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Ditch the national curriculum

Barry Maley | 21 October 2011

While preparations continue for the implementation of a uniform, nationwide Australian School Curriculum, some states like NSW are wisely delaying the process. At the same time the draft curriculum, particularly in the humanities subjects of history and English, has been severely criticised as devoid of essential content, ideologically skewed, and absurdly politically correct. Just as important is the weak case for uniformity and centralisation in the first place.

We are told that lack of uniformity between the states is a problem for employers and for children who move from one state to another, but there is scant evidence that this is a serious problem justifying the loss of potential for experimentation and competition for excellence in a non-uniform system.

More importantly, the claim that a national curriculum will produce better educational results deserves scrutiny. It is probably true that the less than satisfactory condition of state schooling owes much to its extreme bureaucratisation and capture by interest groups, especially the teacher unions. But why should we not expect the same, on a national scale, from a large federal bureaucracy and the even more sharply focussed and more extensive power of the same interest groups? If established, how much more difficult it would be to reform a national system if it failed and how much greater the damage if it did?

And what is the evidence for the claim that centralised national systems produce better outcomes?

The International Student Assessment program and the International Mathematics and Science Study assess student performance from countries that have, and countries that do not have, national curricula and standards. The results and statistics are extensive and detailed. The summary outcome is, on one hand, that Australian Students have been outperformed by students from countries with national standards. On the other hand, Australian students have outperformed students from some other countries that also have national standards.

Moreover, many of the lowest performing students come from countries with national standards. If this sort of analysis is confined to OECD countries, a similar pattern holds. The great majority of countries assessed had national standards, but their results did not show that their students regularly outperformed Australian students, and many performed worse. Canadian students, from a country without national standards, do well on international assessments.

To put it briefly, these international assessments show no significant relationship between national standards and curricula and better student outcomes. This, along with the dangers of a loss of variety and innovation with the disappearance of a working states system and the manifest deficiencies of the draft curriculum, justifies abandoning the project before more waste is incurred.

Barry Maley is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.