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What will it take to get a national curriculum off the ground this time?

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 31 July 2003

Now that agreement has been reached at the recent meeting of Australian education ministers that Australia will have a national curriculum, the next question is:

"What will such a curriculum look like and how will it be developed?"

How we answer this question is crucial.


Those who remember the last attempt to develop a national curriculum, under the federal Keating government in the early 1990s, will understand that designing a national curriculum is far from easy.

In fact, such were the attacks on the then national curriculum that Australia's education ministers refused to endorse the national curriculum statements and profiles at their 1993 meeting in Perth.

This first attempt at designing a national curriculum was attacked as offering a politically correct, "dumbed down" and mediocre set of standards.

Especially in the key areas of maths and science, professional bodies around Australia argued that the national curriculum was a "disaster" and "substantially flawed".

The Studies of Society and Environment document was also attacked for undermining history and geography by adopting an integrated approach that focused on the politically correct areas of multiculturalism, feminism, peace studies and the environment.

More recently Bruce Wilson, the head of Australia's Curriculum Corporation, admitted that the first attempt to design a national curriculum represented, and I quote, "an unsatisfactory political and intellectual compromise".


Given that those responsible for the original mess now appear to have now been given a second chance, how can we ensure that history does not repeat itself and that, once again, we end up with a failure?

First, we need to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and make sure that they are not repeated. Instead of adopting education "fads" like "whole language" and "fuzzy maths" we need rigorous, academic standards.

Instead of destroying history and literature by reducing education to a child-centred, process approach we need to identify essential knowledge, understanding and skills that all students have the right to learn.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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