An Independent Education System

In Australia’s Curriculum Dilemmas (2011) Lyn Yates, Cherry Collins and Kate O’Connor look at the different state cultures of education in Australia and take a historical and contemporary snap shot of curriculum issues in each jurisdiction prior to the implementation of the Australian (National) Curriculum.  The A.C.T is not included in this study, primarily due to budget and space, through a helpful timeline of developments in the A.C.T was developed.   This project goes someway to filling the ensuing gap, and suggest the ‘state’ culture that has developed in the A.C.T.  The challenge is provocatively  taken up in the essay  Whose curriculum is it anyway?

From the inception of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in 1913 schooling was the joint responsibility of the NSW Government and the Commonwealth Government.  Specifically the NSW Government provided the teachers, the curriculum and curriculum services, while the Commonwealth provided the buildings.   The rapid growth of Canberra in the 1960’s and Canberra’s unique population profile of well educated and and well paid families led to increasing dissatisfaction with the NSW Department of Educations strict administration of schools – specifically it’s staffing restrictions and increasingly it’s version of secondary education.

In 1974 after numerous reports and public agitation the Interim ACT Schools Authority took responsibility of public education in the ACT with NSW gradually withdrawing.  The ACT Schools Authority assumed full control in 1977.  What emerged in this period of formation was a unique philosophy of education that can roughly be described as a desire to ‘not be NSW’.  In contrast to the 7-12 comprehensive high School envisioned by Harold Wyndham in NSW and a centralised state based curriculum the ACT quickly moved to implement it’s foundational principles of  secondary colleges and school based curriculum.  For this project we have put together a brief  Overview of the Development of the ACT System that compliments  A curriculum history of ACT education There are also the reports prepared by students involved in this project on Creating the education system of the nations capital and the resulting changing face of teachers over Canberra’s first 100 years

Some important documents and reports from this period include:

Building from this period Barry Price has been writing a number of articles for the A.C.T. HIstorical Society journal on the A.C.T. system.  Two notable sources are publicly available:

The desire to not be like N.S.W. led to an education authority that as largely independent, with a board without overt ministerial oversight.  This was partly because it came under the Federal Minister at the time who had a large portfolio, but also a philosophy of arms length governance.  Part of the structure that developed was school boards for each school, with genuine power and a active role in each school.  In many ways a strong desire for genuine parental involvement was the catalyst for the new system.

The philosophy of the new system is perhaps best encapsulated by the Beare Eleven by  Hedley Beare (1977) (PDF ACT Archives).   Published by the ACT Schools Authority in 1977 the Beare Eleven ‘Eleven propositions about an education organisation which are the bases for its organisational style’ by Hedley Beare then CEO of the Authority, laid out the principles under which the new authority would operate. These eleven propositions were:

  1. The organisation must be concerned about people.
  2. The organisation must be effective and efficient at the same time
  3. The organisation must have a low bureaucratic profile.
  4. The organisation should be organismic and in dynamic flux.
  5. An education organisation must encourage participation.
  6. The organisational structure and its mode of operating should
 delimit hierarchy, and emphasise collegiality.
  7. The education organisation should be an open organisation.
  8. The education organisation should encourage school-based action 
and initiative.
  9. The educational mission overrides every other consideration.
  10. The education organisation should encourage innovation.
  11. The education organisation should be an optimistic organisation.

The Canberra College of Education was intimately involved during the early years, largely through the role of the Dean Phillip Hughes who completed the report on the formation of the system, chaired the authority and was involved in a  number of subsequent inquiries and reports.  Additionally over the first 20 years nay students completed the new Masters degree at the college that included a thesis component.  These thesis’ were usually on aspects of education in the A.C.T and developments and issues in the new system.  They provide a fabulous record of events, but also illustrate the intellectual professional orientation of the teachers from this period.  A couple of notable reports that provide an insight into the thinking of the new system include:

If parental involvement was the political catalyst for the new system, then Curriculum was the professional catalyst for staff. As the central feature of the new system, and at least culturally still so, the idea that schools can, and should, develop a curriculum tailored to the interests and needs of the students in their schools is arguably the A.C.T ‘state’ culture. The issue of curriculum independence is explored in the essay Whose curriculum is it anyway? prepared for this project.  Additionally this 1989 paper by Cherry Collins  evaluating the A.C.T. curriculum experiment (reproduced here with permission Collins 1989 ACT Curriculum) provides a valuable insight into this culture.   Keeping the excitement and passion of the early years has been difficult, and to some extent the ‘new’ A.C.T culture has become a system in and of itself.   Collins (1989 above) raises the question of if the curriculum experiment actually worked, and raises significant doubt to it lived effectiveness. 

The biggest challenge however has been one of governance.  Governance would arguably be a critical issue in the history of A.C.T education, and remains a central challenge into the future.  It would seem that as self government for the territory loomed a state mentality began to develop.  The independence of the schools authority was lost, and index the authority disbanded: a minister after all needs something to administer.  Similarly the planned merger with ANU of the CAE has been in many cases put down to local politics to also do with self governance and the prestige of a university constituted in local legislation.  With these changed governance arrangements came challenges of resourcing, aka funding, in an expanding territory with many competing demands is a main part of this governance conundrum.  Such that now the jurisdiction is an early adopter of federal initiatives to obtain the funding linked to these.