Core Curriculum/National Curriculum—Why?

Like the Taj Mahal, I had heard about it long before I saw it. But I was still impressed.

We had travelled several hundred kilometres to see it. And in the empty immensity of a desert amidst a sprinkling of sheds and huts, there it stood.

Proudly. Years in the making.

Its walls, like something from the book of Revelation speckled with colours, encrusted with countless pieces of metal.

Bright red with old Coke cans. Rusty-pocketed with pieces of broken brake drum or the blade of a plough. Bottle tops and blue flashes from shards of metal. And gilded tastefully with bits of copper. Each item placed carefully in relation to another.

Smoothed, embedded and tantalising, this African village hut crafted from mud and cow dung with its metal sparkle had become the talking point of the district. An amazing effort, hundreds of hours of loving labour, the toast of the community. Something original, something different in a destitute area. A home truly to behold.

The drought ended in dramatic fashion.

No rain for seven years. But over several days, it became oppressive. High temperatures. High humidity. And then thick, billowing clouds, with relentless and magnificent dignity, storming the horizon.

The early evening was startling. The stratus clouds pressed in on us—pulsating, a rage of electrical charges.

It was my first encounter with a fireball. A strike of lightning not as a dart or sizzling sheet or jagged line, but as a ball moving like a meteorite.

The horizon lit up with its impact. I knew what it had hit. Only one thing in the area would yield such an explosion of light and colour. And only one thing could be so attractive.

All that remained the following day was the hut’s charred ruins. The compound was never rebuilt.

Time, planning, effort and resources had gone into building the ‘mud and metal marvel’. A very big risk in a desert plain subject to electrical storms.

But putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket has always been a bad idea.

It’s a big risk, too, for a country to commit its entire school age population to ‘national’ and/or ‘core’ curricula. It needs to be certain what it’s doing is right. Get it wrong and everyone is affected.

As a general rule of thumb, if a government chooses to go down the core curriculum path, it needs 1) to benchmark its planned curriculum against international peers, and be able to justify its curricular decisions to a range of stakeholders with regard to subject area and content.

Additionally, in nations where democratic participation is highly valued, it should be able 2) to point to a thorough consultation process with key stakeholders on national soil.

Taking into account of a wide range of interests, expertise and commitments not only increases the likelihood of generating a good curriculum, but also its adoption. When we have a degree of ownership in a project, we tend to care for it. We’ll see it through.

Additionally, like any major policy initiative, the introduction of a core curriculum should show 3) how it relates to what is already in place; 4) how it betters what is already in place; and 5) it’s achievability.

Do these things, and there might be grounds for action, but it’s still a risky business. Especially, when one is playing with a generation’s future.

Some countries have done it well. The standout example, and in many ways the outlier, is Singapore. Unlike other nations that out of national pride have insisted on establishing their own curricula, Singapore has been extremely clever in the way it has partnered with one of the most highly regarded curricular and examination systems in the world (Cambridge International Examinations—IGCSE, ‘O’ and ‘A’ level). It has developed something that serves the national interest and which is of the highest quality. In fact, Singapore’s expectations of student performance exceed that of most nations, particularly in maths and physics.

The drive for a national or core curriculum is now commonplace. And there is a very good argument for it. But before considering this, I wanted to highlight through analogy (building mud and metal huts), what I think constitutes its major risk. And I also wanted to highlight 5 prerequisites for good (education) policy.

In future I will talk about ‘outcome-based’ (performance-based/mastery) education and ‘standards’ (and child and parent anguish!); the tension between national and state control of core curricula; freedom of association/religion (and parent or community choice) and core curricula; the danger of cultural deflation in core curricula; funding and core curricula; and coherence across a core curriculum. Each topic is a big deal, and I will try to make one or two simple points to help us think about it, and if we so wish—to act.

In signing off, I want to make one more important observation. Most commentators hold (and have always held) education is concerned with who we are becoming and what skills we can master.

Put another way, if you were designing a curriculum for your children, at the back of your mind there would likely be two questions running: what sort of person do I want my child to become—what values do I want them to hold, what character would I like them to express?

And secondly, what things do I want them to be able to do—what skills do I want them have?

These are the ‘Who?’ and ‘What?” questions.

The first is principally a social question; the second relates more to preparation for future employment, and it raises important questions around a curriculum’s relevance. I love Latin, but learning a programming language might be more relevant to employment than erudition in a classical language.

The reason these questions are important?

Because they are the first questions any core curriculum should address: a country that designs, tests and adopts a core curriculum has to have a clear vision for the future and for its citizens. And a core curriculum should be an expression of it.

For countries with a federal system, a population that speaks a variety of languages, and that expresses many cultures, finding a common binding national story that everyone can agree on will be a tough challenge. Yet the amount of social conflict and tension around suggests it might be an important one.

Take away points: Core and national curricula (whatever we might think about them) are probably here to stay. They represent a high-risk strategy because they commit a generation to a particular educational vision. The vision encompasses the type of person (or citizen) a country wants a child to become, and the skills it should have in order to contribute to the wealth of the nation. A core curriculum that fails its citizens is obviously a disaster; maximal thought and care should accompany its design, implementation and review.

Research: For those interested in public policy an excellent introduction: Althaus, Catherine, Peter Bridgman and Glyn Davis. The Australian Policy Handbook. 5th ed. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2013:—

A report from the New Zealand Prime Minister’s chief science advisor on research, evidence and public policy:

A video link to a Pearson/OECD video on Singapore:

A link to a site with a country based analysis of high performing educations systems:

Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.1 (a particularly fine interpretation)


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