Melbourne Graduate School of Education Curriculum Policies Project

Curriculum and State Differences

There are some enduring differences in how different states have approached curriculum, for example, in South Australia, by foregrounding a strong social justice concern, and attention to those who might be disadvantaged; in Queensland by a continuing preoccupation with rural students and some need for diversity and devolved approaches; or in NSW, a concern with standards and being seen to maintain traditions and benchmarks. These differences often have historical or geographic or demographic roots. They can be seen in the ways questions about assessment or about the organization of the system or about year 12 and beyond are addressed; that is, they are evident both as explicit values seen in the language of documents and interviews, but also in the ways questions about the arrangements for organizing curriculum are approached, and in what is taken as the starting points of policy questions.

The resources we have made available for others to review on this website include analysis of the policies of specific states and overviews of each state’s curriculum policy. The limited funding time-frame of the current project has not made it possible to produce detailed analyses of each state, but one analysis, of South Australia, was published in an article by Cherry Collins and Lyn Yates in the Australian Journal of Education, Issue 53 (2), pp. 125-140. The article, Curriculum Policy in South Australia since the 1970s: the quest for commonality, discusses the particular emphases and agendas of South Australia at the overarching curriculum policy level over the past four decades and argues that although there have been significant changes, some continuity of perspective has persisted, in terms of prioritising social justice concerns, focusing on the development of the individual student, and seeking commonality in curriculum provision.

A more comparative attention to the project findings on state differences and curriculum issues in Australia has been published in a book Australia’s Curriculum Dilemmas: state cultures and the big issues, edited by Lyn Yates, Cherry Collins and Kate O’Connor. The book shows the ways some big issues for Australian curriculum – knowledge and competencies; values, inclusiveness, assessment, retention – have been addressed in markedly changing ways over recent times, and across different states, and uncovers the ways different Australian states have taken different starting points for what matters in relation to curriculum. In addition to chapters on the main themes by the editors, the book includes contributions from senior figures across the different Australian states who have had a long-standing involvement and hands-on experience with the curriculum of their state. The book was published by Melbourne University Press in 2011 and is available online for purchase.

This background attention to state differences is of interest for two reasons. First it is remarkably difficult to get perspectives on the history of Australian schooling which is not a study of a particular state, or is not primarily a study of commonwealth initiatives. But comparative study is enlightening if we are to consider ‘Australia’s curriculum dilemmas’ – the title of our forthcoming book. Even the preparation of teachers tends to take a within-state set of agendas as its ‘commonsense’. Some history of the bigger and differentiated Australian history of curriculum is a form of scholarship that needs to enlighten our conceptions of what we might do. This project and its publications provide a starting point on this comparative understanding of our national history and context for curriculum, but, despite some scattered very interesting pieces of work on individual states, it is a remarkably under-developed area of research.

Secondly, this attention to state differences in history and values is interesting given that we now have an agreed national agenda in train, with ACARA. How will the new curriculum policies work in practice in contexts which have different historical cultures or values in regard to curriculum?

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