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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Do we need a national school system?

Bruce Wilson

In Australia we now have eight different curriculum structures, and eight different assessment systems. We have by my count sixteen bodies with major political, intellectual and bureaucratic responsibility for the curriculum. Those bodies employ thousands of people who work away at solving the same set of problems, as they affect this single nation. They do work which is essentially identical. They spend, by some estimates, over $100 million dollars annually on activity which could be done once rather than eight times.

State level agencies run the schools, or most of them, and have historically done so with little attention to what is happening in other jurisdictions, although there are signs that this is beginning to change. Each system is self-contained. Each develops its own curriculum, builds and runs its own schools, employs teachers and other staff, and trains them while they are employed, manages resources, decides structural matters such as starting ages and transition points from primary to secondary, establishes a legal framework for the conduct of schooling, sets standards and monitors and reports student achievement, and certifies student achievement at the standard exit point.

As a result of this, each education system is formally quite different from all the others. Students start school at different ages in the different states, transfer from primary to secondary at different points, study a different curriculum, sit different exams (or in some cases no exams), and receive a different certificate on completion of schooling. Teacher employment arrangements, salaries and training opportunities are different.

Schools in each system have differing, but universally quite high degrees of freedom on matters of curriculum, teaching approaches, school organisation and daily management, but relatively little autonomy in matters of employment of staff, although that is changing at different rates in different education systems. And sitting alongside all this is a body of Catholic systemic schools and independent schools which operate differently again. They mostly choose to work within State curriculum frameworks, although anyone familiar with those documents in some systems will recognise that you could claim to work within them without providing much guarantee about what you were doing.

And yet, despite a generally negative public view in Australia about the quality of our schools, they have a good international reputation, and a recent record of relatively strong achievement. Australian educators are in demand to take up senior posts internationally, and Australian teachers are highly regarded in our region and in English-speaking nations generally.

So why do we have a fragmented and somewhat disjointed national approach to the management and delivery of school education?

Our arrangements for the management and delivery of schooling in Australia look like what they are: an accommodation which met the political needs of the Federation process at the end of the nineteenth century, and which was appropriate to a large continent with poor communication systems. It is difficult to imagine that the present institutional arrangements will provide a sustainable, credible, efficient, coherent or powerful response to the challenges of globalisation.

It is hard to imagine that the current arrangements facilitate the effective marketing of Australian education services and skills in our region and more widely. Australian school education is potentially attractive to international students, to partner systems seeking services and support, to aid funders seeking service providers and to publishers seeking two-way exchanges of intellectual property. But the face we present to these markets is fragmented and unreadable. Individual agencies, like the various State systems, DEST, ACER and Curriculum Corporation, and companies in the aid business, AEI and IDP, have made progress in representing Australian educational skills, services and products. But the task is demonstrably more difficult because, viewed from outside, there is no evident coherent structure, no single locus of information, no simple means for making contact with whoever can provide a particular service.

Towards national coherence

There are two great contributions we could make to improving the transparency and coherence of Australian school education, and its attractiveness internationally. The first would be a single common curriculum for all schools in Australia which is rigorous, research-based, limited in scope, and written in clear and simple English. The second is a national system of assessment and certification for the exit year, so every successful student would receive an Australian Certificate of Education. After we achieve those things, we can progressively work our way through the remaining areas which would benefit from national consolidation.

For in other areas too there are clear opportunities for greater efficiency, customer responsiveness and coherence. There is currently a project to examine the structural issues which differ between states and territories, especially starting ages, which differ substantially. Commonality here would make a serious difference to families which move across state borders, as would consistency in arrangements for moving from primary to secondary school.

Economic and educational advantages are also to be gained from further consolidation and cooperation in what is at present the greatest growth area for investment: the program to equip Australia's schools with information and communication technology, and Australia's teachers with the skills to use it effectively to improve student learning.

There have been various projects to develop resources in common, the most substantial of which is The Le@rning Federation, a $70 million project to develop shared online resources. It is worth noting that to do this work eight times would cost something of the order of half a billion dollars, and no state system would contemplate undertaking the required investment. Nor could any state system hope to achieve the level of national agreement required to ensure the consistent technical and curriculum standards which underpin this work.

More ambitiously, teacher employment arrangements and conditions of work could possibly be managed more efficiently in a single system, and teacher mobility could be dramatically improved.

We should move with decent haste to a national curriculum, and my view is that we will, although not overnight. I think we are in the middle of a 50 year transition from State-based to national curriculum, and the various projects and initiatives I have described are simply small steps along the way. This will provide significant advantages to children, teachers and the general community in Australia.

Many of the functional areas in school management rightly belong in State agencies or schools. Where speed of delivery, flexibility and responsiveness to local needs are criteria, services should be located close to the users of those services. But in those big emblematic areas, curriculum, assessment and certification, it is difficult to find any argument for the maintenance of eight separate parallel institutional frameworks.

Subject Headings

Computer-based training
Curriculum planning
Education and state
Education management
Education policy
Educational evaluation
Educational planning
Federal-state relations
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Officials and employees
Teachers' employment
Teaching profession