Preparing children for work. Is this the best we can do for our students?

By Don Carter

I am concerned that recent reforms to the NSW Higher School Certificate are based on a narrowly conceived vision for education which will see students graduating with a basic but limited set of workplace skills, largely incapable of developing aptitudes for life outside work as family members and members of the wider community.

The most concerning points

The narrow focus on workplace skills

The recent controversy in HSC English regarding the reduction in the number of prescribed texts to be studied and the optionalising of the study of novels and poetry in Year 12 – subsequently reversed by the New South Wales Educational Standards Authority (NESA) with regard to the study of novels – would have come as no real surprise to those who have examined the NSW Government’s “Stronger HSC Standards Blueprint” (Blueprint) released in 2016 as part of a series of reforms to the HSC to be implemented by NESA.

This government document has a narrow focus on workplace skills and ignores other important aims of education that seek to develop students into well-rounded individuals.

The Blueprint fails to ask the key questions “what type of people do we want our children to be by the time they leave school?” and “what qualities do they require in order to lead fulfilled lives as individuals and as members of the wider community?” I believe that such a ‘big picture’ document should be presenting carefully considered statements specifying the qualities we need to nurture in our students, such as critical and creative thinking and becoming active citizens of our democracy and empathic members of local and wider communities.

Do we want responsible, communicative individuals who can sustain rich and meaningful relationships within and beyond the family unit? As I see it, the Blueprint fails to mention the types of important human qualities that make us human and allow us to live harmoniously with each other.

Qualities such as compassion, consideration of others, perseverance, tolerance and the ability to act with dignity – a type of ‘cultivation of the self’, where reasoned, thoughtful actions form the basis of interactions with others – are not mentioned.

I believe these qualities are important for all individuals in everyday social situations, such as chatting over the fence or being a member of a political party or sporting club, but also crucially important in the workplace.

Beyond examinations and the future workplace, the document does not acknowledge in any detail, the wider life of the student.

The Blueprint promotes students as robotic automatons for the workplace

The Blueprint projects an Orwellian vision of education where students are cast as economic units – “the future workforce”. The HSC is described as a “platform” to “increase productivity”; the inclusion of buzzwords such as “agile”, “flexible” and “responsive” signal that the most important goal of education is to provide employers with workers who possess “transferrable skills” and a “solid foundation” of literacy and numeracy skills for jobs. The document seems to aim to reduce individuals to compliant workers, skilled for the workforce perhaps, but little else.

Educators Ivor Goodson and Scherto Gill point out that when learning is reduced to the acquisition of employability skills, “people are treated as economic objects”, reducing their capacity for positive social interaction and fulfilling relationships.

Other important personal qualities such as self-awareness, self-esteem, respect for self and others, as highlighted by the by the psychologist Carl Rogers, are also ignored in the Blueprint.

More testing

How much testing can our students take? Not content with NAPLAN testing for students in Years 3, 5 and 9, the Blueprint introduces the requirement that for students in Year 9 will be required to achieve a Band 8 in NAPLAN in reading, writing and numeracy from 2017. This means that 14 year olds – three years or so from sitting for their HSC, in the midst of adolescence and while establishing a sense of self-identity and membership in friendship groups and the wider community, will be saddled with the additional pressure of achieving this ‘benchmark’. And if they don’t meet this standard, they will have to keep attempting the test until they do.

This reform is all about competition, high stakes testing and national curriculum and assessment systems. It is not about what is best for our students.

The Blueprint ignores the federal educational framework

The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) states that syllabuses are developed “with respect to some overarching views” including those encapsulated in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008). However, nowhere in the Blueprint is the Melbourne Declaration, of which all Australian education ministers were signatories, mentioned. This is an important omission because the Melbourne Declaration is a broad statement which seeks to develop students as well-rounded human beings through two main goals of schooling: the provision of “equity and excellence”; and the development of young people as “successful learners”, “confident and creative individuals” and “active and informed citizens”.

The Melbourne Declaration acknowledges the significance of the arts and the central role schools have in developing “the spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life; and open up new ways of thinking.” It’s a shame the authors of the Blueprint ignored this key national document.

There’s more to life than work

While no one would argue that high order literacy and numeracy skills are essential for every individual, what is the point of highly literate and numerate individuals who lead unfulfilled lives? Individuals whose identities and creative outlets are linked to nothing but the workplace, where their capacity and desire to communicate and express themselves is diminished by a school career that at best, operated at a functional, instrumental level, aiming to slot them into jobs and little more? What are the future social ramifications for such a narrowly conceived education?

I guess we will find out over the next decade or so.

Apart from stating the obvious regarding the importance of literacy and numeracy, the worthwhile inclusions are few and far between in the Blueprint. For example, the “character attributes” of “curiosity, flexibility and resilience” are commendable inclusions but are not explicated to contexts beyond the workplace. The document does not attend to any substantial degree current geo-political events, seismic shifts in immigration and fails to acknowledge the subsequent challenges for education systems. Unfortunately, it accurately reflects the NSW Government’s blinkered vision of education – just take a look at the Government’s ‘Premier’s Priorities’ where the sole aim for education is to … wait for it … improve test results.

Says it all, really.


Don Carter is senior lecturer in English Education at the University of Technology Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Education, Master of Education (Curriculum), Master of Education (Honours) and a PhD in curriculum from the University of Sydney (2013). Don is a former Inspector, English at the Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards and was responsible for a range of projects including the English K-10 Syllabus. He has worked as a head teacher English in both government and non-government schools and was also an ESL consultant for the NSW Department of Education. Don is the secondary schools representative in the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia and has published extensively on a range of issues in English education, including The English Teacher’s Handbook A-Z (Manuel & Carter) and Innovation, Imagination & Creativity: Re-Visioning English in Education (Manuel, Brock, Carter & Sawyer).

12 thoughts on “Preparing children for work. Is this the best we can do for our students?

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for this timely reminder of what the rationale and purpose of schools ought to be. I can remember the late, great Garth Boomer warning us that democracy as we know it was contingent on our schools producing ever increasing cohorts of ” highly productive, critically literate graduates”. Now, as you point out in your last two sentences, the priority is ” improved test scores”. How did we get to this state of affairs?

  2. Don Carter says:

    Thanks for your response, Brian. The HSC Blueprint was released last July and I tried (unsuccessfully) to publish in both the SMH and The Conversation…no interest from either. There is a real disconnect between the aims and rationales of individual NSW syllabus documents and the ‘bigger picture’ statements and educational aims framed by technocrats and politicians developed for public consumption. And thank you for invoking the late, great Garth Boomer – a sadly missed scholar and teacher.

  3. Darcy Moore says:

    “A blueprint is a reproduction of a technical drawing…invented in the 19th century, the process allowed rapid and accurate reproduction of documents used in construction and industry. The blue-print process was characterised by light colored lines on a blue background, a negative of the original. The process was unable to reproduce color or shades of grey. ”

    Link to my blog

  4. Don Carter says:

    Thanks Darcy – the definition rings true…

  5. Simon Crook says:

    Great article Don! In a related vein, I raised concerns regarding the increasing inequity of access with the new ‘stronger standards’ syllabuses

  6. Don Carter says:

    Thanks Simon – and thank you for your article in The Conversation. There are obviously many concerns across Stage 6….

  7. Michael Ramsden says:

    As a passionate teacher who relatively recently began teaching the Romanticism elective for Extension 1, its hard not to become disillusioned at times by the syllabus change process. I stare at the files I have created, the documents, notes from study days and professional reading and prepare myself for the prospect of beginning again with new electives… and we had just established a dedicated ‘Romantic period’ section of our school library. I am glad of the knowledge and continue to be inspired by what I have learnt but wonder where it’s all heading. As for the new literacy and numeracy standards, well I also have the responsibility for managing this daunting process and supporting those students who do not achieve Band 8. Thank you for this article, it’s more important than ever to remember the values that really matter.

  8. Don Carter says:

    Thank you for you reply, Michael. And I am so glad that you enjoyed the Romanticism elective. It was a truly ‘inspired’ part of the curriculum and the feedback I have received over the past years has been very positive. But now it’s gone and the Romantic authors scattered through the modules. I don’t envy you the task of developing strategies for students who do not achieve a Band 8 in Year 9…more pressure for everyone. In addition to the other NAPLAN testing and then the HSC…

  9. Sandra Logan says:

    Great article, Don. In answer to Brian Cranbourne,I believe we got to this state of affairs as the government no longer sees education as a service that it provides to its people but as a business that must show returns for the funds it provides (albeit from taxpayers money). As schools do not produce a “product’ as such, the ‘growth’ of our students is how we are forced to justify our funding. This growth must be measured, hence the need for ever more standardised testing to provide evidence of that growth. Sadly, what the politicians and bureaucrats that now dictate the direction which educators are forced to follow do not realise is that not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that is measured, matters!

  10. Don Carter says:

    Spot on, Sandra and thank you for your response. Yes, we value what (think) we can measure…and it reduces education to ‘deliverables’, ‘outcomes’ and so-called ‘hard data’. While the bureaucrats and politicians have lost their sense of direction in education, thank heavens teachers in the classroom continue to nurture both the academic and the pastoral dimensions of their students.

  11. Simon Grace says:

    Totally right. Public Education in Australia was founded on principles of holistic education and access for all no matter what their circumstance. this is some thing that standards testing and our modern political system has lost site of. Its all about the Australian ideal of “a fair go” which seems to have been lost in the economic rationalism that the media and our government are forcing down our throats.

  12. Don Carter says:

    Thanks for your response, Simon. We do seem to have sight of a holistic approach to education. The aims of our curriculum point to developing the ‘whole’ child for a range of life experiences (not just work) but current practices (ie. NAPLAN) tend to divert attention and resources away from curriculum implementation to testing – its implementation and results.

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