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A response to the proposal for an Australian Certificate of Education

Geoff Riordan
Associate Professor, UTS Faculty of Education

The following article is an edited and abridged version of a speech given by Associate Professor Geoff Riordan, presented at a UTS/Daily Telegraph Education Forum held in response to the ACER report on the proposal to introduce an Australian Certificate of Education.

In 1999, internationally renowned professor of education Michael Fullan wrote:

I have made the case elsewhere that the problem is not the absence of reform, but rather the presence of too many ad hoc, uncoordinated innovations and policies. Schools and school systems that are most effective do not take on the sheer most number of innovations – they are instead selective, integrative and focused. (Fullan, 1999)

As welcome a move to a more national approach to credentialing is, it needs to be integrated with a national curriculum and not added as a 10th certificate or layered over the top of existing arrangements.

To my mind, therefore, the ACER report is neither bold nor ambitious enough. It may, if implemented, act as a further obstacle to the longer term goal of re-engineering the system of curriculum, assessment and credentialing.

The current system bears all the marks and wounds of its incremental emergence from the single system that was developed in the 1850s. Despite the numerous examples of cooperation and collaboration among the States and Commonwealth, there are many more examples of inefficiency, waste, opportunistic politicking and dysfunction.

There is a strong case for a single national system of curriculum development, assessment and certification. Among expert practitioners and theoreticians in curriculum design there is uniform agreement that certification, assessment, pedagogy and curriculum structure and design are all interconnected. Overlaying the credentialing, without redesigning the rest of the package, is a fraught task.


The case for an Australian curriculum

An options paper published by ACER in 2005 highlighted the difficulties caused by the current fragmented requirements for certification, syllabuses, assessment procedures, reporting and educational terminology. The paper highlighted the difficulties posed by this fragmentation for students and families who move between States and Territories during the final years of school. It highlighted the support for a national approach shown by parents and employers. It also queried the extent to which state-based differences are a response to the different needs of students, rather than a reflection of different philosophical positions and the historical influence of particular individuals and committees. The paper further noted the advantages of an Australian ‘brand’ for senior secondary education in an expanding international education marketplace, including the higher education marketplace. These arguments apply to an ACE, but they are actually arguments for an Australian curriculum.

A single national approach to curriculum development, student assessment and credentialing would provide numerous other benefits. The national approach would offer powerful economies of scale. It would create opportunities to enhance teacher professional development offered by universities and other registered providers, as well as opportunities to improve research into teaching and learning. It would create a more open market for employers and more career opportunities for teachers. It would lead to the development of world-class education faculties in Australia.

The national pooling of expertise would limit the likelihood of the ‘theory wars’ that occasionally occur in state curriculum bodies, resulting in collateral damage in the form of ill-conceived curriculum that is out of step with the community.


Opposition and obstacles to an Australian curriculum

A number of objections to an Australian curriculum will now be addressed.

The so-called constitutional barrier

We all know that the States have responsibility for school education. There would appear to me to be no reason why, though, the States, by mutual agreement, could not support the Commonwealth in assuming responsibility for the Australian curriculum. There is a precedent for this. In 1942 the Commonwealth Government began collecting all income tax on a uniform basis throughout Australia.

This approach would not prohibit the States, at some point in the future, from withdrawing from such agreement. Rather than a weakness of this approach, the power of a State to opt out may be a strength, as it could provide an incentive to achieve agreement among stakeholders.

A more formal way of achieving the same end may be provided through the existing referral powers under Section 51 of the Constitution, which enables the Commonwealth to legislate in areas that are referred to it by the States.

Finally, the corporations powers that have recently been evoked to enable the Commonwealth to legislate in industrial relations and the administration of universities could be invoked. As stakeholders in school education, business and even, arguably, universities, have commercial interests in the provision of a uniform quality system of curriculum, assessment and certification.

The plan for an Australian curriculum will need to be developed so as not to draw out protectiveness from the States.

The exaggeration of local responsiveness as a justification for diverse curriculums

Proponents of state-based curriculum development and assessment claim that current arrangements are necessary to address local needs and to attend to local contexts.

To the extent that curriculum ought to be responsive to the local context, and by curriculum I mean generally the aims/outcomes, content and assessment, as opposed to the pedagogical character of school teaching and learning that is specific to each classroom, I am yet to hear a persuasive argument that the curriculum design itself could not provide reasonable accommodations for such differences. Examples of the accommodations that may be made in geography, history, economics, business studies, legal studies or any one of the numerous social science and humanities subjects offered in schools include topics and units of work that involve close study of the local social, economic, historical and physical environment. This is curriculum design 101, it is not an insurmountable obstacle.

The remaining objections and obstacles, which I have outlined earlier, I would now like to address by outlining a way forward to an Australian curriculum.


Methodology for a new approach to curriculum and certification

The key stakeholders in curriculum planning should remain at arms length from management of an Australian curriculum. The ACER report proposes a national standards body with a board of directors appointed by the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Along the lines of the NSW Education Act regarding the Board of Studies, the Board should advise the minister or ministers and if the advice is not heeded, the reasons should be explained to Parliament.

Such a Board should not be comprised entirely of representatives or delegates of various interest and lobby groups, but should be an expert board formed through individual nomination. The remaining Board positions should be filled by representatives from bodies such as ACACA, which provides a national means for monitoring and enhancing developments in senior secondary curriculum and certification.

Realistic time lines should be put in place for the introduction of the new curriculum, to allow for the provision of practical support and resources to promote curriculum innovation.

Research to get at data that identifies causal relations about what works will be needed. Such research works against ‘provider capture’ by influential lobbies that may seek to exert inappropriate ideological influence over an Australian curriculum.

The pathway to various professions is likely to move to a general undergraduate degree followed by a graduate entry, profession-specific course. By moving the high stakes selection point to later in a person’s academic career, differences due to the quality of schooling and social contextual factors are likely to be further ameliorated. As this becomes the norm, there will be less pressure on the Australian curriculum to cover content, and a more concerted effort can be made to develop the myriad of learning, vocational and civic literacies that Australia needs.

All the obstacles and difficulties that challenge the achievement of an Australian curriculum stem from one key factor: leadership. We need to get beyond the tyranny of public policy making with an eye to the election cycle and instead have the States and Commonwealth and also, importantly, the various bodies that provide non-government schooling, demonstrate leadership. The leadership challenge is one of defining a vision and then inspiring support for that vision.

One thing that struck me about this report, and numerous others in recent years, is the extent of consultation that occurred and, moreover, the painstaking documentation in the appendices of the report of every person and group who contributed or were consulted in its development. This is the current orthodoxy, and it is a worry on two counts. First, it conforms to what Andy Hargreaves has described as a device for achieving contrived consent in support of prefigured recommendations. The second and more worrying issue is that talking to a lot of people can help you understand the way an issue is perceived, but it doesn’t necessarily point to a clever or wise solution.

ACER and the team headed by Geoff Masters have provided a wonderfully detailed and nuanced report on the current arrangements in each State and a sense of the aspirations of stakeholders towards a more national approach to schooling. What is needed now is some serious leadership to develop the vision from the sound basis that the ACER team have provided.


Conclusion

The current system of curriculum development and student assessment is wasteful of the always scarce public resources for education. The relations between the States and the Commonwealth are not as productive as they should be in regards to education policy – there are too often too many examples of dysfunction. What is needed now is leadership by the States and the Commonwealth to be exercised towards the development of an Australian curriculum that puts to rest, once and for all, a mess of curriculum arrangements that are artefacts of contexts and concepts from 19th-century colonial Australia.

There is currently an incremental movement towards a national approach to school education. However, such incremental change may, either by design or neglect, make the achievement of an Australian curriculum more difficult for future generations by deflecting attention and resources away from the larger, more important goal.


Reference

Fullan, M 2000, 'The return of large scale reform', Journal of Educational Change, Vol 1, pp 2–28.

KLA

Subject Headings

Federal-state relations
Educational evaluation
Educational certificates
Education philosophy
Education aims and objectives
Education policy
Economic trends
Curriculum planning
Assessment