This is an extract from a keynote address — Where Next with the National Curriculum? — given this morning by Professor Stuart Macintryre to the History Teachers Association of Australia conference History in the Making.

The inclusion of History as one of the first four subjects to be developed by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority presents some unusual features.

English, mathematics and science are all enshrined as key learning areas in the various national statements on school education over the past two decades. All of them are taught, however adequately, across the years of schooling, and all of them are offered in the post-compulsory years.

The teaching of mathematics and science has been a subject of concern, partly for curricular reasons but more immediately because of the difficulty of recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. English enjoys the status of a compulsory subject, even if it has become a lightning-rod for anxieties fanned by the conservative alarmists — though I’m glad to say that Kevin Donnelly no longer occupies space in Rupert Murdoch’s national newspaper.

History attracts some of that attention, but it has a far more marginal status. It is offered in some schools but not others, during the compulsory years of schooling, where it is often subsumed into SOSE. The enrolments in Years 11 and 12 have declined to a very low point, except in New South Wales where alone it is compulsory in the middle secondary years.

History shares the problem of maths and science in that it is often undertaken by teachers without training in the discipline. But unlike those subjects, there is no shortage of qualified graduates ready to undertake pre-service training. The problem is rather that education faculties and schools give limited attention to history teaching, and that the hiring practices of educational systems place a low premium on expertise in history. It is commonly assumed that anyone can take a history class.

This is a problem of both demand and supply. The Commonwealth is responsible for teacher training, the states are the largest employer, and both are in a position to ensure that history teachers are trained and employed. Nothing in the Bradley review, incidentally, much less the minister’s response to it, suggests the dereliction of duty by the universities is likely to be arrested.

One of the immediate challenges of establishing a national history curriculum is thus that we start from a very low base. At present only a minority of students have the advantage of learning history with a qualified history teacher. If the subject is to be taken up and taught systematically and sequentially, there are serious implications both for in-service professional development [which I gather is now called learning development in Victoria] and for the pre-service preparation of teachers.

And the implications for the curriculum are also substantial. Since we start from a low base, we can assume little. As the curriculum is developed and implemented, it will clearly be necessary to pay substantial attention to the resources and support that will be needed.

Professor Macintyre has been the Ernest Scott Professor of History at the University of Melbourne since 1990, and was Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1999 to 2006. He is a former president of the Australian Historical Association and has served terms on the councils of the National Library of Australia and the State Library of Victoria. He is currently president of the Academy of the Social Sciences.