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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.

Second, we need to identify "best practice" in terms of what is happening internationally. Academics and teachers in the USA argue, to be successful, that curriculum should:

  • Be related to specific year levels instead of covering a range of years,
  • Acknowledge the central importance of the academic disciplines,
  • Be "benchmarked" against world's best equivalent documents,
  • Incorporate "high-stakes" testing and remove students' rights to be automatically promoted form year to year, and
  • Be specific, easily understood and measurable.

In the USA, the above approach is called a "standards" approach. In opposition to a "standards" approach, Australian curriculum development is based on what are termed "outcomes".

Such "outcomes" are generally, vague, imprecise and based on the idea that teachers should "facilitate" instead of actually teaching and that learning must be immediately relevant, accessible and entertaining.

In history, for example, instead of stating that all students should learn about the Eureka Stockade or about the reasons for federation, teachers are told that "students should learn about important historical events".

In English, for example, while an "outcomes approach" might state that students should be able to use the "conventions and structures of language", a standards approach would actually state that students should be able to "identify phrases and clauses in a sentence".

In addition to learning from overseas research, curriculum developers in Australia should learn from those countries that perform best in international maths and science tests such as TIMSS and TIMSS-R.

Countries like the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Singapore and South Korea have a curriculum that is based on a "syllabus" approach.

Instead of vague and process-driven "outcomes" teachers are given, at the start of the year, a clear, succinct and easy-to-follow syllabus of what should be taught.

School textbooks and teacher training support such syllabuses and there is regular testing to ensure that all students are at or above the required standard.

Unlike Australia, where students are automatically promoted year after year on the basis that learning is "developmental", there is also a clear expectation that all students, by the end of each year level, will have reached the required level of ability.

Having a common and agreed "syllabus" across Australia in key subjects like English and mathematics would mean that students could move around the country without being disadvantaged.

Having a common "syllabus" in subjects like history and civics would mean that all students, regardless of where they live, would learn about out political and legal systems and those important historical events and ideas that define what we are as nation.

Finally, not only would parents be able to find out, at the start of the year, what was to be taught in their child's school, but teachers in every school around Australia would not have to work hard at writing their own "syllabuses".

Whether curriculum developers in Australia adopt a "syllabus", a "standards" or an "outcomes" approach will profoundly affect what is taught, or not taught, in our schools over the next 10 to 20 years.

The responsibility is great and only time will tell if we get it right the second time around.

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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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