context in which it appears (and it has not been elsewhere explained) what exactly is meant by "[T]he study of English helps extend and deepen [students'] relationships". This assertion is so vague that it could very well mean introducing children to the idea that there are a variety of human relationships, with deepness and extension being the key components by which to judge whether they are ethical. There is no mention that what is currently viewed as natural might also be important to learn; particularly since the assertion of the preferability of extended and deep relationships is inconsistent with the assertion that this curriculum will help children become ethical citizens.

Further, it is almost perverse to assert that the study of English will help students "to understand their identities". Given that this curriculum applies only to Grade 10, when most students will be experiencing puberty, one can only speculate on what "identities" the curriculum will assist in understanding.

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About the Author

David Long is a lawyer and writer with an interest in classical political philosophy and Shakespeare. He has written previously for The Bulletin and The Review.

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