Curriculum Perspectives

, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 55–65 | Cite as

The Australian curriculum: a critical interrogation of why, what and where to?

  • Bob Lingard
The Australian curriculum


ᅟThis Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture contextualises in the broadest sense the creation of the Australian curriculum. As such, this sociological account will argue that the national curriculum is both a response to and articulation of globalisation, set against the intricate complexities of Australian educational federalism. The analysis will demonstrate how this emergence had a long and slow gestation and was enabled by the political contingency in 2007 of all Labor governments at the federal, state and territory levels. The Australian curriculum now has an institutional home in the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and appears to have bipartisan political support, apart from ideological debates about what should be included. The lecture considers the Australian curriculum as working together what knowledge students need to know (disciplines) and what sort of people they ought to become (cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities). The argument will situate the national curriculum against the broader national schooling policy assemblage (NAPLAN, My School, Melbourne Declaration, teacher and school leader standards) and interrogate it in terms of the limitations imposed by this contingent framing. These limiting factors include lack of an intellectual rationale, the distance of ACARA from schools, classrooms and teachers, and the restrictive legislative and compositional character of the Australian Institute for Teachers and School Leaders (AITSL), which frames standards for teachers, who are central to the productive enactment of the Australian curriculum. The overall argument is set against Garth Boomer’s innovative curriculum theorising


National curriculum Globalization New spatialities Educational federalism 

…differences within and change in the organization, transmission and evaluation of educational knowledge should be a major area of sociological interest. (Bernstein 1971, p. 47)


It is indeed a great pleasure and great honor to deliver this 2017 Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture. I should confess at the outset that I am a sociologist of education, rather than a curriculum theorist, and yet I do not resile from that in terms of talking about curriculum for a number of what I see as very good reasons. Bill Green in his edited collection of Garth Boomer’s main writings suggests that Boomer was an “administrative intellectual” (1999, p. 6) and one who was very aware of the multiple contexts of curriculum work from the production of the intended curriculum to its enactment by teachers through negotiation with students in classrooms. Understanding of curriculum across these contexts requires a sociological imagination. Furthermore, there is a significant history of engagement of sociologists of education with curriculum. Think for example of the significant work of Basil Bernstein (1971), who spoke of the three central message systems of schooling as curriculum, pedagogy and evaluation and emphasized the symbiotic relationships between the three.

Garth Boomer in his writing and policy work shared a definition of curriculum that worked across these message systems; for Boomer, pedagogy and assessment were central to the enactment and negotiation of curriculum in classrooms. Of course, Boomer was working before the advent of NAPLAN, a central element of the message systems of schooling in contemporary Australia, and one which might sadly have become de facto curriculum in some schools in some year levels in Australia with reductive curriculum effects and social justice implications (Howell 2017; Luke 2011). In some recent work with colleagues (Lingard et al. 2016), I have argued that in today’s schooling systems testing and related datafication have become the major steering mechanism of Anglo-American school systems and schools’ and teachers’ work with evident symbiotic effects on Bernstein’s other two message systems, curriculum and pedagogy. In his later work at the Curriculum Development Centre, the Commonwealth Schools Commission, and the Schools Council, Green rightly (1999) suggests that Boomer found the palpable tensions between systemic curriculum prescriptions and teacher professional mediation of curriculum enactment a harrowing challenge to his commitment to teacher professionalism and agency. I will return to that very tension later in this Lecture and will suggest the tension is very much more apparent now than when Boomer was working and writing.

Michael Young’s classic sociology of education collection, Knowledge and Control (1971a, b) was also a significant sociological intervention in curriculum studies and theorizing, as has been his more recent curriculum theorizing from a social realist knowledge stance, as with his Bringing Knowledge Back In (2008). This recent work has repudiated his earlier relativist stance that the most powerful knowledge was simply the knowledge of the most powerful. This knowledge of the powerful and powerful knowledge binary has been the focus of recent sociology of knowledge approaches to school curriculum. For example, Muller, also a social realist, has observed that, “How to establish the reality of ‘powerful knowledge’ whilst acknowledging its social roots remains as much of a challenge as it was in Mannheim’s day” (2016, p. 103). Wyse and colleagues (2016a, p. 5) argue for a stance on knowledge with respect to curriculum that sees it as “both constructed and real”. Karl Mannheim, of course, was the great sociologist of knowledge who held a chair in education at the Institute of Education at The University of London after the Second World War; Basil Bernstein held the Karl Mannheim Chair of Sociology of Education at The Institute.

I would argue that the work of Young and a cognate group of theorists (e.g. Maton 2014; Muller 2016), including the Australian sociologist of education, Lyn Yates, have been one important intellectual backdrop to the renaissance of discipline-based curricula (Yates and Grumet 2011), as with the national or Australian curriculum, and also to the quite recent renaissance of curriculum studies as an intellectual field (see here Priestley and Biesta 2013; Wyse et al. 2016a, b). Long ago now, Raymond Williams (1976) spoke about a “selective tradition” with respect to dominant knowledge forms, and we might use this concept as Michael Apple did in his classic sociological study, Ideology and Curriculum (1979), to draw our sociological attention to the selection processes involved in the production of the formal or intended curriculum; here the Australian curriculum. Drawing on Williams, Michael Young in Knowledge and Control noted that “education is not a product like cars and bread, but a selection and organization from the available knowledge at a particular time which involves conscious or unconscious choices” (1971a, b, p. 24). A sociological approach to curriculum also insists that we locate both curriculum production and enactment in a particular time, or today we might say within a particular spatio-temporality, and the sociological allows us to do this. This is the intention of the Bernstein statement at the top of this lecture: “differences within and change in the organization, transmission and evaluation of educational knowledge should be a major area of sociological interest” (Bernstein, 1971, p. 47). It should be noted here then that Garth Boomer was writing about curriculum in Australia at a different sociological moment from that of the present.

Related, it has been suggested that the line in the poem Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson, “I am part of all that I have met”, was a great favorite of Garth Boomer’s. To me, this implies a relational ontology which is central to the sociological imagination and as such suggests the necessity of such an imagination for understanding curriculum today.1 Both the production and enactment of curriculum take place in particular sociological conditions. Curriculum at one level might also be seen as a product of the sociological imagination. Curriculum as well simultaneously expresses and constitutes specific spatio-temporalities, helping to create the national in the context of globalization, and also temporally linking the past through the present with an imagined and desired future. Together with my comments to this point, I hope, this provides a justification for my delivering the Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture and for taking a sociological approach to curriculum.

In what follows, I will contextualize the emergence of the Australian curriculum, politically and against the impacts of globalization. This sociological account will argue that the national curriculum is both a response to and articulation of globalization, set against the intricate political complexities and mediations of Australian educational federalism. The analysis will demonstrate how this emergence had a long and slow gestation and was enabled by the political contingency in 2007 of all Labor governments at federal, state and territory levels. The argument will situate the national curriculum against the broader national schooling policy assemblage (NAPLAN, My School, Melbourne Declaration, AITSL, teacher and school leader standards) and interrogate it in terms of the limitations imposed by this contingent framing. I will suggest that the Australian curriculum with its three components, learning areas, General Capabilities and Cross-Curriculum Priorities, works together what knowledge students need to know (disciplines) and what sort of people they ought to become (cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities). The core sociological argument regarding the national curriculum as a manifestation of the new spatialities associated with globalization will then be articulated, before I move to normative considerations of where to for the national curriculum. My argument will be that the conditions of production of this curriculum, along with the broader national policy assemblage, possibly limit where future developments might go.

The political context of the national/Australian curriculum

From the mid-1970s in Australia there were various attempts to create a national curriculum for schools (Harris-Hart 2010; Reid 2005), which were always mediated by the political complexities of educational federalism. There was a particularly focused attempt by federal Hawke-Keating Labor governments (1983-1996), set against the backdrop of a strong human capital reframing of schooling policy in the context of globalization post the end of the Cold War. Here schools and curriculum were seen as an essential component part of the development of the quality and quantity of national human capital necessary for enhancing ultimately national economic productivity and the competitiveness of the putative national economy in the global one. This was expressed most clearly at the time in the policy document, Strengthening Australia’s Schools: A Consideration of the Form and Content of Schooling (Dawkins 1988; also see Lingard et al. 1993). Strengthening schools was seen as central to strengthening the economy in a global economic context. This human capital frame has been an ongoing rationale for the national curriculum and other national schooling policies since that time.

Given the intricacies of education federalism and the politics thereof, the Hawke-Keating push for a national curriculum resulted in the creation of the National Curriculum Statements and Profiles, an almost lowest common denominator expression of national curriculum, an outcome mediated by the politics of Australian educational federalism. Garth Boomer was involved in the development of these Statements and Profiles. He also expressed some concerns at the linking of curriculum reform to economic restructuring of the nation, as well as articulating some consternation about the curriculum debate at that time being dominated by politicians, business and union leaders and educational bureaucrats to the exclusion of the teaching profession and education academics and curriculum theorists.

Moves towards a national curriculum bubbled along in a more minimalist way during the Howard government (1996-2007), set against globalization and a traditionalist view of Australian nationalism and history, and traditionalist view of school knowledge and assessment practices. The Howard government, for example, established a National Inquiry into the Teaching of History, held a National History summit in 2006 and at the time of its electoral defeat had just released a guide to the teaching of history in years 9 and 10, which were to be compulsory subjects for all students (Harris-Hart 2010; Reid 2005). We might see this as an attempt to create one account of the nation’s historical past and implicitly a possible future.

The political aspiration for a national curriculum became a reality following the election of the Rudd federal Labor government in 2007 and was an election promise as part of Rudd’s so-called Education Revolution. Various factors enabled this to happen, despite schooling being the Constitutional responsibility of states and territories. Central amongst them politically was the fact that when Rudd Labor won the 2007 federal election, all state and territory governments at that political moment were Labor governments. This political alignment allowed the achievement of the “national” or now more often “Australian” curriculum. “National”’ in Australian educational federalism most often signifies an agreement reached by all education ministers in the nation achieved at the Education Ministerial Council, which in turn is responsible to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia, which approved the move to a national curriculum during the period of Labor political hegemony.

Rudd’s Education Revolution followed in the wake of earlier Hawke-Keating governments’ development of national policies for schooling for better human capital development. This was a distinct change in policy orientation from the approach of the previous Labor government of Whitlam (1972-1975), which had systematized federal government involvement in schooling at the high point of post-War welfare state Keynesian in Australia. Whitlam’s focus was equitable, needs-based funding and a social policy approach to schooling, emphasizing equality of opportunity. The Hawke-Keating and Rudd-Gillard Labor governments retained an equity focus in schooling, but one subordinated to a human capital stance, and reconstituted through data on school performance and unattached from theoretical considerations of what social justice in schooling might be (Lingard et al. 2014). The Rudd-Gillard governments pursued a similar policy regime to those of Hawke-Keating, but the political situation enabled the creation of a stronger approach to national policies, evidenced with the achievement for the first time of a national curriculum and national testing.

To develop and manage the national curriculum and national testing, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) was created. So, what is new in Australian education federalism is the existence of an ongoing agency, ACARA, which is responsible for the Australian curriculum and national testing. This appears to have been institutionalized with support from Coalition governments subsequent to Labor’s electoral defeat in 2013. However, Brennan (2011) is a little more skeptical of the potential longevity of ACARA and the national curriculum, pointing out the reality that both are “owned by education ministers” without strong connections to professional networks, and also citing the number of national bodies that have had short lives. The point about the detachment of ACARA and its work from the teaching profession is one I will return to. Coalition government support for the national curriculum and national testing, along with the ongoing existence of ACARA, can also be seen in the light of a policy response to the impact of contemporary globalization. Yet it should be noted that the Abbott government established a review of the national curriculum and of ACARA in 2014 (Australian Government 2014) that have resulted in changes to both. Nonetheless, I would argue that both sides of politics now accept the necessity of a national agenda in schooling, including a national curriculum, given the centrality, even hegemony of a human capital policy frame in the context of globalization, which is not to say there have not been ideological differences about the orientation of the curriculum. Both also appear to accept the need for a national body to oversee the national curriculum and national testing. Party political divides over the curriculum now seem to be more ideological, that is, over the content of the curriculum, history for example.

We currently have a national curriculum for years F-10 with developments underway in respect of senior curriculum, but limited to some extent by different state-based approaches to end of secondary assessments. State-based curriculum authorities still remain in place (e.g., New South Wales Standards Authority, Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority), though, with the capacity to mediate national curriculum and with closer relationships with teachers than ACARA. Savage (2016) has argued that the rescaling of curriculum to the national level has resulted in a new “ecology” of curriculum policy in Australia evident in new “inter-agency” collaborations between some state curriculum authorities and ACARA. We see here what Boomer might have described as inter-agency curriculum negotiation. Nonetheless, for the first time in Australia’s schooling history, there is a national curriculum, albeit one that is probably enacted in different ways in different systems and schools; mediations from the intended to the enacted curriculum. It is now more usual to speak of the “Australian curriculum”, which is probably indicative that it is here to stay, with “national” more indicative of its negotiated achievement within Australian educational federalism.

The broader global context of the national/Australian curriculum

While there were clearly political contingencies that enabled the creation of the national curriculum, there is a broader context for the emergence of it, and indeed the stronger federal presence in schooling, as manifested in the policy assemblage of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians agreed to in 2008 by the Ministerial Council in Education, national testing (NAPLAN), a range of national partnerships and policies on literacy and disadvantage (during the Rudd-Gillard governments), national funding approaches and national standards for teachers and school leaders. I will focus in this section on this broader context of globalization, given its significance as backdrop to and justification for the national curriculum in Australia, which is a central element of the broader national policy assemblage.2 Here acknowledging the salience of Bernstein’s observation in the quote at the top of the paper, the political achievement of creating a national curriculum, given the complexities of Australian educational federalism (Lingard 2000; Savage 2016), must be contextualized and sociologically scrutinized. In the relevant documentation as will be shown, we also see the ways in which policy—here, national curriculum—constructs its context and the problems to which it proffers a putative solution in discursive ways (Bacchi 2009). This is an important aspect of the discursive work of all policy.

I will argue the national curriculum and related national policy assemblage are also expressions of globalization read in a performative way (Bourdieu 2003), that is, as neo-liberal globalization of the economy. Education policy thus becomes a central arm of national economic policy, given the strengthening of the “free trade” global economy and the weakening of national sovereignty over the putative national economy. Now, more recently there have been backlashes against this neo-liberal globalization manifest in various ways across the globe and also in Australia.3 In that political context, the seeking of a new post-neoliberal political framework constitutes the backdrop to how we need to think about the national curriculum today. Nonetheless, in this globalizing neoliberal context, there is a political rationale for more centralist Labor governments to establish a national approach to schooling as an element of national economic policy and an ongoing global context and institutional framework that have ensured subsequent support by Coalition federal governments for a national agenda in schooling.

In the context of globalization, Appadurai (2006) has suggested that loss of sovereignty over the national economy resulting from global flows of capital, free trade, the impact of powerful transnational corporations and the like has left “the cultural field” as the domain in which nations attempt to assert sovereignty. Specifically, he observes, “The nation-state has been steadily reduced to the fiction of its ethnos as the last cultural resource over which it may exercise full dominion” (p. 23). The central sociological argument of this Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture, inter alia, is that the creation of the national curriculum in Australia from the election of the Rudd government in 2007, while dependent on particular political contingencies noted above, is in a sense an expression of the complex interplay between loss of economic sovereignty and reassertion of cultural sovereignty in a globalizing world. In respect of the former loss, education policy has been reconstructed as a central economic policy, namely the development of human capital, resulting in the economization of education policy (Rizvi and Lingard 2010). With respect to the latter assertion of cultural sovereignty, as Benedict Anderson (1991) argued, since their establishment, mass schooling systems have been about creating the “imagined community” which is the nation through universal literacy, and I would add universal numeracy. This remains even more pressingly so in the global present and is an important backdrop to the national curriculum. This attempt to control “ethnos” manifests in various ways, including in contemporary Australia in the contemptible treatment of refugees, the reconstitution of citizenship tests, the attempted strengthening of English language capacities as a criterion for migration and the like.

I am arguing then that the Australian curriculum, amongst other things, is a policy response to globalization, but also as an expression of it. We need to acknowledge, however, that global factors always play out nationally and locally in respect of what comparative educators call path dependent factors, that is, local economy, history, politics, and culture. Expressed in different words, Appadurai (1996) speaks of the interplay of the global and the national resulting in vernacular globalization. For example, the national curriculum that emerged in England following Thatcher’s 1988 Education Reform Act reflects the history of schooling in England, as does the national curriculum developed in Australia (Rizvi and Lingard 2010, pp. 94-104). Both, though, were situated in the context of globalization. The path dependency of policy and curriculum responses to globalization is also very well illustrated by the curriculum move to the Common Core State Standards in the USA (see Savage and O’Connor 2015), another federal political structure, which were developed under the sponsorship of the state governors with generous financial support (and encouragement) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Hursh 2016), not by the federal government4, a global context, but another vernacular or path-dependent response.

The national policy assemblage and national curriculum: globalization as context and justification

Globalization as the context of and justification for national policies in Australian schooling, including the national curriculum, has been articulated from the time of the National Curriculum Statements and Profiles achieved by the Hawke-Keating governments and was strongly argued in Strengthening Australia’s Schools (Lingard et al. 1993). This is not to say that this has been the only justification. Reid (2005) in his historical account of incremental moves towards a national curriculum suggests three rationales have been proffered for this move. The first argument has been one to do with family and student mobility across state borders demanding more curriculum consistency across states. The second argument has been to do with efficiencies and better garnering of resources. The final argument has been one to do with national social cohesion, creating Australian citizens and ensuring a cohesive Australia. Regarding the latter, Garth Boomer talked of the necessary “Australianess” of the curriculum. This latter rationale might be seen as an adjunct to Appadurai’s (2006) argument about cultural sovereignty and Anderson’s (1991) about schooling creating the imagined community that is the nation. These latter two rationales outlined by Reid might also be seen to have a global context to them. The point to note there, though, in terms of my argument, is that there is not a strong intellectual and educational rationale for the national curriculum. ACARA’s The Shape of the Australian Curriculum 4.0 (ACARA 2013) very clearly situates the rationale for the national curriculum in the Melbourne Declaration (2008).

It has been noted to this point that a national schooling policy assemblage was created during the Rudd-Gillard era with the national curriculum a central element of this assemblage and ACARA a central agency for overseeing important elements of it (see Savage and Lewis 2017). Thus, we must see the national curriculum sitting synergistically with a set of other national policies. In December, 2008, the Ministerial Council in Education endorsed the Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians, which was developed out of earlier such statements, Hobart in 1989 and Adelaide in 1999. The Melbourne Declaration provided a justification for the development of a national curriculum. It also articulated a very strong account of globalization as the context of its own statement and for a national curriculum, and also as a justification for both, as globalization and the changing economy have placed new pressures upon nations. The Declaration opens in this way:

In the 21st century Australia’s capacity to provide a high quality of life for all will depend on the ability to compete in the global economy on knowledge and innovation. Education equips young people with the knowledge, skills and values to take advantage of opportunity and to face the challenges of this era with confidence. (MCEETYA 2008, p. 4)

Here we see a human capital framing of schooling and its goals set against the demands of Australia being able to compete in the global economy.
The Declaration also opens with an account of what has changed since the two earlier statements of goals for Australian schools. Again it is globalization and global changes that are stressed. The first of these observations notes:

Global integration and international mobility have increased rapidly in the last decade. As a consequence, new and exciting opportunities for Australians are emerging. This heightens the need to nurture an appreciation of and respect for special, cultural and religious diversity, and a sense of global citizenship. (p. 4)

We see here talk of global integration and reference to the flows of migrants and resultant greater diversity, and at the same time a need for a focus on global citizenship. We see here Appadurai’s point about the nation-state seeking to control national ethnos, here through the national curriculum. These are global factors as backdrop to the Declaration and the national curriculum.

Another significant change from earlier times articulated in the Declaration is the growing influence of “India, China and other Asian nations” and the need for “Asia Literacy” (p. 4) amongst Australians. There is also an exhortation for more students to complete schooling and attend university. Both have globalization as context and specifically in respect of Asia Literacy have Australia’s geopolitical positioning in Asia and the so-called Asian century as a regional context.

“World-class” is a somewhat anodyne descriptor used throughout the Declaration (perhaps an empty signifier), as an aspiration regarding the national curriculum and Australian schooling systems’ comparative performance on international large scale assessments such as the OECD’s PISA. The acknowledgement of the latter is also indicative of what has been described as an emergent “global education policy field” (Lingard and Rawolle 2011), which compares the performance of “national schooling systems” in terms of the national performance of 15-year-olds on the PISA measures of literacy and scientific and mathematical literacies, through the constitution of the globe as a commensurate space of measurement. The emergence of such a global field will be discussed briefly in the next section of this paper as part of consideration of the new spatialities associated with globalization (Amin 2002), one manifestation of which has been the rescaling of curriculum and other schooling policies in Australia (Savage 2016). The global field tends to elicit talk of national school systems as well, even in respect of federal political arrangements such as Australia’s, where the states and territories manage their school systems. The usage of “world-class” throughout the Declaration is also a signifier of the global context of the goals and of the national curriculum and also of a global education race.

The Melbourne Declaration asserts two agreed to goals for Australia’s schools: “1. Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence; 2. All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens” (MCEETYA 2008, p. 7). The first of these is about enhancing the skills of Australia’s workforce in an equitable manner, while the second outlines a set of dispositions thought necessary to ensure the Australian economy is competitive globally and that the nation is socially cohesive. In addition to the implied national citizenship, there is also as noted above, the necessity of global citizenship; “Active and informed citizens are responsible global and local citizens” (p. 9). What is interesting here is that the second goal is an example of policy borrowing—the exact words, in fact—from the Scottish curriculum response to globalization, A Curriculum for Excellence (see Priestley and Biesta 2013); perhaps another indicator of the emergent global education policy field.

The Declaration included a section entitled, A Commitment to Action, which outlines how the goals agreed to will be achieved. This covers eight areas. There is, inter alia, the agreement that all the states, territories, along with the federal government, will promote “world-class curriculum and assessment (in) the national curriculum and curriculum specified at the State, Territory and local levels” (p. 13).

The Melbourne Declaration achieved during the first Rudd government then provided a rationale for the development of the national curriculum with the concept of globalization as both context and justification. We also see in the work of the Declaration, and of talk around the national curriculum, the policy construction of context and the problems to which the national curriculum is one solution (Bacchi 2009): centrally the need for more and better quality human capital in the face of the demands and competitiveness of the global economy and the political desire to control the national ethnos.

Curriculum content and globalization

The Melbourne Declaration argues the necessity of a “world-class curriculum”, with “world-class” here an empty signifier, implicitly locating Australian schooling and the subsequent national curriculum in a competitive global context. Further, this national curriculum, as has been argued throughout, must also be seen against the other elements of the national schooling policy assemblage, which is at one level also an effect of globalization.

One might see contemporary moves in curriculum development around the world focusing on either the knowledge that ought to constitute the curriculum or consideration of what kind of individuals a nation or system wants to produce from school. We can encapsulate this binary of curriculum orientations as what knowledge students ought to learn and know or what sort of people they ought to become (Lingard and McGregor 2014; Yates and Grumet 2011). This is an expression of what are seen to be the goals of schooling. The Australian curriculum with its strong disciplinary focus and its emphasis on General Capabilities and Cross-curriculum Priorities actually seeks to conjoin these two orientations. Both have a particular reading of globalization as their context. The disciplinary focus is deemed necessary to ensure high quality human capital and ultimately a competitive economy, while the “who young people ought to become” focus is predicated on the desired and imagined future Australian (and global) citizens and workers, but also very much framed by what are perceived to the be the necessary dispositions for success in a connected and globalizing world and economy. The General Capabilities are identified as essential skills for “students to live and work successfully in the twenty-first century”, and this century is one on which the global must be negotiated. The Cross-Curriculum Priorities” are described as “the skills, knowledge and understanding that will enable them to engage effectively with and prosper in a globalized world” (Australian Curriculum 2013). Again we see the global context of the content of the national curriculum. I would also note that the national is constituted through this three dimensional approach to the national curriculum.

Globalization, new spatialities and the national curriculum

In the context of globalization and its related flows and processes, the work of nation-states has been reconstituted. Appadurai (1996) has argued that in the context of the multiple flows of globalization (finance, capital, people, ideas, images) and with the greater diversity of national populations, the hyphen between nation and state has become somewhat attenuated and each has become the project of the other. The national curriculum is important here in respect of cultural sovereignty in a global context, as suggested earlier. Nation-states remain important, then, but now work in different post-Westphalian ways.

In that context, there is a literature that speaks of the new spatialities associated with globalization (Amin 2002). These new spatialities have witnessed moves in most Global North nations towards more standardization and consistency across schooling systems within nations in both unitary and federal forms of government. In the Australian federal context this has played out in vernacular, path dependent ways. The rise of the national schooling policy assemblage under Rudd-Gillard governments and the creation of a national curriculum and its institutionalization must be seen in this context as well. This might be seen to result from centripetal pressures in schooling policy in the global context.

These new spatialities have been theorized in a number of ways, two of the most significant have been the rescaling argument (Brenner 2004) and the topological approach (Amin 2002; Lury et al. 2012). The argument about rescaling of the nation-state works with a nested spatial construction of scales of governance, a bit like Russian dolls. Brenner in this respect speaks of the rescaling of the nation-state to pick up on the ways in which regional and global agreements and the agendas of international organizations now work as new scales of governance, in our case in schooling. Rescaling in the context of globalization has also seen simultaneous centripetal and centrifugal pressures within nations, with the former pressures requiring and emphasizing the national and the latter often manifest in moves to more school autonomy. What we have with the national curriculum is an effect of those rescaled relations in educational governance; the same is the case with AITSL and teacher and school leader standards (Savage and Lingard 2018). In this way, national testing in Australia achieved at the time of the national curriculum can be seen to be a complement to international large scale testing, which functions in an emergent fashion as a mode of global educational governance (Lingard et al. 2016). So, it is centripetal pressures within the nation, along with rescaling, that have been contributing factors in the creation of the national policy assemblage in schooling and specifically the national curriculum. In this respect, Savage (2016) speaks specifically about the national curriculum in Australia as a rescaling of curriculum, set against rescaled global pressures for a national approach to schooling and more national consistency. Savage and I have argued similarly with respect to AITSL and teacher and school standards and teacher education (Savage and Lingard 2018).

A second way of considering the new spatialities of globalization has been through topological theory (Amin 2002: Lury et al. 2012). The emphasis here is more on relations than fixed locations, given the ways in which new technologies help to some extent overcome distance and the place/space distinction and enable “near-far relations”. Amin (2002, p. 386) suggests these new topological spaces are “marked by overlapping near-far relations and organizational connections that are not reducible to scalar spaces”. Data, numbers, statistics and metrics have been central to these new topological spaces, along with enhanced computational capacities. Here such numbers and related power relations function globally across nations and within nations to constitute new kinds of relational spaces and have helped constitute the “national” in Australian schooling. They help constitute both a global education policy field and national schooling system despite Australia’s federal political structure.

As an example, new topological spaces in Australian schooling have been created through comparative measures of “statistically similar” schools’ performance on NAPLAN, the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy. Each school’s performance is compared with 60 other “like schools” as determined by an Index of Socio-economic Advantage (ICSEA), so that “valid” comparative performance measures can be made. This involves technical, statistical work to rightly acknowledge the correlations that exit between socio-economic background and school performance. In a sense, the similar school measure purports to control for school context to allow fair comparisons of schools’ performance on NAPLAN. The statistically similar schools are spread across the nation, not located simply within the state jurisdictions that manage schools. So, for example, a school in southwestern Sydney might be compared with schools in rural Queensland, in Launceston, outer Melbourne, remote Northern Territory, on the urban edge of Perth, in the northern suburbs of Adelaide and in the corridor south of Brisbane. Such comparisons are about relations rather than locations and in some ways the like school measure assumes schools situated in very different geographical places actually have the same context, that is, they constitute what Lingard et al. (2014) refer to as “non-local locals”. These topological measures of comparative performance also help constitute a “national” system of schooling as a complement to the work of the national curriculum; a school’s performance is compared with schools across the nation, not simply with those in the same state or territory school system.5

International large scale tests such as the OECD’s PISA also construct topological spaces and encourage talk of a national system of schooling, despite the reality of states and territories running their school systems.6 Thus, most of the talk about PISA performance is about Australia’s performance. All the political talk and media coverage is about the performance of Australian schooling, despite Australia oversampling so that the performance of state and territory systems can be compared. Again, we see here a discursive and numeric constituting of a national system of schooling in Australia, complementing national curriculum and the other policies of the national schooling policy assemblage, and reflecting the new spatialities associated with globalization—here in relation to the global education policy field (see Thompson et al. 2016, pp. 213-216).

Where to for the national curriculum?

I will now change register and move to a more normative stance in terms of the national curriculum and the related national schooling policy assemblage. My critique here will be situated against what has been said to date, namely that the national curriculum reflects at one level its conditions of production within the complexities of Australian educational federalism. It is also both an expression of and response to globalization in the various ways that have been suggested to date and is at the same time a manifestation of the new spatialities that flow from globalization and that work through data metrics and new modes of educational governance at global and national levels through comparison of performance on tests (e.g., NAPLAN and PISA) (Lingard et al. 2016). The result has been the lack of a strong intellectual and educational rationale for the national curriculum; its rationale has been explicitly situated within the Melbourne Declaration, as is clear from ACARA’s The Shape of the Australian Curriculum 4.0. I think the development of such an overall rationale is a necessary step at this moment, while there is also a need to conduct research on the way the Australian curriculum is being enacted in different schools systems and schools across the nation. The complexity of the conditions of production of the P-10 national curriculum also raises issues about how further and future developments in respect of it will be negotiated and what will happen with senior curriculum. This will become more pressing with the effluxion of time. What ought to be the nature of ACARA’s ongoing work in respect of the Australian curriculum?

The conditions of production of the national curriculum have also meant that there is not a strong enough ongoing connection between ACARA and its curriculum work and the teaching profession and teacher professional networks. This is a structural issue. Garth Boomer’s conception in his early work of a negotiated curriculum in classrooms between a professional teacher, their agency, and students, has to some extent been lost and I would argue to the detriment of the enactment of the national curriculum and Australian schooling. As suggested to this point, curriculum negotiation now is much more between politicians and bureaucrats and in interagency curriculum work in the interstices of Australian educational federalism. To be fair to ACARA, it needs to be acknowledged there is much more opportunity for such negotiated relationships and involvements between state curriculum authorities and teachers.

As Boomer argued, quality teachers, or more importantly quality teaching, along with considerable teacher professional autonomy or agency, are together central to quality curriculum practice and achieving quality outcomes for all students. I would stress, though, that I am not advocating a decontextualised policy focus on teacher quality alone as a panacea, as much contemporary education policy in Australia seems to do (Skourdoumbis 2013, 2014). Rather, I would stress the necessity of complementary policies around redistributive funding al la Gonski 2.0 and targeted policies for achieving more equitable outcomes from schooling,7 given the growth of inequality in Australia (Leigh 2013). Much better data usage in policy regarding equity is also an imperative.8 Today AITSL sets standards for teachers, school leaders and for teacher education programs. AITSL is another central component of the national schooling policy assemblage and is also a manifestation of the rescaling of teacher standards and teacher education to the national level and also of standardization of both (Savage and Lingard 2018). Distinct from ACARA, AITSL is a company owned by the federal minister, which in my view makes it very vulnerable politically and non-reflective of Australia’s federal political structure and indeed of education federalism. More pertinently here, there are no practising teachers on the Governing Board of AITSL, nor any representation of the teacher unions, which do important professional and industrial work. As a consequence, the work of AITSL is done to teachers, not with and by them, and is a strong expression of a state-controlled profession. In my view, this is anathema to what is actually required for the teaching profession in Australia and seriously inhibits teacher professionalism in respect of curriculum work. Given the governing structure of AITSL, we see both a democratic deficit and professional deficit in its work to the very real detriment of the teaching profession and the quality of Australian schooling (Savage and Lingard 2018). I think I am able to say that Garth Boomer would have supported my position here.

It was implied earlier that there is a very real danger of NAPLAN becoming the de facto curriculum in many schools around the nation for particular students at particular year levels. Given that 2018 will be the tenth anniversary of the introduction of NAPLAN, I think it is time for a review of what its sensus character has achieved to date, including a research-based analysis of its multiple impacts on schools, teachers and student learning. Teacher voices must be one central element of such a review. Much of the problem with NAPLAN relates to its usage by systems for top-down accountability purposes and the setting of targets, which distort potential positive uses. This is to the neglect of other potentially more productive policy usages, especially in respect of equity. The Melbourne Declaration, which provided a rationale for the national curriculum, is also 10 years old next year and needs to be reworked in the current, changed global and national political contexts and with the heavy involvement of the profession. Such a reworking might be linked to the creation of a stronger intellectual and academic rationale for the Australian curriculum. Furthermore, great care will be needed when NAPLAN moves on-line and utilizes the insights from computer-adaptive testing, with the possible personalization of teaching and learning to the neglect of what knowledge is of most worth and the broader purposes of schooling. Care will also be needed to ensure that on-line, computer-adaptive NAPLAN does not become de facto curriculum.9 There is also a danger, I think, of ACARA’s work becoming overly focused on the possibilities of such testing to the detriment of its curriculum work.

Many of these developments, especially standardization, datafication and rescaling to the national level, when carried out by the restructured and networked state, open up multiple and potentially lucrative opportunities for edu-businesses in respect of testing, data analytical work, data infrastructures, interoperability frameworks, teacher professional development, provision of curriculum and pedagogical materials. There is also evidence of the outsourcing to private providers of some aspects of the curriculum. We also need to think about where the International Baccalaureate fits in relation to questions of equity and the national curriculum and also in relation to globalization. ACARA is also doing international consultancy work around curriculum, in Brazil for example. Recent research I have done with colleagues suggests there is a lot of concern amongst teachers and school leaders across the nation about these commercial incursions into the work of systems and schools and the impacts upon their work (Lingard et al. 2017). They are perceived by many as a challenge to our taken for granted assumptions about the democratic character and social justice purposes of schooling.


This Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture has demonstrated how a number of political factors, actually political contingencies, enabled the achievement of the national curriculum after thirty or more years of failed attempts and incremental moves in that direction. The focus of the analysis, though, has been on the ways in which globalization has been constructed both as the context of the national curriculum and a justification for it. In a sense, the national curriculum with its two orientations might also be seen in some ways as an expression of globalization, as might the national schooling policy assemblage, but manifested in specifically Australian, path dependent ways. Furthermore, this lecture has sought to demonstrate how the new spatialities of globalization and the new geographies of governance, the rescaling of statehood, new topological spaces and the emergent global education policy field have also enabled the national curriculum and national policy assemblage in schooling created under Rudd –Gillard Labor governments, but now seemingly institutionalized.

In the global context, the national curriculum can also be seen as an outcome of the entanglements of loss of economic sovereignty and assertion of cultural sovereignty, which Appadurai (2006) has suggested are the central tropes of the politics of globalization today. Indeed, I would see the current, worrying global political context as witnessing the strengthening of the neo-liberal economic orientation complemented by a strengthening of a xenophobic ethno-nationalism: the global political context in which educators will have to reinvigorate the Australian curriculum.

The analysis proffered in this Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture has also confirmed Bernstein’s (1971) prescient insight that changes in curriculum are most often evidence of broader social changes. Specifically, the creation of the national curriculum confirms Bernstein’s sociological claim. In this case, the changes are those that have accompanied globalization, which in turn have evoked Australia’s rescaled political and policy responses in schooling, including the national curriculum.

Writing in 1991 (reproduced in Green 1999, p. 142), Garth Boomer observed, “We are entering an era in Australian education where there is unprecedented national interest in curriculum and teaching”. If that was the case in 1991, it is even more the case today. I have argued that the balance between curriculum prescription and teacher negotiation of the curriculum has moved in the direction of the former and not simply because of the emergence of the national curriculum, but more pertinently because of other elements of the contemporary policy assemblage and in particular the exclusion of teachers from policy processes, including at the meta-level in the standardization work of AITSL, which is done to rather than by and for teachers. In 1991, Boomer also noted:

As all systems move to consolidate, clarify and re-centralise curriculum framing, the danger is that Australia might lose the liveliness and innovativeness that comes from schools locally developing courses fitted to local needs. Somehow, systems must legitimate and support vibrant and dynamic approaches to curriculum in individual schools, while offering a secure and consistent framework across all schools. (Boomer, in Green 1999, p. 142)

In my view, the achievement of such an appropriate balance is a pressing issue in contemporary Australian schooling.

Additionally, Boomer (1984, in Green 1999) argued that Australian education systems encouraged “the conceptual separation of curriculum development and teacher development”. That separation is even more striking in contemporary Australian schooling, as I hope my argument has amply demonstrated, and to its detriment.

Boomer also wrote about the exclusion of academic voices from curriculum debates at the time of the National Statements and Profiles. That remains the case today. I thus thank ACSA for giving me this opportunity in the Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture to express an academic voice in relation to issues surrounding the national curriculum. I would like to end, though, on a positive note. Having outlined some of the issues, and stressed the necessity of more inclusion of teachers in policy processes, I would like to return to the closing lines of Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses, so beloved by Garth Boomer, and express a note of cautious optimism regarding the possibilities for curriculum and schooling in Australia now and into the future. I express this cautious optimism against the insight provided by Einstein that, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it”. To conclude with Tennyson then:

That which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


  1. 1.

    The sociological imagination argues for imbrications between social structures through time and individual practices of agency. This is a relational ontology. Bourdieu’s theoretical and empirical work is a very good example of such a relational ontology.

  2. 2.

    This is also evident if one reads the ACARA document, The Shape of the Australian Curriculum 4.0 (ACARA 2013).

  3. 3.

    Think, for example, of President Trump’s “America first”, and his assertion of an almost xenophobic ethno-nationalism.

  4. 4.

    Of course, the emergence of the Common Core State Standards was used by the federal Obama administration in relation to its Race to the Top policy agenda that linked mandatory testing to the Standards and to federal funding.

  5. 5.

    I would also argue that for valid comparisons of state and territory performance on NAPLAN and PISA that similar statistical work is required to take account of the reality that each of the states and territories is a different demographic and socio-economic entity. Additionally, international large scale assessments also work as technologies to construct talk of a national schooling system in Australia. Think here, for example of Australia’s PISA performance.

  6. 6.

    This is even more the case for the OECD’s PISA Tests for Schools, where individual schools sit for PISA and their performance is compared with other schools and other national systems (see Lewis et al.2015 and Lingard and Lewis 2017).

  7. 7.

    The success of Gonski 2.0 will depend on targeted strategies for improvement with a very specific social justice and equity focus. The question is how best to spend the extra funding for greatest impact.

  8. 8.

    See Baroutsis and Lingard (2017) on how policy usage of PISA data neglects the equity implications of the data. Much more effective policy use could also be made of NAPLAN data re equity.

  9. 9.

    There are also potential dangers of the enhanced commercialisation of Australian schooling with these developments. See here Lingard et al.,- 2017.



I thank Fazal Rizvi for his very helpful comments on an earlier version of this Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture.


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Copyright information

© Australian Curriculum Studies Association 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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