The Australian Curriculum: Continuing the National Conversation

By Atweh, Bill; Singh, Parlo | Australian Journal of Education, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Australian Curriculum: Continuing the National Conversation


Atweh, Bill, Singh, Parlo, Australian Journal of Education


Bernstein (1975, p. 85) argued that the stakes are high in the struggle over the selection, organisation and assessment of what a society counts as valid knowledge. This is because what knowledge is selected, how it is taught and how it is evaluated in schools goes to the very heart of issues of individual and social identity. As Moore (2007, p. 3) argued, 'what we know affects who we are (or are perceived to be). Issues of knowledge entail issues of identity'. Questions around the Australian curriculum have focused on issues of content (the question of what is selected as valuable knowledge) and form (the question of how the selected knowledge is organised within and across stages of schooling). This type of questioning inevitably leads to particular types of discussions around knowledge, teaching, learning and assessment.

The release of the Australian curriculum in March 2011 was the culmination of a period of wide consultation. Public and professional debate around the latest endeavour to develop a national curriculum has tended to focus on issues of form and content rather than on the need for a national curriculum. The official political rationale given for a national standardisation of the curriculum has remained largely uncontested in the media, and in several consultation responses. There appeared to be a sense of inevitability in the consultation phase and the parameters for debate and discussion seemed to be clearly demarcated or confined. The consultation opportunities that were generated included public website surveys, forums at state and territory level with key stakeholders, national panel meetings with a range of 'experts', meetings with professional associations and state and territory authorities, participation in trial schools and teachers, and critical readers and reviewers across the country (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2011). But some commentators (for example, Allum, 2009) suggested that the time frame for consultation was restrictive and prohibited the generation of meaningful and substantive conversations. In addition, concerns were raised about equitable state and regional access and participation in the national curriculum conversation (Atweh & Clarkson, 2010).

Our task in writing this article is to identify some areas of the national curriculum that remain sites of struggle and should be the subject of further debate and discussion, as identified by the contributions to this Special Issue. We identify the following aspects of the Australian curriculum that are still contested.

Why an Australian curriculum?

At least four contributors in this Special Issue (Aubusson; Atweh & Goos; Gilbert; Brennan) question whether the rationale(s) given for an Australian curriculum (for example, the efficient use of resources, achieving world standard curriculum, ensuring curriculum consistency) were based on political rather than educational agendas. Moreover, Brennan questions whether these goals are actually achievable through a national curriculum initiative. Some contributors suggest that there already is considerable curricular consistency or standardisation, particularly in the disciplinary fields of science and mathematics (Aubusson; Atweh & Goos). In addition, Aubusson and Brennan argue that current curriculum models in Australia have served the nation well in terms of international benchmarking data. These data indicate that Australia has a high-quality education system, although it performs less well in terms of dealing with issues of educational inequality (McGaw, 2007). Research has clearly shown that issues of educational inequality are best tackled at the local level of the school and classroom by teachers actively engaged in diagnosing learning difficulties and adapting curriculum to suit the needs of specific cohorts of students (see, for example, Glasswell, Singh, McNaughton & Davis, 2008). The question of how a national curriculum might add value in dealing with issues of educational inequality and student engagement remains unresolved.

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