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Schooling Australia: an education that builds a nation

By Fiona Mueller and Deidre Clary - posted Thursday, 9 August 2018

A little over one hundred years ago, compulsory education in Australia began to expand into the post-primary years of schooling. This was directly related to the intellectual and practical efforts involved in bringing a new country to life in 1901, which stimulated intense discussion about the values and beliefs that should guide decision-making for the public good. Additionally, Australian participation in the tragedy and terror of World War I (and even more so World War II) inevitably led to future-focused debates about defence, sovereignty, social progress and economic prosperity.

In 2018, these debates continue, every one of them linked in some way to education. A purposeful, cohesive and well-educated Australia, built on the most treasured Western principles, is the only acceptable future for our children, yet more than ten decades of policymaking in education now appear to be culminating in disunity and doubt.

Ten years on, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, echoing fundamental Western principles and agreed to by all state and territory education ministers in December 2008, still forms the basis for national education policy. The Declaration aspires to 'building a democratic, equitable and just society - a society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse, and that values Australia's Indigenous cultures as a key part of the nation's history, present and future' (MCEETYA, 2009, p. 40).


Particular emphasis is placed on approaches to schooling that will produce active and informed citizens who value Australia's social, cultural and linguistic diversity, possess an understanding of Australian systems of government, history and culture, are able to relate to and communicate across cultures, and act as responsible local and global citizens.

In addition to a national school funding model, Australia has a national curriculum (the Australian Curriculum, completed in 2016), a national program of standardised testing (dominated by NAPLAN) and a national reporting instrument (My School), the last three managed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Another national body, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), is responsible for the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals. This national educational infrastructure, not well understood by Australians, must be considered in any debate about reform and improvements.

Efforts to achieve national consistency in schooling have not delivered the educational goals articulated in the Melbourne Declaration. Demonstrable limitations and variations in the design and delivery of Australian school education mean easy targets for critics and obvious gaps for curriculum crusaders to fill. Only five of the eight states and territories have adopted the Australian Curriculum in its original form, and even that applies only to students in Kindergarten to Year 10.

Curriculum documents lack succinct, overarching statements of national purpose and principles; they reveal template ideology expressed in uninspiring but politically correct motherhood statements and verbose, intellectually bland summaries of subject content and student achievement standards.

Duplication of effort across the states and territories, particularly in curriculum development and professional learning for teachers, continues year after year, with schooling costing taxpayers in the order of 60 billion dollars in 2015-2016. As student performance in international assessments declines and organisations such as Australia's Productivity Commission stress their concerns about the inadequate preparation of many school leavers, the strategy remains the same: look overseas for the next big thing(s) and default to the same old group of experts to lead the way.

Now, it seems, the silver bullet is to be found in a curricular pivot towards '21st century learning'. What's not to like about teaching every child to 'develop as a whole person, fulfil his or her potential and help shape a shared future built on the well-being of individuals, communities and the planet'? This is the work being undertaken by the OECD's Education 2030 Project, through which Australia and dozens of other paying collaborators hope to obtain guidance on what is referred to as 'The Future We Want'. Grounded in the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, this project's 'we' presumably refers to all who accept that the driver of schooling is the new god called globalisation.


The corollary of such acceptance is the diminution of education's role as a clear and unequivocal reflection of national goals and identity, made particularly easy in settings where these topics are contested and even regarded as old-fashioned. Australia is arguably one example of vulnerability in this area, with little evidence of broadminded, transparent and objective thought leadership on the part of local decision makers. Indeed, the take-up of 21st century learning groupthink has already been so powerful that it is hard to see other voices getting a fair go. The OECD's position paper on the 'global effort for education change' (2018, p. 8) summarises the approach:

In a world characterised by inequities, the imperative to reconcile diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings with sometimes global implications, will require young people to become adept at handling tensions, dilemmas and trade-offs, for example, balancing equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, and efficiency and the democratic process. (The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030, p.5)

Students, parents and other stakeholders may be reassured by the OECD's view that 'disciplinary knowledge will continue to be important, as the raw material from which new knowledge is developed, together with the capacity to think across the boundaries of disciplines and "connect the dots" (2018, p. 5)', but the excitement about 21st century learning prompts important questions about the nature and purpose of school curriculum. For example, with regard to the OECD extract above, how should Australia's national curriculum address the issue of 'balancing equity and freedom'? Will the acquisition and application of knowledge – for so long the primary and most precious aim of education – be at the heart of Australian schooling? Which unique national values and principles underpin Australian education? Where is the evidence of the need for change? Who and what should lead and inform any change? What can improve the outcomes for young learners? How will any improvements be measured and reported?

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About the Authors

Dr Fiona Mueller is a teacher of English and foreign languages and a former Head of ANU College at the Australian National University. In 2016-2017, she was Director of Curriculum at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). She is particularly interested in the history of education, international education, single-sex schooling and K-12 curriculum design.

Dr Deidre Clary is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English and education at the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia. A former secondary teacher and deputy principal, her research interests include disciplinary literacy, critical literacy and new literacies. More recently, Deidre has engaged in comparative curriculum studies involving the Australian Curriculum.

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