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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Ministers support national consistency

Joan Holt
Deputy General Manager, Curriculum Solutions, Curriculum Corporation

As has been widely reported in the media, Australia's Commonwealth, State and Territory education ministers last week agreed to move towards greater national curriculum consistency. Meeting in Perth, the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) unanimously supported a proposal to begin work to achieve greater consistency in curriculum outcomes across the four curriculum domains of English, Mathematics, Science and Civics and Citizenship.

Background to the decision

This decision follows an initiative begun at last year's MCEETYA meeting in Auckland. At that meeting, the ministers requested advice from the Student Learning and Support Services (SLSS) Taskforce on how States and Territories could collaborate further on achieving consistent curriculum outcomes.

The Auckland decision reflected the ministers' concern about the growing dissimilarity between curriculum arrangements in States and Territories that had become apparent in recent years. This was a departure from the trend towards closer consistency that had been a feature of Australian education during the early 1990s.

The Hobart Declaration of the National Goals of Schooling, in 1989, and the subsequent national collaborative work to develop Statements and Profiles for each learning area, produced a degree of national alignment in curriculum. Despite the cessation of work on the Statements and Profiles in 1993, these documents were adopted in some States and Territories and were a major influence elsewhere.

A research report considered by the ministers in Perth showed that many areas of national collaboration have been pursued since that time - for example, the development of national benchmarks of student achievement in literacy and numeracy. However, the processes of curriculum renewal within States and Territories have seen the place of the learning areas, the curriculum organisers used within learning areas, and the nature of learning outcomes defined in increasingly dissimilar ways.

Adverse effects flowing from this divergence have been widely observed, particularly in relation to students and families moving between school systems. Each year around 50,000 Australian students move between States and Territories and often they must contend with adjustment to an educational environment which may not seem to share the same intentions as their old school in terms of intended learning outcomes.

Beyond the direct impact on mobile families, the lack of consistency has been seen as a barrier to using curriculum to 'transmit our shared culture, promote our common values and work together for our preferred futures'. It also inhibits the capacity of universities and other further education providers to develop programs that are appropriate to all Australian students.

Inconsistent approaches to curriculum also limit the mobility of the teaching profession, as teachers moving into a new system are confronted with substantial new learning. Given the pressing issue of teacher supply, this is not an insignificant issue.

What will national consistency involve?

While the factors weighing in favour of greater consistency are clearly strong, the richness of existing State and Territory curriculum, and the requirement to allow for different approaches reflecting distinctive needs and circumstances, are also important factors and are recognised accordingly in the ministers' agreement.

The ministers' agreement provides for national consistency to be achieved by building upon areas of commonality among States and Territories. This will involve identifying what is considered to be essential knowledge, skills and attributes to have been developed by a particular point of schooling. Statements of learning will be developed to document these agreed knowledge, skills and attributes (what students should know and be able to do) for four points of schooling, yet to be defined, within each learning area. In addition, the statements will equip students to make progress towards high order skills and deep levels of thinking, and to develop the attributes needed for a global knowledge-based society.

The statements of learning will not of themselves constitute curriculum frameworks or syllabuses. Nor will they attempt to encompass the whole of the learning area. They will, however, encompass some non-learning area specific attributes and knowledge that are contained in the National Goals of Schooling, but which are currently not systematically related to curriculum. For example, a stated goal such as 'developing the capacity to exercise judgement and responsibility in matters of morality, ethics and social justice' could be encompassed by several of the statements of learning.

As envisaged by the ministers' agreement, national consistency does not constitute or approximate a national curriculum. Rather it will provide a set of statements that systems and sectors will take into account when reviewing their existing curriculum documents. Similarly, in the case of Independent schools, the statements of learning can be integrated with school curriculum documents in the normal course of curriculum renewal.

Initial steps

The ministers have agreed to develop statements of learning in relation to four domains: English, Science, Mathematics and Civics and Citizenship. In the first instance, a statement will be developed for English by February 2004. It is envisaged that once this statement is completed, a decision will be made concerning the development of the statements for the remaining domains.

Key Learning Areas

Studies of Society and Environment

Subject Headings

Civics education
Curriculum planning
Education policy
Educational planning
English language teaching