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Parent Power - should the free market decide school curricula?

By Ross Farrelly - posted Wednesday, 27 April 2005

In December 2004 Andrew Refshauge was backed into a corner. Because of the poor academic performance of Indigenous students he could no longer insist that the “one size fits all” approach to school curricula was the best model. Instead he proposed to relabel schools with high concentrations of aboriginal students as “community schools” and allow them to develop individual, personalised study plans. He agreed that “Aboriginal parents [should now] have a say in selecting teachers and managing public schools”. He also acceded that “teachers may be paid based on their performance, rather than the union award”.

This raises the question of who is best qualified to choose the curriculum and the teaching methods employed in Australian schools. As each child is different, and therefore has different educational needs, and as parents know their children most intimately, it is parents rather than educationalists, who should choose the best education for their children. But parents will only be able to do this if school funding is placed in their hands and there is sufficient diversity in the educational marketplace to allow them to make meaningful choices. These two factors - the ability for parents to choose where they spend their education dollar and a system which gives schools the freedom to tailor their wares to the needs of parents and students - are the most effective means of improving education in Australia.

The present system of centralised curriculum development by the states reflects the view that education is a highly specialised subject that should be the exclusive domain of experts. There is no effective method for the general population to influence school curricula. In an environment where the curricula are “fractured and distorted by competing ideologies”, the only way proponents of a particular educational philosophy can secure a footing is to have the curricula developed exclusively by experts who share their views.


Each state has an organisation responsible for curriculum development. In New South Wales, for example, the Board of Studies (BOS) is responsible for developing the state’s curriculum. The BOS appoints a Board Curriculum Committee (BCC) which carries out development on a particular subject. A BCC (pdf file 177Kb) comprises members of the BOS, representatives from the tertiary sector, government educational bodies, education unions, the Catholic and Independent sector, and parent bodies such as the NSW Parents Council.

The BCC reviews the current syllabus, consults with teachers and other professionals, researches current trends in curriculum development and then recommends changes to the BOS. Proposed changes are then distributed to schools with a consultation and development timeline. Following this, the BCC publishes a brief on which teachers and other education professionals have a chance to comment.

Apart from one NSW Parents Council nominee there is very little participation in the curriculum development process by anyone other than education professionals. The consultation process (pdf file 177Kb) is supposedly open to the general community but in reality very few members of the public know which curricula are under review and have an interest in participating. There is very little parental input to the NSW curricula, which are in effect the product of a panel of expert educationalists.

It is a dangerous move to take the decision away from ordinary people and give it to educationalists. It is the duty of a parent, not the state, to oversee the education of children. The power of citizens to think, consider, assess and decide on the education that their children are to receive is being usurped by the government and consequently these abilities are diminishing.

Centralised curricula are also demoralising for some teachers, forcing them to teach material they consider to be substandard.

If parents were able to choose where they spent their education dollars, via tax breaks or school vouchers, and the market was able to respond to diverse parental requirements by offering a range of different schools with different curricula and leaving exams, parent interest in and input to curriculum development would skyrocket. School vouchers and a diversified education market would allow parents to “vote” continuously, via the market, for whatever system of education they thought best. If the government is really serious about parent consultation, why not let parents vote with their cash?


But even high levels of parental involvement in curriculum development would not bring about significant improvement while curricula are monopolised by the state governments. No single curriculum can possibly reflect the educational vision of Australian parents. Take the current English syllabus for example with its emphasis on deconstruction and postmodernism. In an open educational market would such a curriculum dominate the marketplace as it does now? Does it really reflect the philosophical understanding of Australian parents? I think not. While there should be a place for such a curriculum, its extent and influence should be proportional to its acceptance in society, not to the influence of a small group of ideologues on the BOS curriculum committee.

As we have seen, the NSW curricula are determined by a small homogenous panel of experts. When they meet they are trying to solve a very complex problem that has many possible solutions. The exact nature of the problem that the curriculum ought to solve is itself open to debate and will reflect one’s world view. Materialists will develop quite different curricula to those who believe that a human being is more than a physical body. Christian’s will educate their children quite differently to utilitarians. Those who believe that the most important aim of human life is to support one’s society and nation will emphasise different aspects of history and character building to those emphasised by rugged individualists.

A single syllabus formulated by a committee must inevitably be the result of compromise. As James Surowiecki points out in his recent book, The Wisdom of Crowds:

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Article edited by Angus Ibbott.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited version of an article first published in the autumn 2005 issue of Policy magazine. The longer version can be found here.

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About the Author

Ross Farrelly works for a statistical software company. His blog can be found at

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