Ditching school-based courses cuts passion and wonder. Shame the bureaucrats don’t see that.

By Cathie Burgess

The NSW response to cut more than 80 school-developed courses highlights a key flaw in current educational policy – a complete misunderstanding of schools, teachers and curriculum by bureaucrats who are sufficiently distanced from frontline teaching as to not see or feel the impacts of their decisions.

One of the key issues arising from the 2020 curriculum review is overcrowding or too much content in syllabuses, with many teachers struggling to meet individual student needs as they feel under pressure to cover large numbers of ‘dot points’ and course outcomes.

Too much content

School-based courses are not the problem per se but rather the overcrowding within discreet NESA syllabuses – too much content to cover in a limited time particularly in the highly prescribed Stage 6 courses where the HSC exams directly address course outcomes. So, the problem is one of prescription rather than the number of courses available. In fact, depth and breadth of subject selection is often a key factor in parental school choice. 

The SMH article (15 January, 2021) initially represents the ‘curriculum cleanup’ as one that will remove courses such as drone studies, puppetry and cartooning which the general public are likely to interpret as trivial. This unfortunately overshadows key points Jordan Baker goes on to make; that this clean up will not ease the burden on teachers and students, and that these courses are developed by schools to meet specific local student needs not met by general syllabuses. NESA (and previously the Board of Studies) has a long history of endorsing school-based courses, many of which were developed into state-wide syllabuses due to their success in meeting student and school needs. 

How one school fought racism

An example of the value of a school-developed course, is one we implemented in a school with a high population of Aboriginal students in the late 1990s when Pauline Hanson was elected to parliament. With this election came a significant increase in overt and vicious racism towards Aboriginal people in particular to Aboriginal teenagers like the kids we were teaching. This was aggravated by media reports of Aboriginal teenagers being arrested for swearing at racists with no apparent consequences for those provoking the incidents. Our students were angry and distressed and felt voiceless and powerless to express this reality on their daily lives. And so we implemented a school-developed media studies course where we could focus on understanding the media, how it is reported and how to address the misrepresentation of Aboriginal people. A key factor in this was identifying these ‘myths’ and the ‘busting them’ through learning how to clearly articulate facts, statistics and well-reasoned arguments rather than rely on emotional responses. We refused to refer to Pauline Hanson by her name, rather referring to her as ‘the fish & chip shop lady’.  For the students, this immediately disempowered her and her comments, dissipated the anger and allowed them to direct their energies into changing the discourse. The value of this was not only for individual students, but for buoying school morale and engaging local families and communities in school curriculum.

While but one example, many teachers can tell similar stories about the positive impact school-developed courses have, about being able to harness their passion into a course with direct benefit to students such as broadening their perspectives, developing critical thinking and practical (dare I say, job-ready) skills. These courses are not a burden to schools or teachers but rather enhance school culture and morale, often bringing families and communities into schools as local skills are drawn on to support course delivery.

Perhaps rather than the simplistic solution of scrapping what the department see as expendable courses, perhaps they could turn their attention to reframing key syllabuses to increase flexibility to better meet local needs including time to differentiate these courses to cater for all ability levels. Rather than prescription and compliance, let’s focus on a framework where ‘big ideas’ are placed at the centre, supported by a suite of options that promote creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, cross-cultural communication, empathy and relationality – all skills identified by many employers as essential for 21st century work practices. This is clearly the intent of the curriculum review as noted in the executive summary of the curriculum review:

The long-term vision is for a curriculum that supports teachers to nurture wonder, ignite passion and provide every young person with knowledge, skills and attributes that will help prepare them for a lifetime of learning, meaningful adult employment and effective future citizenship.

Unfortunately, while governments continue to be obsessed with assessing the ‘basics’ and comparing results between students, schools and education systems, the likelihood of seeing any innovation in curriculum design is slim, and so they continue to shuffle the deck using the same cards.

Associate Professor Cathie Burgess coordinates undergraduate and postgraduate Aboriginal Studies teaching methods, Aboriginal Community Engagement, Learning from Country and Leadership in Aboriginal Education courses. She has extensive teaching and leadership experience in secondary schools with expertise in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal curriculum and pedagogies, and implementing innovative literacy strategies to improve student outcomes. Cathie’s research involves community-led initiatives centring Aboriginal voices and positioning Aboriginal community-based educators as leaders through projects such as Learning from Country in the City, Aboriginal Voices: Insights into Aboriginal Education, Culturally Nourishing Schooling Project and Aboriginal Middle Leaders in NSW Schools.


3 thoughts on “Ditching school-based courses cuts passion and wonder. Shame the bureaucrats don’t see that.

  1. Bill Blaikie says:

    This one size fits all approach is the sort of thinking that creates forms and checklists. It limits and denies variety and creativity as well as stifling enthusiasm. If you have ever spent time talking and working with people from different countries and different education systems then it is fairly obvious how much we have in common and how our differences in knowledge, language and culture spark creativity. It will pay to heed the words of Bill Gates who, while obviously talking about employees, was concerned to develop creative projects.

    ‘1. Get the best people (ie ideas, knowledge and skills) that you can,
    2. get them from as wide a variety of sources as possible,
    3. enable them to pursue their own projects, and,
    4. if every project succeeds then you/they have failed (because they were not pushing the limits of their knowledge, skills and ideas.)

    If we are to develop as a rich and vibrant culture then we need this variety rather than a cookie cutter education that will tend to produce people with bureaucratic mindsets who are more than likely to be in bland agreement with each other.

  2. Cathie Burgess says:

    So true Bill – and so important for teachers to have the opportunity to follow their passions and make real impacts in student lives. A chance to escape the grind that can become meeting endless outcomes and teaching for the test.

  3. Marie Brennan says:

    This is great coverage of this issue., thanks Cathie and Debra. Debra’s made more sense to a non-NSW person after reading Cathie’s post, Both are important for the debates. The focus on Content and coverage of content is a spurious design for curriculum, leaving out both teachers and students who are co-designers in curriculum practice.

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