Donnelly’s Curriculum Review A Pointless Distraction


The ill-timed curriculum review has little to offer but distraction from the task of helping students achieve.

Updated October 16 2014

A distraction from improving schools

In responding to the Curriculum Review, Shadow Education Minister Kate Ellis noted many of the recommendations “are very obvious, and many of them are already under way at the moment, while some are questionable.” It was a kind way of saying that, despite all the time and expense, the Review adds little value.

AEU Federal President Angelo Gavrielatos said: “Nothing in the government’s response justifies the time and expense taken to review a national curriculum which is not yet fully implemented. This entire exercise has been a distraction from the Abbott Government’s abandoning of needs-based Gonski funding agreements and its refusal to properly fund schools.”

It’s too early to review the curriculum - it hasn’t even been fully implemented

From its conception, the Review was unlikely to make much of a positive contribution. Reviewing a curriculum that hasn’t been fully implemented made little sense. Seeking to second guess the exhaustive consultation and extensive expertise that went into the development of the curriculum with a two-person panel – one of whom is widely regarded as an extreme ideological polemicist – made even less sense. Sowing doubt and confusion at a time when teachers and school leaders are investing huge amounts of energy in implementing the new curriculum is just plain counter-productive. 

The Review itself hints at its own poor timing.

“It is important that any change to the Australian Curriculum acknowledges the fact that Australia’s education community especially schools and teachers have invested a great deal of energy, time and resources in its development and implementation. As such, any change should not contribute to reform fatigue or further exacerbate the work of teachers and schools.” (p.6)

Amanda Bichard, from the ACT Council of P&Cs said: "The review of the national curriculum at this point was premature. Here in the ACT we are leading the way, but still we are only just beginning to see how the framework provided by the Australian Curriculum is being applied in classrooms by our education professionals."

"The curriculum has been a long time coming. It has been carefully and painstakingly developed, with plenty of opportunities to give feedback, both to ACARA on the curriculum and via the ACT Curriculum Taskforce on how it is being implemented in the ACT".

Attack on general capabilities & cross-curriculum priorities diminishes deep understanding of content

Much of the headline response to the Review focused on the concern with overcrowding, particularly in the primary years. This is an issue which was already widely understood. But the Review's response is misdirected and potentially harmful. It is concerning that the Review proposes removing the critical framework for understanding content provided by the general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities.

Misty Adoniou explains:

"One of the review’s most popular findings is that there is too much content and the curriculum should be ‘de-cluttered’. To achieve this, a key recommendation is to remove four of the seven general capabilities and the three cross curriculum priorities.

If you haven’t been a teacher in a primary school classroom - and that would be everybody involved in the review and most of the media commentators – then removing all of that seems a very logical step. It’s a lot of stuff, so removing it would surely slim down the curriculum.

But the general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities are not content. The content of the Australian Curriculum is found in the seven Key Learning Areas of English, History, Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, the Arts, Health and PE, Technologies and Languages.

The general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities are ‘lenses’ through which teachers look at content as they do their planning. They are not always applicable or relevant and there has never been an expectation they appear in every lesson or unit of work a teacher delivers.

Either way, their removal doesn’t de-clutter the curriculum. It does, however, reduce the opportunities to give our kids the kinds of dispositions and attributes employers say they lack."

Review may make over-crowding of the curriculum worse

Equally concerning is the observation made by Dr Libby Tudball, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education at Monash University, that the Review threatens to exacerbate the overcrowding it has belatedly identified.

“The Review is actually quite contradictory because on the one hand there is a view that there needs to be some winding back and lessening of the crowding of curriculum… [but] if you look at the very substantial sections on the discipline-based content, the view is that there needs to be more not less. So, on the one hand, the reviewers say that it needs to be pared down but on the other, there are pages and pages on the need for more not less… Not just more basics… More in economics, more in civics, more in geography, more emphasis on physical geography. The devil is actually in the detail.”

As Adoniou observes:

"The two curriculum reviewers acknowledge [the] capabilities and priorities have value and recommend they be placed in the ‘relevant’ key learning areas. Paradoxically, this recommendation increases the content of the curriculum rather than reduces it."

The reality of creating a dual process – a review over the top of the implementation – is that there are now even more chefs in the curriculum kitchen and the danger of overcrowding has been heightened.

Review finds that research should continue into the most effective forms of pedagogy!

One recommendation that is both obvious and already happening is ‘that research be undertaken to establish the efficacy of different pedagogical approaches’. This is of course what education academics do every day. Every day and every lesson, educators reflect on the most effective suite of approaches and techniques to employ.

Right-wing ideologues like Pyne and Donnelly have huffed and puffed and got headlines about good old teacher-centred instruction. When they actually investigate what happens in schools, they find that as educators we use a whole range of techniques across the spectrum from student-centred approaches to teacher-centred approaches. In practice, there is not a great ideological fault line. We educators make nuanced judgments about the most appropriate balance depending on the students and the content involved. 

Western Civilization and the Cross-curriculum Priorities

It was certain once Pyne appointed Kevin Donnelly to run his review that there would much ado about the need for more emphasis on Western Civilization and ‘our Judeao-Christian heritage’.

Dr Tudball, an eminently more sensible person than Donnelly, comments:

“This is almost like a mantra through the document… In fact, I do believe we already do have a strong focus on the contribution of Western civilization and Judeo-Christian heritage in many places in the curriculum as it’s currently constituted. It’s in History. It’s in Civics and Citizenship education. It seems to be almost like the mantra that the reviewers return to and yet it’s there. I would argue that this is not probably the most important thing that we need to be focusing on.”

Daniel Hurst patiently and methodically outlines the comprehensive and basically orthodox coverage of Western history in the Australian Curriculum and comes to the same conclusion as Tudball.

Hurst neatly sums it up: "Pyne likes to say that everyone is an expert on education because they went to school, but for his latest assignment on western civilisation he needs to present more supporting evidence."

The related point that has been much reported on is the role of the cross-curriculum priorities. While the conservative commentariat may not have understood, educators have always understood these priorities entailed incorporating Indigenous Australia, Asia and environmentally sustainability where appropriate. Really, it’s just common sense.

ACARA Governance

Perhaps the most substantial recommendation of the Review is the suggestion that ACARA in its current form be dismantled. AEU Federal President, Angelo Gavrielatos, commented:

“The suggestion that the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority be changed by removing State and Territory representatives is extraordinary. The only reason we have a national curriculum is because of direct engagement of all State and Territory ministers.”

Shadow Minister for Education, Kate Ellis, commented:

“It is ridiculous to think that the authority charged with overseeing our curriculum can make any improvements, can undertake any of the work recommended in this report, when they are having their budget slashed by almost $20 million over the next four years. If this Government was serious about the curriculum, then they would reverse that decision immediately, rather than commissioning fancy reports, and standing up doing press conferences. There is a very clear way that they can show whether they are serious or not.”

Welcome recommendation on enhancing the curriculum for students with disabilities

There is widespread support for the view that additional expertise needs to be focused on the curriculum for students with disabilities. While Minister Pyne has praised this finding he is cutting - tragically - $100 million from school disability programs next year and breaking his promise to deliver the Gonski loading for students with disability.


Read more

What if we had asked teachers to do the curriculum review?, Misty Adoniou, The Conversation, October 14 2014, 

History wars: Pyne needs evidence to build a case to change the curriculum, Daniel Hurst, The Guardian, October 14 2014

Curriculum is overcrowded, neglects national heritage: review (Fran Kelly interview with Dr Libby Tubmore), 'Breakfast', ABC Radio National, October 13 2014

Parents’ Council satisfied with the Australian Curriculum, ACT Council of Parents & Citizens Associations, October 13 2014

Curriculum review proves to be a waste of time which will do nothing to improve schools, Australian Education Union, October 12 2014

Kate Ellis, Transcript - Doorstop, October 12 2014



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