Conservative educational delusions

Leading up to the federal election, I welcomed the ALP’s policy calling for a national curriculum based, as it was, on a conservative agenda very much like the Howard government’s approach to reshaping the teaching of history and English.

The fear was that the devil would be in the detail… [italics added]

Education commentator Kevin Donnelly in today’s Australian, complaining about the appointment of left-wing historian Stuart Macintyre to the National Curriculum Board.

The great conservative educational delusion of the last five years has been – I hesitate, unfortunately, to use ‘was’ – the idea of a national curriculum. Behind this was the assumption that conservative educators could control one national curriculum more easily than six state-based curriculum systems. A momentary glance at electoral history should have shown that assumption to be nonsense, as today’s report confirms.

While I sympathise with Donnelly’s long-running critique of ‘progressive’ education, I think he has been much weaker on institutional issues. His comment today that the ‘devil is in the detail’ is symptomatic of this.

The devil isn’t in the detail of curriculum board appointments. The devil is in the design of curriculum structures. Any system that allows a change of government to drive curriculum, rather than parental choices via a competitive school system, is a bad one, even if it temporarily leads to good appointments under some governments.

14 Responses to “Conservative educational delusions

  • 1
    September 10th, 2008 19:56

    I think having a left or right wing curriculum in history at high school would make so little difference to anything that it’s hardly worth worrying about — People should worry more about the type of skills that kids are learning from doing the subject than a few bits of information which may be biased one way or the other.

  • 2
    September 10th, 2008 20:58

    I read the article in the Australia and my reaction was: I wish these people would get over their petty little culture wars and worry about something important. Different historical views makes history interesting.

  • 3
    September 11th, 2008 07:23


    Over the years, in an IPA Backgrounder, newspaper articles and an essay in the current edition of Quadrant, I argue against the government imposing a national curriculum on schools. In fact, I suggest that schools, within general guidelines, should be able to choose their own curriculum – whether from overseas or what is provided in OZ. I have also argued the case for school choice and freeing up schools from provider capture – vouchers and charter schools.

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    September 11th, 2008 08:45

    Kevin – I have not seen your latest Quadrant article (overseas at the moment, and very behind in Quadrant reading in any case). But my strong impression has been that most of what you have written about national
    curriculum has been about what should be in it, rather than whether it should exist. When I googled on this, the first thing I read gave standard arguments for national curriculum:

    “Having a common and agreed “syllabus” across Australia in key subjects like English and mathematics would mean that students could move around the country without being disadvantaged.

    Having a common “syllabus” in subjects like history and civics would mean that all students, regardless of where they live, would learn about out political and legal systems and those important historical events and ideas that define what we are as nation.

    Finally, not only would parents be able to find out, at the start of the year, what was to be taught in their child’s school, but teachers in every school around Australia would not have to work hard at writing their own “syllabuses”.”

    I took a quick look at your 2000 Backgrounder, which does point out the dangers of national curriculum. But there do seem to be mixed messages here, and even in the Oz piece yesterday you were not calling for the national curriculum to be scrapped.

  • 5
    John Greenfield
    September 11th, 2008 08:57

    Andrew, in fact these two atrocious appointments reinforce that what is needed is the OPPOSITE of a national curriculum. We need the state to get out of the curriculum business all together. Give me Creationism over the dreary Post-structuralist Communism of Macintyre and the “Critical Illiteracy” Moonies anyday!

  • 6
    September 11th, 2008 09:11

    Hello again,

    It is true that i may have been in two minds about a national curriculum but, on the whole I have argued that schools should have the freedom to choose. In the 2003 IPA paper I argue:

    “Conceivably, in the same way that many schools in Australia have introduced the International Baccalaureate as an alternative to existing state-controlled senior school certificates, schools will be free to choose those syllabuses and frameworks that are considered to represent ’best-practice’. Instead of schools in Victoria, for example, having to use the state-designed Curriculum and Standards Framework, some might decide that there are better curriculum guides to be found elsewhere.”

    Last year, in an article for the OZ, I also expressed doubts:

    “An added concern in imposing a nationally mandated curriculum on all schools, and holding teachers accountable for teaching and measuring learning outcomes, is that parental choice will be largely irrelevant as regardless of whether a student attends a government or a non-government school, all will be taught the state mandated curriculum.”

  • 7
    Andrew Norton
    September 11th, 2008 09:29

    Kevin – Thanks for those clarifications.

  • 8
    September 11th, 2008 21:10

    I agree with many of your commentators. Why on earth should schools have to teach a mandated curriculum?

    I can’t see any reason why a school couldn’t choose to teach the Singapore curriculum for maths and science, the IB curriculum for languages, etc. I’m sure the parents would prefer this ‘teach the best’ outcome.

    And it would put the state/national curriculum setters on their guard – they’d really have to think about quality and rigour.

    Smash the (curriculum)-ruling classes! Expropriate the (history) expropriators! Let’s have a revolution from below!

  • 9
    September 14th, 2008 18:41

    Presumably Donnelly does realise that his side lost on November 24, and that the leader of the Labor Left is the Education Minister as well as Deputy Prime Minister. Who did Donnelly think was going to be appointed to oversee the national curriculum – himself?

  • 10
    September 16th, 2008 19:36

    Give me Creationism over the dreary Post-structuralist Communism of Macintyre and the “Critical Illiteracy” Moonies anyday!

    The lyrics of a certain song come to mind. Particularly the chorus.

  • 11
    September 16th, 2008 19:41

    Any system that allows a change of government to drive curriculum, rather than parental choices via a competitive school system, is a bad one,
    Yes Andrew I think this is it.
    There’s this phenomena of competing propaganda in this country. This is especially evident in history. The question is not: should we politicize the subject but how should we politicize the subject. Politicizing history basically renders it useless as a subject that teaches any real skills.
    Perchance will we see generations of graduates who alternate between the po-mo and the hyper-nationalist? Hilarious.
    Unfortunately the Culture Warrior mentality rules the day. And the first casualty of war is….?

  • 12
    September 19th, 2008 17:49

    How free should the market for curricula be? What about educational philosophies which just have kids sitting around/playing aimlessly/etc.?

    If you have public funding, surely you need some kind of framework.

  • 13
    September 21st, 2008 14:46


    Unfortunately what you describe IS the leading educational philosophy that is propounded by many of our faculties of education at the moment (constructivism). And having some sort of regulatory framework is no protection when those doing the regulation unthinkingly embrace the same dysfunctional educational philosophy themselves.

  • 14
    Andrew Norton
    September 22nd, 2008 18:41

    Leon – I agree that funding education for children should be directed to that purpose, but I am not sure that we should be too worried by way-out examples like just playing – presumably demand for this would be low in any case and so formal regulation largely redundant. I have not given the detail of this enough thought, but some kind of third-party assessment seems desirable, though not necessarily the government.