NSW Curriculum Review response a real dog’s breakfast

By Greg Whitby, 27 July 2020
Greg Whitby AM is Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta.


Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

Those of us with a hunger for big changes in education had high hopes for the NSW Curriculum Review led by Professor Geoff Masters. Unfortunately, the response dished up by the NSW Government has been nothing more than a dog’s breakfast. What will this mediocre mashup mean for students and their teachers in years ahead?

A stern word to politicians of all persuasions who continue to respond to the debate about the future of school by barking ‘back to basics’. This cheap crowd-pleaser is as inadequate as the classroom excuse ‘the dog ate my homework’. Chatting with our communities, I’m not even convinced that ‘back to basics’ is keeping the crowd pleased these days.

Sadly, it seems several of the stronger recommendations of the NSW Curriculum Review like axing the ATAR, shaking up assessment, and razzing up reports may not have been to the Government’s taste. I guess it just wasn’t bland enough, so what we’ve ended up with is now of an entirely different flavour to Masters’ original recipe for reform.

Some of the really big changes Masters recommended have been marked ‘support in principle’ or ‘noted’ in the Government response. Correct me if I’m wrong, but a lifetime of experience in reading Government reports has taught me that this is a polite way of saying that no action will be taken on this particular front. This is not my first curriculum review.

For the first time ever, I found myself agreeing with conservative commentator Kevin Donnelly, an extremely uncomfortable predicament. As Kevin put it, though of course for entirely different reasons, the Government’s response to the Curriculum Review is “a dud”.

I wouldn’t like to speculate about what happened between the hopeful beginnings of this process and the mess of the confused final response to the Review produced in the dying days of Term 2. They say politics is like making sausages, better not to watch the process too closely.

As mentioned above, the Government has highlighted a stronger focus on ‘the basics’: literacy and numeracy, particularly in the early years. Nobody disagrees that the basics matter, but there’s so much more to a great education.

There’s some interesting stuff in the response to the Review about students learning at their own pace too, but it’s only supported ‘in principle’. The great insight that kids learn at different paces would surprise no parent at all, but further consideration of how to respond to this reality deserves more than speculative support.

The Government response will also see some culling of the subjects on offer to senior students. We need to know a lot more about what’s on the chopping block. Some media reports suggest critical thinking is one of the subjects to be cut. To me, this seems like just the kind of a skill we should be seeking to strengthen at school!

I’m encouraged that there has been some take up of the smart thinking in the original report on skills. It’s great to see the consideration of connecting the learning pathways to real-world credentials in areas of skills shortage.

There’s also a focus on reviewing extra-curricular learning. It’s easy to rubbish some of these things, but what students learn about issues like road safety, financial management and workplace skills could fall into this category. When I highlighted this recently, parents defended these subjects with comments including: “Thank you for looking at modern and useful subjects which will benefit our children.”

Through Twitter, I also crowdsourced some reflections from educators and others about the Review Response. These highlighted the lost opportunity to dump the ATAR, the lack of trust in teachers’ professional judgement, the wasted chance to align with the Australian curriculum and the need for better options for students on a non-ATAR pathway. Another tweet highlighted the widening gap between child psychology, educational neuroscience and how schools operate.

One teacher simply responded: “Year 3 without NAPLAN. I know my students and how they learn more deeply without that impediment.” Lots of food for thought here.

What is becoming clearer each and every day is that gutless governments of all stripes will never deliver the gutsy reforms required here. Is there still an appetite for reform? You betcha but we’re going to have to get this thing done ourselves: we’ve had a gutful of ‘back to basics’.

Greg Whitby AM
Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools - Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
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