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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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What is driving curriculum reform in Australia?

Michelle Bruniges
Chief Executive, ACT Department Education and Training

This article is an abridged and edited version of Dr Bruniges' presentation to the Curriculum Corporation 2005 Conference.

A number of social, political, cultural and educational developments are driving curriculum reform in Australia. The challenge for curriculum reform is to take stock of these developments and establish a strategic vision for learning in a way that ensures that educational access and outcomes for all students are maximised.

The nature and context of curriculum in Australia

Curriculum may be suitably defined as ‘all learning planned, guided and implemented by the school’. 1 As such, curriculum goes well beyond issues of content, structure and design. It is a strategic plan for learning, a prioritisation of knowledge, skills, understandings and personal values.

Curriculum also needs to be understood in terms of the history from which it evolves and the context in which it operates. Curriculum reform in Australia is shaped by the fact that constitutional responsibility for education provision lies with the States and Territories. Curriculum has always been state-based with some similarity between jurisdictions, as well as some key differences. Education in Australia must also deal with accelerating changes in the global economy, the continued growth of information and communication technologies, the needs of young people, the increased visibility of diverse social groups, and a need to remain competitive both nationally and internationally.

It is recognised that in some aspects of education, world’s best practice can be found in many schools in Australia. While there is evidence of success, Australian education systems are still regularly criticised for an alleged failure to provide rigorous curriculums. At times this criticism is driven by the tabloid media whichseek to sensationalise. However, the current educational landscape does display some signs of distress which indicate the need for educational reform. These signs include the shift of students between different educational sectors, the widening gap between high-performing and low-performing students, a failure to meet expectations in the national goals of schooling, the deteriorating infrastructure of school buildings, and predictions of teacher shortages as the baby-boomer generation moves into retirement. Furthermore, it is estimated that each year 35,000 Australian students do not complete their secondary schooling and will subsequently obtain no further formal education or training qualification.2

Within this context there are several key drivers of curriculum reform.


Global production processes, reductions in barriers to trade in services, and advances in ICT and transport systems have brought about rapid change and diverse challenges. They require societies to realise new skills, as well as new ways of organising, working and living together, and of understanding and interpreting the world. Curriculum must provide students with the opportunities to develop these skills.

Globalisation has also created a greater need for Australians to understand other people, their cultures and circumstances. While the benefits of globalisation are often widely touted, there is a sense that for some people in our world globalisation has not necessarily been a good thing. Students across Australia must consider the implications and social issues that are generated through globalisation, and curriculum must enable students to critically evaluate the diverse effect it has on different places in the world.

The knowledge society

Improved access to knowledge, and the increasing use of existing knowledge to generate new knowledge, has changed the way people work and understand knowledge itself. One result, as Headley Beare points out, is that the conception of curriculum is ‘undergoing metamorphosis, away from a linear, one-best-way approach to knowledge’, toward ‘much greater search and dynamism in learning.’3

An abundance of knowledge gives rise to increased choice in the content of curriculum. As it is impossible for students to learn everything, they must learn a core of knowledge that will provide the common understandings and language needed to be able to work with others in a variety of contexts, and develop the research and thinking skills to find and use information when it is required.

Information and communications technology

There has been a rapid progression from teaching students how to use computers to using computers as powerful tools in everyday teaching and learning. This has implications not only for the way in which students learn, but also for the method of instruction. The adoption, development and growing emphasis on ‘e-learning’ and the development of banks of learning objects signal an expansion of curriculum possibilities.

To enhance pedagogy it is important that teachers are provided with the opportunity to develop the relevant technological skills. Furthermore it is imperative that teachers are included in the process of integrating technology into the curriculum, and that their professional knowledge and wisdom is prioritised and valued in doing so.

Advances in technology have contributed to the increase in alternative approaches to education. Today, students are able to access subjects/courses through a variety of technological means, including computers and video-conferencing, without attending traditional schools. While these developments may increase access to education, they may also create a further educational divide between those who have access and those who do not. Such developments may also create concern for the maintenance of quality curriculum, the nature of which may be jeopardised by substituting the personalised interaction experienced by students in a classroom for technology-delivered curriculum.


With the diversity in Australia’s society increasingly visible, education has an important role in bridging differences and promoting mutual respect, tolerance and understanding between people of different races, cultures, religions, gender and sexuality. Furthermore, as part of a global society, Australia’s role and responsibility in doing this is equally true in an international context.

There must be a common curriculum framework with the flexibility to respond to the diversity of student needs and student groups in differing local contexts within our education systems.

Curriculum needs to provide a path for students to develop values and a way of life that is consistent with sharing the rights and responsibilities of citizenship with others of different backgrounds. This path must be a balanced one that embraces and celebrates diversity, while at the same time is able to acknowledge and respond to some of the often quite legitimate concerns that surround learning in educational environments that include diverse student bodies. 

Developments in teaching and learning

The diversity of school communities, clients and students challenges educators to develop pedagogy that can accommodate these differences. Examples of strategies specifically designed to target pedagogical practice can be seen in a growing number of state-based initiatives. Most jurisdictions, if not all, have addressed issues relating to pedagogy through school improvement initiatives that target school leaders, and the production of resource materials and research action which explicitly focus on a quality teaching agenda.4

John Hattie’s research confirms that within schools, teachers account for about 30 per cent of the variance in student achievements5, making them the major source of within-school variance. So to develop effective curriculum, teachers must be curriculum leaders. To ensure that teachers are central to the reformation of curriculum they must be empowered with a leading role in negotiation processes, and have space to contest knowledge.

There should also be multiple and diverse conversations that engage teachers with experts who possess specialised knowledge and insights, so that curriculum reflects the most ground-breaking and current knowledge and experience. Discussions should be wide enough to include top scientists, distinguished leaders within the humanities, artists, innovative business people, and industry leaders, as well as parents, community members and students.

Equity in curriculum

There is growing evidence that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We are experiencing record levels of personal wealth at the top of the economic scale and yet we are also experiencing a steady increase in the problems of poverty.6 In a democratic society that prides itself on egalitarianism and ‘a fair go’ for all, there is surely a compelling need for equity of access and opportunity to education.

Traditional approaches to equity have often led to the expectation of differential outcomes for different students – a misguided view about the need to ‘dumb down’ the curriculum to fit the perceived (in)capabilities of individual students or particular student groups. A crucial dimension to equity is that we do not come to expect and accept differential outcomes for students.

Data to inform teaching and learning

The past decade has seen a high level of engagement and commitment by schools to the collection, analysis and interpretation of information about students to inform teaching and learning. The adoption of criterion-referenced assessment and reporting has played a significant role in presenting and describing information about student learning achievements and areas for further development.

With the increased willingness of educational bodies to use data as a means to inform teaching and learning, it is important that the secrets of assessment are shared. Teachers and students must have conversations involving a common language that provide the opportunity and impetus to discuss how goals are set, how performance is measured, and how performance can be improved.

A key principle in aligning assessment and curriculum is that the assessment strategy selected must be appropriate to what it purports to measure or describe. The strategy needs to encompass a diagnostic capacity to inform further teacher and learning.

Debates over curriculum

The drivers described above exist deeply submerged in the context of the curriculum debate – which curriculum is best? (Of course, this is not necessarily the same as which curriculum is winning the race.)

In a paper given to the Curriculum Corporation Conference in 2000, Dianne Kerr proposed four elements of curriculum to be used as ‘world-class’ benchmarks for education.

1) The goals for education are explicitly stated.

2) The groupings or categories of the intended curriculum are agreed to be essential for all students, future-oriented, inclusive and capable of being taught effectively by existing teachers.

3) The intended curriculum emphasises what all students are to learn. These learnings are: a) focused on what is agreed to be essential (rather than trying to cover everything); b) specific; c) manageable for both teachers and students in the time available; d) focused on conceptual development (rather than long lists of content); e) sequenced on the basis of evidence (rather than tradition); f) supported by shared teacher understanding of what performance ‘at the expected outcome or standard’ looks like; and g) assessable.

4) The intended curriculum is the focus of systemic testing and reporting, and of programs of teacher education and development.7

In addition to these elements, world-class benchmarks for education must also duly consider the individual differences of students.

Approaches to curriculum development across Australia have achieved differentially in relation to these benchmarks.


Despite the many tensions and drivers that influence curriculum reform, some aspects of curriculum are fundamental to its quality, effectiveness and success. While there must be a common core of essential knowledge, this core should not stifle the regeneration of curriculum, but rather respond intelligently, flexibly, creatively and bravely to social change. Curriculum must enable students to develop the higher-level process skills necessary to participate in a changing and dynamic environment and contribute to a civil society. Curriculum must be a negotiated process that encompasses broad and inclusive conversations. Curriculum must provide access to knowledge for all.

Curriculum must provide students with the capacity to question, examine and critique knowledge and its application. Curriculum must take account of, and address appropriately, the needs, interests and knowledge relevant to the current, as well as future, operating context. Teachers must be able to exercise autonomy, creativity and professional judgement in operationalising curriculum while remaining accountable and consistent. The role of the teacher must be recognised as integral to the design, development and delivery of curriculum.


References are as cited in this abridged version of Dr Bruniges’ conference paper. A complete list of references is available online with the full paper.

1. ACT Department of Education and Training 2005, Every Chance to Learn, Curriculum for ACT Schools P–10, Principles and Framework (Phase 1), ACT Department of Education and Training, Canberra, p 5.

2. National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling 1999, as part of the Dussledorp Skills Forum, The Cost to Australia of Early School-Leaving,  University of Canberra, Canberra, p 1.

3. Beare, Hedley 2002, Towards a learning community, from Technology Colleges Trust, Vision 2020 – Second International Online Conference, 12–26 October and 24 November–7 December 2002. Available online at: http://www.cybertext.net.au/tct2002/default.htm.

4. The NSW Quality Teaching model is a framework for teachers and schools to focus discussion on the teaching and assessment practices that shape students' learning.

5. Hattie, John 2003, Teachers Make a Difference: What is the research evidence? Paper given at the Australian Council for Education Research Annual Conference on Building Teacher Quality.

6. See for example Harding, A 1997, The suffering middle: Trends in income inequality in Australian 1982 to 1993–94, Discussion paper no 22, National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), University of Canberra, Canberra, and Saunders, P 1995, Unpacking inequality: Wage incomes, disposable incomes and living standards, Discussion paper no 63, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, who report a significant increase in market income inequality in Australia during the 1980s and early 1990s.

7. Kerr, Dianne 2000, National Goals. Paper given at the Curriculum Corporation Conference, Melbourne 2000, p 1.


Subject Headings

Social justice
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Computers in society
Computer-based training
Economic trends
Education policy
Curriculum planning