Tiptoeing towards a truly national curriculum

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
4 October, 2019

In his speech last week at the NZEI conference, Education Minister Hipkins reminded the audience of primary school teachers that he had scrapped national standards because he was listening, and because the standards were neither national nor standard.

It was catchy rhetoric that, if we follow his logic, has implications for our national curriculum, too.

New Zealand’s national curriculum is neither national nor a curriculum. Rather, it is localised and a framework. Beyond some high-level principles, values and objectives, it is teachers who decide what their students learn.

This makes schooling too much of a lottery. Depending on which school you attend, you may experience a coherent, well-designed, knowledge-rich curriculum, or a misguided, knowledge-lite alternative.

This discrepancy cultivates educational inequity because children from disadvantaged backgrounds rely entirely on their teachers to expose them to academic knowledge. Children from ‘pro-education’ homes may get at least some of it from museum visits, reading and dinner-table discussions. But for others, school is their only chance.

New Zealand needs a national curriculum that ensures all children encounter rich academic knowledge in school. Teachers can still have flexibility but within a minimum constraint.

In the past fortnight, two glimmers of hope have emerged in the maturation towards a true national curriculum. The Prime Minister announced that New Zealand history will be compulsory in all schools by 2022. This will necessitate a national curriculum review which, once completed, should leave the subject standing out like a sore thumb because it prescribes specific knowledge. Similar clarification of the basic knowledge all children should learn in subjects from science to art ought to logically follow.

The other muted but encouraging acknowledgement came in the report of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Curriculum Progress and Achievement. Released last week, it says:

Flexible curriculum frameworks require those implementing them to be clear about the learning outcomes that cannot be left to chance to avoid local decisions leading to inequitable learning opportunities. We need more clarity about the National Curriculum, local curricula, and how they relate to one another.

If ‘learning outcomes’ means knowledge (words can be slippery in education!), then once we are clear about what ‘cannot be left to chance’ our curriculum will be national and will be a curriculum too. Minister Hipkins can then think again about national standards and decide what he must do.

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