EDUCATION will be a key battleground at the federal election, and one of the most important debates will be over a national curriculum.
The Howard Government and federal Labor have put forward their competing visions of how a national curriculum should develop. Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop says a national curriculum will be set up at her prerogative, tied to the next funding round between the Commonwealth and states and territories. Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd and Labor education spokesman Stephen Smith have said a National Curriculum Board, comprising curriculum experts, will be set up to develop a national curriculum over three years, focusing on maths, science, English and history.
I support the move to a national curriculum covering core subjects. Year 12 courses in chemistry, physics and higher-level mathematics are 80-95 per cent the same nationally. Further, each year, about 80,000 school students move to a different state or territory. Many defence families, for example, are in Canberra for a short time. We should aim to minimise education disruption.
National collaboration will also help lighten the curriculum development load on the ACT Education Department and our teachers. More broadly, it is important that as a nation we agree on what is essential for students to learn. As individuals, our students face the challenge of keeping up with the ever-increasing rate of change. As a nation, we face the challenge of maintaining our global competitiveness. The greatest challenge for a national curriculum is getting the balance between national consistency and local flexibility right.
While a national curriculum should set up clear statements about core curriculum content, states and territories should have flexibility in relation to teaching strategies, and be able to add local content. In the ACT, for example, it is crucial that our history classes recognise the important role Canberra plays, and that our politics classes recognise the unique aspects of the ACT’s political system. Further, there will always be some elements of schooling that cannot be captured in a national curriculum document, which should be left to local communities. Such a document will promote common standards in core subjects, but schools will always be best placed to promote creative problem-solving and ethical behaviour in individual students.
The ACT is well placed to contribute to a national curriculum, because it is already working to ensure a consistent curriculum in its schools. The ACT framework enjoys strong community support because parents, teachers and others have been involved in deciding what students should be taught. It serves as a national model.
Unfortunately, the Howard Government’s threats to bludgeon states and territories into adopting its curriculum through the next funding round will not produce a national curriculum which reflects excellent practice from the ACT and elsewhere. It appears set to continue to grandstand on education policy. It would be better served by entering into a dialogue with states and territories about how to realise a national curriculum, while taking into account the needs and interests of local communities.
Andrew Barr MLA is the ACT Minister for Education and Training.