NSW Curriculum overhaul presents 'serious risks' – experts

NSW Curriculum overhaul presents

In June last year, the NSW Government announced the biggest overhaul to the state’s Curriculum in 30 years, which will see new syllabuses dramatically stripped down “to focus on what is essential in each subject” and a greater focus put on literacy and numeracy in the state’s classrooms.

The sweeping changes taking place this year will see all year levels learning the new curriculum by 2024, starting with English and maths for Kindergarten to Year 2 by 2022.

While the review has been widely welcomed, some experts say the risks associated with the changes outweigh the benefits.

The warnings also come as a landmark report described the NSW school system as being “in a state of crisis”, highlighting a raft of ongoing problems plaguing the state’s principals, teachers and students.

While the NSW Government says its review is aimed at fixing the system, some education experts caution it could do more harm than good.

‘Not based on evidence’

Rachel Wilson, Associate Professor in Education at the University of Sydney, says that while some of the research on differentiated approaches to learning relates to streaming of students into groups and classes, none directly relate to untimed syllabuses.

“This research suggests small positive effects in some areas of learning. However, the evidence is not particularly strong, and in some studies the streaming occurs alongside other educational reforms which may be responsible for the effects,” Assoc/Prof Wilson told The Educator.

“Furthermore, there is also evidence suggesting that low attaining students suffer negative effects from streaming”.

Assoc/Prof Wilson said an important factor to highlight here is the lack of research looking at the social and emotional outcomes of differentiated learning.

“We don’t know much about how streaming impacts on this, and we know nothing about how an untimed syllabus would Impact on students social and emotional outcomes,” she said.

“The curriculum review suggested that ‘teachers require flexibility to respond to children’s widely varying levels of development and learning needs’. But this point is not established in data or reporting from teachers”.

In a large survey involving more than 18,000 teachers in NSW, Assoc/Prof Wilson and her team found that they were looking for more time to spend collaborating with each other and retaining their focus on knowing, understanding and working with their students.  

“We also found that teachers already spend a lot of time planning and delivering differentiated instruction for their students,” she said.

“However, they were finding the focus on meeting student needs increasingly difficult given a range of new heavy administrative activities that they had to undertake”.

Assoc/Prof Wilson said the voice of teachers is clear that they want time to teach.

“They do not appear to be calling for untimed syllabuses,” she said.

“Given that these also present serious risks for student outcomes it is difficult to understand where this recommendation has come from – it certainly isn’t based on research evidence”.

‘Review does not address broader challenges’

According to Dr David Roy, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle, the review “is just more of the same basic structure, with some key vital areas ignored”.

“How systems will implement this ‘tinkering’ is one question; as are the implications for teacher workload and support,” Dr Roy told The Educator.

“Fundamentally, this Curriculum Review does not address the wider challenges in the education system, with Closing the Gap, the marginalisation and segregation of specific learning groups, such as children with a disability, and the ongoing poor outcomes for many disadvantaged communities”.

Dr Roy said the largest concern is “whether the new curriculum will create better educated students or more just more limited thinkers”.

“Fluttering with the curriculum will not solve our declining results”.