THE CURRICULUM IS NOT A PLAYTHING

This piece was published in the NT Sun on January 22 2019 under the banner Curriculum is not a toy.

On December 9 2018, in the early days of the Morrison Government the new Minister for Education Dan Tehan made pronouncements about educational priorities. Mr Tehan spoke about the need for school curricular to cover basics ( the three R’s) and how important it was for basic education to be front and centre in the curriculum for Australian schools. Basics he said, needed to be the number one school priority.

In essence ‘the basics’ have always been to the fore. However, in practical terms, things are not quite that simple. The Australian curriculum is constantly bombarded by those who want to influence subject agendas. They speak loudly, with persuasion and often about matters they think important. However they are peripheral issues, far removed from Mr Tehan’s expectations.

Organisations like COAG impose a Commonwealth imprimatur on what happens educationally at Australian, State and Territory level. These requirements are interpreted by state and territory governments through their education departments to schools.

This weighty organisational scenario leads to constant change in curriculum priorities and challenges educational practice. It seems that nothing ever stays the same for very long. That makes it hard for schools to set agendas, purchase resources and service programs. Staff development required to familiarise teachers with endless changes is a constant after school requirement.

What doesn’t help the process is the fact that many demands from on high are without notice, being suddenly foisted upon systems. That was the case with Mr Tehan’s pronouncements. It was also the case when his predecessor Simon Birmingham declared that a foreign language had to be taught in all preschools in Australia. Nothing throws school programs and system expectations out of kilter more than hasty and intemperate pronouncements.

Part of the dialogue around shaping curriculum in schools should be a response to change suggestions being initiated by schools and fed back to system leaders. However, there is a tendency to meekly accept and comply with edicts from above, hoping these changes will work.

This means priority setting is an exercise conducted from the top down, with little suggestion for implementation happening at school level. It may well be that school leaders and teachers are worried about their performance management reviews and future employment prospects if they debate these issues with their superiors.

Curriculum changes should be carefully considered. They should be based on substance and not on whim. Those advocating for change should be considerate of students, teachers and school communities. They should not spring major curriculum change and redirection out of leftfield.

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