HTAA June 2009 Update

June 2009

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has commenced its work. It replaces the National Curriculum Board (NCB)

The ACARA website is now live:

The new board is listed and a number of new documents have been posted, including a Curriculum Design Paper that sets out hours for history courses.National Curriculum Update

In early May the National Curriculum Board (NCB) published a number of important documents including the Framing Paper Consultation Report: History, which summarises the consultation feedback on the original Framing Paper, and The Shape of the Australian Curriculum: History. This second document, the Shaping Paper, is an updated version of the Framing Paper and it will now be used as a brief for the curriculum writing team. The writing team came together in mid-May and has now begun the task of producing a national history curriculum. The National Curriculum Board’s timelines envisage a K-10 writing period that will take up most of the remainder of this year. It will be followed by a period of consultation. Implementation is due to begin in 2011. At the moment, it appears that curriculum development for the senior years will be delayed by at least some months. The board’s documents and timeline are published on its website:

Years K-10: Optimism

In relation to Years K-10, the Shaping Paper is encouraging. While it retains the rationale and many of the features that were welcomed in the original Framing Paper, it has also taken into account much of what came through in the consultation. In particular, suggestions for topics have been trimmed, the need to be mindful of student engagement has been taken into account and there appears to be an acceptance of the need to provide for options and school developed courses. What is proposed for the primary years is certainly more attractive. There is room for more clarity around what is actually meant by Depth Study & Overview and the approach to sequencing and setting achievement levels for skills development needs more thought. Nevertheless, the Shaping Paper now presents writers with a manageable task. HTAA has confidence in our colleagues engaged in this work. If they are given appropriate flexibility and support, the outlook for K-10 is optimistic.

There are two significant qualifications to this optimism. Firstly, there is a tremendous weight of expectation on the 7-10 years. Every interest group wants to see its topics included. In the end, difficult choices will have to be made if we are to have a feasible and coherent curriculum rather than a bunch of topics that need to be ticked off to satisfy the interest groups. Secondly, while the original Framing Paper suggested 400 hours for a 7-10 course, the Shaping Paper does not specify any hours. This is discussed below.  

Years 11-12: Uncertainty
HTAA’s submission on the Framing Paper noted that the section on the senior years was so inadequately developed as to make meaningful feedback impossible. The board’s Consultation Report noted that this inability to comment due a lack of detail was a widespread concern. What is now very puzzling is that the Shaping Paper contains even less detail on the senior years. A proposal for a range of courses, welcomed in the consultation, has been cut back to two courses: Ancient History and Modern History. Even though the Shaping Paper expresses a hope that ‘the majority of students will continue with history’ in the senior years, this complex and important area of the curriculum is dealt with in six sentences. Mention of a ‘first phase’ and other courses being continued by individual jurisdictions raises more questions than it answers. While some delay in the development of senior courses will be welcomed by most teachers, there is an expectation that this time must be used to promote widespread discussion in an area where there is intense interest. At the moment, the Shaping Paper tells us that the writers will receive ‘further advice’ but there is no indication of where this advice will come from or how it will have been developed. This is a good deal less than transparent.
Uncertainty about the senior years means that it is difficult to see how articulation between the 7-10 course and the senior years will be addressed. There is a danger, for example, that large slabs of a senior Modern History course could be written into a Year 10 course. The fact that we seem to be operating without a genuine K-12 continuum in mind also raises questions about the skills development sequence and the matching of topics and concepts to the cognitive development of students – uncertainty about the senior years may serve to encourage those who seek to load everything into the 7-10 course, irrespective of appropriateness.
There was support from around the country for an Extension course. There are also compelling arguments for the development of both an Asia-Pacific course and a senior course for less academic students. Any such proposals have now been consigned to a vague future. This will disappoint those of us who saw the national education revolution as an opportunity to not only preserve the best of what we have but to apply some imagination to the development of exciting new courses. Such a proliferation of courses would present its own challenges but, again, there may be imaginative solutions such as creating semester or yearly modular courses that different jurisdictions could adapt to their own systems.

‘Outside the Remit’: Urgent Action is Needed

In its conclusion, the original Framing Paper emphasised the fact that its proposal was ‘premised on schools making a substantial commitment to teaching history’. It went on to specify the hours that would be needed for courses and highlighted major concerns around teacher training and professional development. Despite HTAA’s strong endorsement of this conclusion, we now find that all such references have been deleted from the Shaping Paper. Indeed, the Consultation Report responds to these concerns by repeating what threatens to become an annoying mantra: serious issues relating to implementation are ‘outside the remit of the Board’. We are at the stage where this response needs to be challenged. What is the point of putting energy and expectation into curriculum development when there are no guarantees around implementation? How confident can we be that even well-developed national curriculum courses will not fall victim to buck-passing between various state and federal agencies when we see no evidence of timely planning for implementation?
Urgent action is now required in each of these areas:

  1. Timing of Courses – While writing teams are now working on courses that are meant to be taught in a certain number of hours, at the moment there is no guarantee that states and territories will be committed to these hours. The number of hours envisaged for English, Maths and Science, the fact that more national curriculum courses are being planned in other disciplines and legitimate fears about an already crowded curriculum make this a very complex issue. Nevertheless, unless we can get some agreement there is a danger that we will see a variety of truncated versions of national history courses being introduced around the country. At the very least, we would like to see curriculum documents specify the minimum number of teaching hours they have been written for. 
  2. Teacher Training – The historical understandings outlined in the Shaping Paper assume that students will be presented with a relatively sophisticated understanding of history. It is difficult to see how this can happen merely by putting a sophisticated syllabus in the hands of a non-specialist teacher. Indeed, it might be suggested that the result could be entirely counter-productive. Nevertheless, the urgent issue of teacher training has yet to be addressed. HTAA’s statement on teacher training is available on its website:
  3. Resourcing – At the moment it is still not clear whether we will be given prescriptive curriculum documents or somewhat minimalist guidelines. If it is the latter, then there is a distinct possibility that the first resources produced will become a de facto syllabus. This must raise some concern about the sort of history teaching that will result, especially when it can be predicted that there will be a good deal of reliance on the first resources that are rushed out. Nevertheless, even though it emerged as a popular proposal during consultation, the NCB insists that ‘the provision of templates and model units to guide teachers’ is beyond its remit. This is particularly disappointing given the situation of Year 7, which is taught in primary school in a number of states. The provision of templates, model units and best practice examples would be one obvious way of assisting primary teachers of history in Year 7. 
  4. Professional Development – Professional Development will be critical to the successful implementation of new courses. Nevertheless, there has been no planning in this area and certainly no discussion with HTAA. At the moment there is only vague talk about bureaucratic and commercial involvement. This does not inspire confidence.

HTAA feels that it is now time for the NCB to begin pushing energetically beyond its remit. At the same time, we acknowledge a complex educational environment – it is also time we saw more transparency and commitment from state and territory agencies, politicians at all levels and the universities.

Paul Kiem
President HTAA