January.24.2021

Curriculum review: where was NESA’s consultation?

By Debra Batley

This column by Debra Batley is the first of two columns discussing the recent NESA announcement.

NESA’s announcement on Monday 15th January that its curriculum overhaul was powering on into 2021 by cutting over 80 elective school developed courses not deemed “core” had several disturbing aspects to it. There was next to no consultation in this decision and it was particularly unsettling given that it followed closely on the heels of NESA’s December blanket dis-endorsement of all providers of professional learning in NSW (with the exception of DOE, AIS NSW and Catholic Schools). The decision around professional learning was also done in the name of curriculum reform, and was completely without consultation – the Professional Teacher’s Council lost endorsement, along with almost every professional teaching association in NSW. 

This is not what the Geoff Masters‘ review promised. This document was aspirational: it gave a reasonable time frame, talked of the importance of collaboration with key stakeholders in the writing of new curriculum documents, and left teachers with hope that the review process would be positive for both students and teachers. 

Unrealistic timeline

Instead, we have an unrealistic timeline. How can curriculum possibly be written, piloted, tested, sent out for consultation, adjusted, and teachers trained in the 18 month time frame that the Minister’s office has given NESA? The results of a short timeline are already emerging, with shortcuts in collaboration and consultation with key stakeholders being taken. Education is often a political football, however there is a growing perception that minority parties such as One Nation are ‘running the table’. It would be good to see the evidence basis for these latest reform decisions. 

Had teachers had been consulted on the culling of elective subjects, they probably would have replied that a large body of evidence suggests students do better when they are intrinsically motivated in their learning, have self-determination and autonomy. They maybe would have mentioned that researchers such as the late Sir Kenneth Robinson have found that educational outcomes are improved by learning across domains. 

Furthermore, they may have argued that school developed electives are particularly relevant to the school’s context. The culling of electives assumes a ‘one size fits all’ approach for their organisation (100 hours or 200 hours). Some schools in NSW take the opportunity to offer electives on a semester basis (50 hour courses). One well known Northern NSW School includes subjects such as Philosophy and Cosmology amongst their semester long elective offerings. Performing Arts High Schools have developed courses such as Circus Skills and Musical Theatre. Two of the biggest electives at my school are content endorsed courses; they are looked forward to by students, and I am certain they attract enrolments to the school. As a teacher I dread finding out that Year 9 Music has been placed on the same line as Outdoor Education – I know this means a small music class. 

Whilst the Hon. Sarah Mitchell may not see the value in these courses, for some students, these are the subjects that ignite their passions. 

It is somewhat ironic, that whilst the curriculum reform agenda is pushing for a depth as opposed to a breadth of understanding, the NSW Government is opposed to the idea of a child becoming an expert in printmaking – “this can be included in visual arts”. I would have thought that 100 hours of printmaking – which can include nine main types, and a multitude of subtypes – would actually model deep learning and provide students with practical skills. Disturbingly, even though the  Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration expresses a desire for “all learners to explore and build on their individual abilities, interests, and experiences”, the recent curriculum review decision seems to contradict this. 

What is core curriculum anyhow?

The elective decision also raises the question of what is ‘core’ curriculum. A blanket rule with this decision was that all languages were to be retained. The result of this is that some subjects with very low enrolments are protected (such as Sanskrit), whilst subjects with large enrolments (Physical Activity and Sports Studies – CEC) are potentially listed as electives to be ‘cleared out’. The weight of evidence supporting the idea that educational outcomes are better for students who have access to a broad curriculum is enormous. Furthermore, it is the students who need it most, who are the ones in danger of missing out. The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration states that students, whilst needing the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy, also require learning in other domains. The study of elective subjects can contribute to this learning. Often through the well-being and motivational benefits this brings, a student’s overall learning is supported. It is clear that there is an academic hierarchy in NSW; however, a blanket decision to remove electives won’t fix it. A better solution would be using the knowledge of teachers evidenced in designing and writing some of the outstanding Endorsed Courses available for everyone. Philosophy anyone?

Debra Batley is a high school music teacher in North Western NSW. She is a current doctoral student at UNSW and her research area is in educational equity and its interaction with creative arts curriculum. In 2017-2019 with funding from AIS NSW she completed a 2 year long school based research project, examining the impact school based music tuition could have as a remediation tool for older readers who were not meeting stage outcomes. Debra is also the Chair of ASME NSW and is a passionate advocate for high quality music education for all students.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “Curriculum review: where was NESA’s consultation?

  1. I suggest it would be useful to publish a list of the elective subjects to be abolished, and an alternative approach which could could be used to retain these, while achieving the Government’s objective to “… provide students with strong foundations for future learning and life beyond school.”. This could include the point that old 3 Rs (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) are not enough for the 21st century.

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