Whose curriculum is it anyway?

By Annalise Pippard

In the final week of the recent election campaign Tony Abbott, echoing John Howard, remarked on the supposed left-wing agenda of the Australian History curriculum. It was a grim reminder of just how easily curriculum can be politicised­, and it’s safe to say that when administered on a national scale curriculum is especially vulnerable to this kind of political commandeering. As interested parties scramble to dominate the conversation around whose knowledge counts and whose doesn’t, curriculum comes to sound an awful lot like the crude definition cited but not favoured by Deborah Britzman: it’s “the material” and a teacher’s job simply “covering the material.”[1] But this version of curriculum is not really curriculum at all; the specification of what’s in and what’s out more properly the domain of a syllabus document.[2] Curriculum, on the other hand, has historically been considered a much less stable object. Variously defined, it can be understood as encompassing everything that is brought to the pedagogical moment; not just the official intellectual content and resources, but also the histories and dispositions of teachers, students, and the broader school community.[3] Less a matter of nomenclature than ideology, Allan Luke and others have argued that this confusion of syllabus for curriculum is “part of the continued trend toward control and regulation of teachers and teachers’ work.” [4] Luke writes:

A document that attempts to be the curriculum in its entirety leads to a situation where the document itself and its implementation become difficult and overly complex, where teachers’ professionalism and the local configurations of schools and community relations and values are ignored.[5]

There is a growing body of literature that suggests the Australian Curriculum is such a document.[6] A product of the anxious desire to pin-down in advance and on a totalising scale what kids and teachers do at school, this one-size-fits-all-places model of curriculum fails to account for the different learning needs of individual school communities. While it would be churlish to suggest that teachers can’t or won’t tailor the curriculum to their students’ unique needs—many will—the standardising force of such a document doesn’t exactly encourage a critical, imaginative or experimental approach to teaching.

In the spirit of writing history for education, then, I consider in this paper a system that expressly sought to foster innovative, out-of-the-box teaching that was responsive to the needs of the local community. The development of an independent education system for the ACT, and its implementation of school-based curriculum in the early 1970s was in many ways one last push against the tide of managerialism and standardisation that dominates education today. [7] The ACT’s system ante-ACARA (the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) offers a rare opportunity to learn from a practised alternative to the overly politicised condition in which we find ourselves enacting curriculum now. Learning seldom arrives on a platter though, and as I researched the values and ambitions underpinning the Territory’s move away from a centralised syllabus, and read them against the recent acquiescence to the national curriculum, I was left with more questions than I had answers. So I offer this paper as a provocation, and the questions that I end with—about centralisation and equity—are the real point of the story.


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The pioneers of the ACT school system aspired to more than just autonomous administration; their vision was radical, anti-bureaucratic reform of the structures of schooling. Rallying against the comprehensive Wyndham scheme centrally managed by the NSW Department of Education, the ACT community fought seven long years for a public school system that was genuinely participatory and, as the Canberra Times editorial put it, “flexible, experimental, [and] capable of absorbing ideas.”[8]The governing body was conceived as a “community-professional partnership” that wouldn’t run individual schools so much as facilitate localised management and school-based decision making.[9] This body was formalised as the ACT Schools Authority in 1973 and was presided over by a rotating central council comprising representatives from federal government, the Teacher’s Federation, the Pre-School Society, the P&C, and the ACT Advisory Council. An elected board of parents, teachers, and students (in senior years) and an Authority representative became responsible for the on-the-ground running of each school. In this new model, “community” was not a mere synecdoche for a school’s geographic location, but was conceived as something active, something that could only exist through the links that teachers went out of their way to establish between the school and parents.[10]

Together with the push for decentralisation and community engagement, the chief argument for a new education system was a concern that the traditional curriculum wasn’t preparing students for a workforce that was increasingly professional and technologically sophisticated. Richard Campbell, author of the report advocating senior secondary colleges, argued that “mid-adolescent students… [were] caught in a severe contradiction, that they’re becoming adults sooner and being treated like children for longer.” [11] The Campbell Report proposed the development of school-based curriculum that would offer a wide range of courses tailored to the diverse interests and abilities of all students—not just those matriculating to university. There was to be an accent on freedom, self-development, self-motivation, and student management of student affairs.[12] There was to be no external examinations, and no school inspectors. Philip Hughes—head of the School of Education at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE), chair of the panel that sketched out the new system, and inaugural chair of the Interim Authority—reasoned that if “equality of opportunity implies non-uniformity of treatment” then the ACT should have a system that accommodates both teacher and student choice.[13] For Hughes, Campbell and their advising colleagues, this meant more than just differentiated instruction using a state-sanctioned syllabus. In the hands of unapologetically progressive educators, genuine equality of opportunity required that “all schools should be both at liberty and encouraged to give education varying in educational attitude, methods and emphasis.”[14]

Implementing this vision was an enormous task. The official word from the Interim Authority was that “each school will be expected to determine its own educational philosophy, emphasis and programs based on the individual needs of its own students,” with the Authority providing only “guidance, resources and skills to help school boards and teachers in devising and implementing their education program.”[15] In practice this involved the establishment of a Curriculum Branch of the Schools Office to provide general curriculum guidelines and support services. The Branch took responsibility for developing policy on matters such as Year 10 certification and assessment moderation; registering the education programs developed within schools; providing in-school teacher consultants to assist with curriculum design; sponsoring school planning conferences and inter-school principal meetings; funding curriculum projects and teacher professional development; and operating a resource library.[16]  But for the first several years the Curriculum Branch was woefully understaffed and resources thinly spread, leaving teachers to rely largely on their own efforts for curriculum review and change. (In fact, in the early days staff shortages combined with time pressures to get the Authority up and running meant that, educational philosophy notwithstanding, central curriculum design was never a real option.)[17]

The initial curriculum guidelines issued by the Authority were broad and brief. The document opens with a definition of curriculum (one that closely resembles the definition I offered at the start of this paper); this is followed by some aspirational statements about cooperative planning and shared responsibility for curriculum development; and then an 11-point list of general qualities that each student should acquire while at school, including “to think clearly, independently and critically” and “to develop his [sic] own sense of identity and of his own personal and social needs.”[18] The document closes with a series of questions posed to encourage a reflective attitude toward the guidelines and their function within each school. For example: “What is the role of the school in developing these qualities, skills and techniques bearing in mind that the school will, by its nature and function, have greater responsibility and expertise in some areas than in others?” And: “What approaches are most effective in achieving the educational goals and in catering for a wide range of abilities and interests?”[19] It was up to each school to answer these questions for itself in consultation with the community, and with little to no direction from the Authority.

Writing school-based curriculum with minimal formal instruction was time-consuming and required substantial professional development for teachers, not to mention motivation. Cherry Collins has noted that for some teachers the devolution of power was hard to believe: after decades of rigid, centralised control they simply didn’t trust that the Authority wouldn’t dictate a system of curriculum.[20]These teachers tended to continue using the NSW syllabus well into the 1980s, and in some cases beyond, making only nominal adjustments when put under pressure by the Authority. But lack of resources and pockets of resistance aside, in many schools across the Territory there was an overwhelming enthusiasm for fresh, tailored curriculum, and it was felt equally by veteran teachers who’d been part of the campaign for change, as it was by new graduates of the CCAE.[21] Indeed, in a review of the initial years of the new system Barry Price observed that, “at its worst, curriculum autonomy produced plagiarism of outdated syllabuses and poorly articulated courses. At its best it introduced new and varied courses which were stimulating for teachers and pupils.”[22] Price offered three examples of the best side of local curriculum development: a college-level Legal Studies unit kicked off by members of the ACT Law Society (legal concepts had been essentially absent from the NSW syllabus before 1974); a plastics course initiated by Belconnen High School and circulated by the Industrial Arts Teachers’ Society; and an experimental cross-curriculum Social Studies course especially designed for students with low reading ability at Narrabundah Primary School.[23] Preparing the pilot college curricula was especially demanding: new schools were set to open in 1976 and there were several hundred courses to be developed and certified by central accreditation committees. Either in spite of or, more likely, because of that challenge many of Canberra’s best teachers put in hours of voluntary labour to ensure the courses were ready, relevant and acceptable to local and interstate tertiary institutions.[24]

The best side of school-based curriculum didn’t only involve producing curriculum from scratch. While some work was original, more often than not curriculum was being adapted from elsewhere—Victoria, Western Australia, Oxford and Cambridge, for example—according to school-devised criteria.[25] Many courses were pulled together at residential planning conferences held at the local schools over 2–5 days (in school time). These conferences enabled teachers, students, and to a varying degree, parents, to participate in a review of the school’s program and to devise aims and outcomes for the new curriculum.[26] It may be, as Price suggests, that the process was just as important, if not more so than the final product. The substance of, say, a Social Studies unit might not in the end look all that different from courses delivered in other schools, but teachers, and therefore students, benefited from the professionalising activity of sitting down with various exemplary curricula and customising it for their schools. In 1979 the Principal of Narrabundah Primary School described the exercise as “curriculum-based staff development.”[27]


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It’s clear that one of the big strengths of the system was its built-in respect for teachers. Where the audit culture of our current system focuses on performance management and accountability, the early ACT system was concerned with supporting innovative teaching. Teachers were considered to be genuinely professional, their responsibilities for writing curriculum and participating in school planning reflected this conviction, and the expanded role was gratifying for many.[28] What’s less clear, however, is if the support provided by the Authority was sufficient when it came to ongoing curriculum production. Certainly teachers got the job done and were extended professionally in the process, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the full scope of their professional development needs were met, nor does it mean that the guidelines from the Authority were adequate to ensure schools created well-structured programmes of study. Thirty years on, Philip Hughes reflected that it’s likely the Authority didn’t get balance quite right. He suggested that “a framework on which to build a curriculum”—perhaps something like the Every Chance to Learn framework released in 2007 and since superseded by the national curriculum—would have produced better results than the vague guidelines issued by the Authority. [29]  Hughes’ use of the word “balance” seems particularly appropriate here: the Authority’s guidelines were perhaps too lightweight to properly support schools in developing their own curricula, but at the opposite end of the scales the overcrowded Australian Curriculum seems to leave little room for it to be built on by teachers. Crucially, Hughes didn’t see a curriculum framework as being in conflict with the principles of teacher autonomy and community participation that the ACT system was founded upon: “I’m more and more inclined to have a fairly clear framework which still gives schools a good deal of leeway. A good teacher can make all sorts of options within a framework.”[30]While many teachers in the ACT enjoyed the stimulating chaos of those first few years and the ownership they had over the process of curriculum development, it’s evident that the workload could not be sustained long-term. Without a clear framework—and with readily available syllabus documents from neighbouring states and a burgeoning textbook industry—it is perhaps easy to see why teachers would, as many did, opt for a collage-style approach to curriculum design over creating it anew.

It’s also unclear as to whether the vision of curricula that reflects the identity of the local community ever really came to pass. In her review of the ACT’s implementation of school-based curriculum, Collin’s found that despite the participatory rhetoric, the “insider habit” of privileging the opinions of those on the payroll persisted into the new system, with parents kept “outside the boundaries of real power.”[31]  Collins points out that the system ran on the presumption that parents should “take advantage of the opportunities to participate” rather than, as was intended by Hughes and his colleagues, with a genuine effort to reach out to parents and the wider community. This raises some pressing question about equity in the ACT. One of the persistent arguments for an independent education system was Canberra’s distinctive character: its increasingly professionalised workforce, affluence and “cultural maturity.”[32] But those common measures of social advantage and disadvantage that are based on geographic location tend to mask individual circumstances in Canberra where suburbs are highly socially diverse.[33] We know that there are hidden pockets of disadvantage in Canberra, and we know that parents with lower levels of educational attainment find it more difficult to engage with their child’s school. If the new system was imagined with Canberra’s professional elite in mind, and was then implemented with the assumption that parents would be able to involve themselves in school business, it would seem that there was little in place to formally address the needs of the most vulnerable families in the community. For the architects of the system, local school-based curriculum was meant to bring Canberra closer to providing “equality of opportunity” for its students. We might want to ask then to what extent the new system of curriculum increased the opportunities of underprivileged students? Did the freedom to innovate and experiment result in teachers producing creative and genuinely localised curriculum that reflected the needs and interests of disadvantaged communities? Or did school-based curriculum instead reproduce the established social and intellectual hierarchy of students?[34] Answering these questions will require further probing into the enacted curriculum—the practices behind the policies, and the feelings of teachers, students and parents behind those practices—precisely because the early ACT system didn’t subscribe to a version of curriculum that can be contained by a few pieces of paper.



ACT Government. Detecting disadvantage in the ACT. Report on the comparative analysis of the SEIFI and SEIFA indexes of relative socio-economic disadvantage in the Australian Capital Territory, 2012.

ACT Schools Authority, Sources of existing curriculum policy for government schools, 1982.

Brennan, Marie. “National curriculum: A political-educational tangle.” Australian Journal of Education 55.3 (2011): 259–280.

Britzman, Deborah. “Who has the floor: Curriculum, teaching and the English student teacher’s struggle for voice.” Curriculum Inquiry 19.2 (1989): 143–162.

Campbell, Richard. (Chair) Secondary education for Canberra. Report by the working committee on college proposals for the ACT. Canberra: The Australian Publishing Service, 1972.

Collins, Cherry. “Providing a curriculum: the ACT experiment,” Curriculum Perspectives 9.2 (1989): 56–60.

Connell, Raewyn. “The neoliberal cascade and education: An essay on the market agenda and its consequences.” Critical Studies in Education 54.2 (2013): 99–112.

Hughes, Philip (Chair) A design for the governance and organization of education in the Australian Capital Territory. Report of the assessment panel on the ACT education authority, 1973.

Hughes, Philip & Mulford, William (Eds.) Australian Education Review: The Development of an independent education authority—Retrospect and prospect in the ACT, 1978.

Interim ACT Schools Authority. Guidelines on relationships within the educational system, 1974.

Luke, Allan, Woods, Annette, & Weir, Katie. “Curriculum design, equity and the technical form of the curriculum.” In Luke, Allan, Woods, Annette, & Weir, Katie (Eds.) Curriculum, syllabus design and equity: a primer and model. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.

Marsh, Colin J. Key concepts for understanding curriculum. Fourth edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

Price, Barry. Some aspects of school-based curriculum development in the ACT. 1979(?)

Price, Barry. Pioneers of the ACT Government school system. 2005.

Roberts, Philip. “A curriculum for the country: the absence of the rural in a national curriculum.” To be published in Curriculum Perspectives, April 2014.

Teese, Richard, Lamb, Steve & Helme, Sue. “Hierarchies of culture and hierarchies of context in Australian secondary education.”  In Cultures of Education: Proceedings of the 21st. Congress of the German Educational Research Association. Barbara Budrich Publishers (2009): 71-92.

[1] Deborah Britzman, “Who has the floor: Curriculum, teaching and the English student teacher’s struggle for voice,” Curriculum Inquiry 19.2 (1989): 144.

[2] Marie Brennan, “National curriculum: A political-educational tangle,” Australian Journal of Education 55.3 (2011): 264.

[3] See Colin J. Marsh, Key concepts for understanding curriculum, fourth edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), especially 1–21.

[4] Allan Luke, Annette Woods and Katie Weir, “Curriculum design, equity and the technical form of the curriculum” in Allan Luke, Annette Woods & Katie Weir (eds.) Curriculum, syllabus design and equity: A primer and model (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013), 11.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See for example, Marie Brennan, “National curriculum: A political-educational tangle,” 259–280; and, Philip Roberts, “A curriculum for the country: the absence of the rural in a national curriculum,” to be published in Curriculum Perspectives, April 2014.

[7]For a discussion of the management model and its effect on education in Australia see Raewyn Connell, “The neoliberal cascade and education: An essay on the market agenda and its consequences,” Critical Studies in Education 54:2 (2013): 99–112.

[8] As cited in Philip Hughes, Australian Education Review: The development of an independent education authority—Retrospect and prospect in the ACT edited by Philip Hughes and William Mulford (1978): 20.

[9] Philip Hughes (chair), A design for the governance and organization of education in the Australian Capital Territory: Report of the assessment panel on the ACT education authority (The Hughes Report, 1973), 55.

[10] Hughes, Retrospect and prospect, 107.

[11]Richard Campbell in Barry Price, Pioneers of the ACT government school system (2005), 17.

[12] Richard Campbell (chair), Secondary education for Canberra: Report by the working committee on college proposals for the ACT (The Campbell Report, Canberra: The Australian Publishing Service, 1972).

[13] Hughes, Retrospect and prospect, 5.

[14] The Hughes Report, 64.

[15] Interim ACT Schools Authority, The guiding principles and aims of the ACT Schools Authority, reprinted in Guidelines on relationships within the educational system (1974): 7.

[16] Barry Price, Some aspects of school-based curriculum development in the ACT, 1979(?): 2.

[17] Price, Some aspects of school-based curriculum, 3; Milton ‘Mick’ March in Price, Pioneers, 26; and, Cherry Collins, “Providing a curriculum: the ACT experiment,” Curriculum Perspectives 9.2 (1989): 57.

[18] Interim ACT Schools Authority, Guidelines on relationships within the educational system, reprinted in ACT Schools Authority, Sources of existing curriculum policy for government schools (1982): 3.

[19] Ibid. 3–4.

[20] Collins, “Providing a curriculum,” 57.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Price, Some aspects of school-based curriculum, 3

[23] Ibid. 3–6.

[24] See Collins, “Providing a curriculum,” 58; and March in Price, Pioneers, 26.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Hughes, Retrospect and Prospect, 108; and Price, Some aspects of school-based curriculum, 6–7.

[27] Price, Some aspects of school-based curriculum, 6.

[28] Collins, “Providing a curriculum,” 60; and March in Price, Pioneers, 28.

[29] Hughes in Price, Pioneers, 12.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Collins, “Providing a curriculum,” 58­–59.

[32] Clifford Burnett in Hughes, Retrospect and Prospect, 11.

[33]See ACT Government, Detecting disadvantage in the ACT: Report on the comparative analysis of the SEIFI and SEIFA indexes of relative socio-economic disadvantage in the Australian Capital Territory (2012).

[34] See Richard Teese, Steve Lamb and Sue Helme, “Hierarchies of culture and hierarchies of context in how education systems work,” in Cultures of Education: Proceedings of the 21st. Congress of the German Educational Research Association (Barbara Budrich Publishers, 2009): 71–92.