'Difficult to know' who is steering ACARA curriculum

By David Donaldson

May 6, 2015

The changing state-federal dynamic in curriculum policy development has made it “increasingly difficult to know who is actually steering the ship of Australian schooling”, says academic Dr Glenn Savage.

Savage, a lecturer in education policy in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, told an event on federalism in education policy at the school last week that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority had been created at a time when the federal government was intervening more heavily in education, and that it had “assumed an unprecedented and powerful role” in a very short space of time.

The curriculum agency is altering relationships among the states and between the states and the Commonwealth, driving “new forms of collaboration” through both formal and informal “offshoots around ACARA” between states and territories, he said. State policymakers interviewed by Savage “suggested ACARA was driving the creation of a kind of new language about curriculum in the country and it was bringing some consistency after decades of uncertainty.

“ACARA appears to be bringing states closer together, with agencies now communicating and collaborating in ways that would have seemed unimaginable just a decade ago.”

Despite this, he argued, “ACARA was definitely not seen in wholly positive terms” and that views were “highly mixed” on the impact of ACARA’s ascendancy.

Savage said there “is a sense among some state policymakers that there are problematic levels of policy overlap emerging across state, federal and national levels. This appears to be generating some confusion over the powers and responsibilities of Australian governments in education.

“One state policymaker said, for example, it’s hard to know who’s in charge these days, or even how national policies are getting made.

“Some others saw national processes as blurring the lines of power and accountability, and also undermining the capacities of states to govern autonomously and formulate effective policies. One policymaker said, for example, this new landscape is raising questions such as ‘who is responsible for what? What authority does ACARA have and what are its limits?’ This policymaker said that even having to ask these questions was a problematic reflection of the state of Australian schooling.”

Some saw ACARA as doing the work traditionally done by states, “which they thought was creating uncertainty over the future of their agencies”. ACARA was also “creating confusion” by communicating directly with schools and teachers and, some thought, undermining state agencies in the process.

The curriculum body also suffered from a problem not of its own making, but which threatened to wreck many federal initiatives: that the big states inevitably dominate proceedings. While policymakers from WA complained that the eastern states enjoyed too much influence, Savage said at least one NSW bureaucrat complained NSW deserved more influence than it already had, owing to its larger education system.

In addition, “all states said they felt ACARA was also dominating the states in some ways when it came to the direction of reform. Some felt that ACARA came to the negotiating table with a fixed position, and was less interested in negotiation than it was in arguing for this fixed position,” said Savage.

This, he thought, “suggests that ACARA’s role might be beginning to extend into new territory beyond its initial brief as a mediator of governments and into a new space where it’s developing its own institutional culture, its own positions, and its own norms.”

Savage concluded by questioning what these changes meant for the states:

“I was interested to read something by [former federal treasurer Peter] Costello from maybe nine years ago where he asked the question, are states being repositioned more as implementers or service deliverers, working more as partners to federal and national objectives?

“I think that’s a question that’s clearly worth asking with regards to curriculum. If this is true, then I think this portends a radical reimagining of Australian federalism, and in some ways could mark the beginning of the end for state agencies when it comes to policy development.

“Not a message they like to hear, but one they are happy to engage in and can see on the horizon.”

Bronwyn Pike: ACARA problems began from day one

Former Victorian education minister Bronwyn Pike spoke after Savage and University of Queensland Professor Bob Lingard, agreeing with many of the issues raised by Savage.

Referring to the meetings that led to the creation of ACARA, Pike stated:

“It’d be good to be able to say this was a hot bed of creative ideas, everybody debating the really important issues of the day. I’m afraid I might have to shatter that perception.

“What happens in those kind of ministerial councils really reflects some of the broad challenges both Bob and Glenn have been talking about. From my perspective as a minister who was part of the formation of ACARA, the problems began from absolutely day one.

“My view is that right from the beginning the Commonwealth owned ACARA, the Commonwealth saw it as their thing. They made all the announcements, all the appointments, they grabbed hold of all the initiatives and their role was to try and bring the states to heel.

“The very legislation that established ACARA of course was Commonwealth legislation, it wasn’t model legislation which was then adopted at a state level as well. I’m not sure ACARA was comfortable with that, I have to say. That was the genesis and of course things have moved on and changed.

“It really does highlight the challenges that both of you have raised — who’s seizing the initiative? Who’s making the decisions? Are those initiatives the right initiatives for the level of government that’s seizing them?

“In the end the big question is, is all of this going to improve the quality of education for people in our community? That’s the underlying question. We can have all sorts of conversations about who does what and the structures but ultimately we want to see an improvement and the general community have to know we are constantly striving for improvement.”

Pike went on to discuss the difficulty for politicians in promoting improvements to teacher quality, describing the experience as being “like walking on a bed of nails.”

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