Education fell off the national agenda as the focus rightly shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic toward public health and the economy but the release of a new public document outlining what our children will be taught, and how, has sparked fresh and heated discussion.
The revised national curriculum establishes the expectations for what all young Australians should be taught, regardless of where they live or their background.
What is our national curriculum and who sets it?
A national curriculum provides the central guide for all educators so that standards, learnings and course content are uniform across the country.
It comprises eight core areas: English, mathematics, science, humanities and social sciences, health and physical education, languages, technologies and the arts.
It shapes the education of children from kindergarten (which the authority calls foundation) to year 10.
Setting the curriculum is the role of an independent statutory authority, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).
Advising that authority are some of the most respected educators in the country.
The board includes representatives and respected, hands-on educators from all states and territories. For example, the deputy chair, Norm Hart, began his career as the only teacher on tiny Palm Island, in far north Queensland and was later principal of some of Queensland's largest primary schools.
While the authority sets pathways and learning progressions in literacy and numeracy, it doesn't advise schools on how to teach, plan, program, assess or report those progressions (except through the NAPLAN reporting).
The curriculum also has to be flexible enough to make it relevant across the country from tiny regional schools in remote areas to large schools in major urban areas.
Why is this review coming out now and what's its significance?
By international standards, Australia is not doing as well in its quality of education as it should be even though we're spending more than we ever have.
At the recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), our 15-year-old students' scores in literacy, numeracy and science were revealed as being in long-term decline, and for the first time in the assessment's history, Australia failed to meet the OECD average in mathematics performance.
There's also falling knowledge and understanding of the value and significance of our democracy.
A full review of the national curriculum had been foreshadowed for years but has required a huge amount of input.
It's the first major review since the national curriculum was introduced nine years ago so things have changed in that time, not just the societal attitudes that shape our country and its place in the world but also the technology used in schools and how soon students access that technology.
The revisions have been released for public comment, as is common practice, and this public feedback will then inform the review.
The current curriculum has been described by the reviewers as an unwieldy, "overcrowded" document and the authority says this review will simplify it, reduce ambiguity, and making it easier to navigate.
So what's in the review that is attracting controversy?
There are proposed changes to existing learning structures and content but they are well-considered.
There are some delays to different key learnings, such as the teaching of times tables which will now go into grade four rather than grade three.
There's an increased recognition of a sophisticated First Nations culture being in Australia long before European settlement and less emphasis on Christianity as the dominant faith. Long-standing teaching practices, such as the use of phonics - sounding words out - when teaching kids to read, are also flagged for de-emphasis.
None of this is meant to be prescriptive but the federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, has already flagged publicly that he's in favour of retaining traditional "evidence-based" teaching practices.
Hasn't this review compiled input from experts in this field?
Yes, that's the case. The consultation so far has included 18 reference groups of around 360 practising teachers and curriculum specialist from across Australia.
It was also benchmarked against the national curricula of Singapore, Finland, British Columbia (Canada), and New Zealand.
There was also an informal "listening tour" of 24 primary schools across the country to talk to teachers and principals. These practitioners were well-placed to advise on when key learnings, such as times tables, should be introduced into the classroom.
Why are some critics describing it as a 'woke' review?
Largely because changes to traditional terminologies and historical perspectives are proposed.
For instance, terms in the curriculum such as Aboriginal and Indigenous are to be replaced with First Nations Australians or Australian First Nations peoples, and the colonisation of Australia by the British will be examined from the perspective of an invasion, involving the dispossession of indigenous land.
The proposed revised history curriculum will take in these changes from year four, where students will learn about the arrival of the First Fleet, about the effects of British contact on First Nations people and why this was perceived as an invasion.
In year 9 history, students will explore the broader meaning of contested terms such as colonisation, settlement and invasion, and the impact that settlers and colonial expansionism had on the lives and health of First Nations people.
The authority is keen for students to examine fresh perspectives and explore other narratives around Australia's early history, rather than that framed by white Australian authors, largely using accounts of the white settlers. So what happens with the review now? The authority chair, Belinda Robinson, is actively encouraging a robust discussion on the review and the media attention will help that along. There's also a survey for the time-poor. The revised national curriculum is due out next year.
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