National Curriculum – July Update


The past few months have seen a good deal of activity on the national curriculum front and, with consultation scheduled for the remainder of 2008, this activity will only intensify. While national curriculum may still be somewhere over the horizon for the vast majority of teachers, by early 2009 the development of national courses in history will become an increasing focus of attention for all of those concerned with the future of our discipline. This update has been divided into two sections, a report and a discussion. The discussion has been presented to provoke more discussion.

Report

  • On 27 June the National Curriculum Board (NCB) held its first forum, for 200 stakeholders, in Melbourne. HTAA was represented by Paul Kiem.
  • On 21 July, representatives of key subject associations met with NCB Chair Professor Barry McGaw, Deputy Chair Mr Tony Mackay and members of the NCB Secretariat. HTAA was represented by Paul Kiem and Vice President Louise Secker.
  • The NCB is holding its meetings around Australia and taking the opportunity to arrange consultation forums at the same time. This has already happened in Brisbane, where QHTA and HTAA were represented by Kay Bishop.
  • QHTA has invited Professor McGaw to attend HTAA’s national conference in Brisbane in October. This will provide another opportunity for discussion and input.
  • Some state HTAs are scheduling national curriculum discussion sessions as part of professional development activities and in NSW there are plans to organise a forum on national history courses with Macquarie University.
  • Late in 2008 the NCB plans to hold major forums focusing on each of the four disciplines. HTAA will be invited to nominate delegates.
  • Prior to these subject forums the NCB plans to produce a Position Paper on the development of national curriculum courses and individual subject Framework Papers.
  • The NCB’s website will be a significant forum for information sharing and discussion: www.ncb.org.au. At the moment the National Curriculum Development Paper, produced for the June forum, is available on this site.

Discussion

There are some encouraging aspects of the early stages of the national curriculum development process. The NCB appears to be made up of well-qualified individuals who should be capable of providing the sort of educational leadership that will be required. The board members have made a point of making themselves accessible. The NCB’s Development Paper uses some reassuring language: ‘the curriculum should make clear to teachers what has to be taught’, ‘the curriculum needs to be feasible’, ‘the curriculum needs to be flexible’ and ‘the curriculum needs to be developed collaboratively’. Most importantly, there will be a lengthy period of consultation. There seems to be a genuine desire at the outset to engage with those who will be ultimately responsible for implementing national curriculum. This can only help to engender goodwill.

While it is clear that the 27 June forum was a necessary first step in the consultation process, the diversity of the 200 stakeholders represented and the lack of any clear parameters meant that the discussion was very wide-ranging. Smaller, more focused groups and the NCB’s plan to produce a Position Paper and subject Framework Papers should greatly assist future discussions. What the 27 June forum did do was to offer many groups the opportunity to raise concerns or promote particular aspirations for national curriculum. Allowing for issues of individual perception, the following responses to the broad discussion are worth highlighting and may prompt further discussion:

  • There is a divide between secondary and primary. On the one hand, this can raise fears amongst primary teachers about ‘secondary discipline specialists’ seeking to impose their own methods and priorities on the primary timetable. On the other hand, there is significant support for a more generalist, inter-disciplinary, ‘whole child’, ‘middle schooling’ approach to the junior high school years.
  • In some quarters there are negative attitudes towards the traditional subjects that have been nominated for the development of national courses. This can range from support for an inter-disciplinary rather than subject based approach to concerns about the creation of national courses adding to a crowded curriculum and squeezing out those subjects that may be perceived as having a lower status.
  • There are some very sophisticated aspirations out there for the digital age, the child of the 21st century, a futures orientated curriculum etc. Too often, such rhetoric also assumes an uncritical acceptance that the traditional disciplines are not the way to go if we are aiming at higher order competencies. Not only does this betray a worrying ignorance of what a subject like history can achieve, it raises the prospect of teachers being given a set of noble goals without any context or methodology with which to develop them.
  • The national curriculum project has already given rise to some fierce jostling by lobbyists of all kinds. The concern is that too many agendas will be allowed to run. Not only would this compromise what must be the priority goal – the creation of ‘feasible courses’ – but there would be the risk of too much change being imposed upon schools too quickly.

It is now time for the NCB to focus the discussion by clarifying some of the issues. Are we talking about the traditional discipline of history? Does ‘national’ mean ‘mandatory’ and will courses be prescribed for particular years of schooling? How many hours will national courses take up? Will history be able to offer additional electives or will the national courses themselves be electives? Some of these questions will already have been answered at the political level, presumably on ‘evidence-based’ criteria.

Not surprisingly, within the history teaching community we do not have absolute agreement about what we want. However, the challenge of presenting some form of reasonable consensus at a national level may be quite achievable. Most would agree, for example, on the need to improve the status of Australian history, the need to introduce more Asian history and the need to retain (or perhaps pool) the best of our senior courses. Very few would be seeking to impose hundreds of hours of history on primary school timetables and many would react with horror at the prospect of mandatory history in the senior years. All would agree on the need to apply expertise, vision and imagination to the creation of new courses (or the adaptation of existing courses).

We may have some issues in terms of SOSE v History and divergent approaches to assessment. Ultimately, this could be catered for by allowing states to develop their own approaches to implementation and assessment. While there are strong arguments in favour of a uniform approach to pedagogy, assessment and curriculum, it is possible to envisage an early stage of national curriculum where local decisions were made regarding pedagogy and assessment. At the same time, supporting national courses with quality resources could be a way of encouraging consistent approaches.

It is hard not to see how a national approach to history curriculum does not present a great opportunity for primary and secondary teachers to work together, particularly for the benefit of Australian history. This would come from communication, resource sharing and, most urgently, the scoping and sequencing of topics and skills development.

Some of the anxiety surrounding national curriculum may arise out of the government’s commitment to go ahead with the development of national courses in subjects other than Maths, English, Science and History. This may contribute to a jostling for perceived status and timetable space and fears about a crowded curriculum. It could reasonably be asked why we need more national courses beyond the four subjects already nominated. There is no reason, for example, why state developed courses could not operate beside national courses without there being any concerns about status or quality. At another level, there are also questions about evaluation. Will the national courses in the first four subjects be introduced incrementally or in one go? Will this implementation be evaluated and carefully supported or will we have already moved the focus on to the development of more national courses?

The NCB has a brief from government and may regard questions about the development of more national courses as having already been decided at the political level. Surely, however, the NCB will be capable of reporting back to government and suggesting changes to its brief. At the moment, for example, it is not clear that the development of curriculum requires the NCB to take account of resource development, teacher training and professional development. All would seem to be critical areas if the goal is to engage students with worthwhile courses presented by passionate experts.

In the meantime, teachers are encouraged to engage with the process. It needs to be emphasised that we are in a long stage of consultation. While the NCB will be issuing statements and conducting forums over coming months, it may be well into next year before any firm decisions are made. The discussion will remain dynamic. Opportunities for input have been outlined above. Teachers are also encouraged to make submissions to their state HTAs and to keep in touch through the National Curriculum section of HTAA’s website: www.historyteacher.org.au

Paul Kiem
President
History Teachers’ Association of Australia (HTAA)