There have been humorous as well as shameful moments in a week during which there was the launch of the Rudd/Gillard draft national history curriculum.  The comedy came in Tuesday’s wonderful headline in the Northern Territory News, ‘Reading, Writing, Bombing’. The sub-editor who dreamed that one up has got to be a front-runner for a Walkley.

The shameful moments came when, uncertain how to tackle a curriculum that was being hyped as traditionalist — and while Tony Abbott was pictured crouched in earnest conversation with an Aboriginal elder — some Opposition MPs started to count mentions of Aborigines in the curriculum. Should there be a quota on references to Aborigines? Give me a break! How would I feel, I asked myself, if I were an indigenous Australian and yet again in the newspapers I read that my culture’s presence in the nation’s schools was unwelcome?

When both sides of Australian politics acknowledge, with sincerity and generosity, the value and contribution of our indigenous heritage, the country will have truly grown up. Until then, we wait, but not with bated breath.

There were other knee-jerk reactions, too. Gallipoli watchers were at work. Wilful misreaders were prominent. Conspiracy theorists abounded. SOSE educators, a vanishing breed, said the curriculum was too narrow. Conservative commentators, a stubborn sort, said, variously, it was too broad, too stodgy, too socialist and a bit too Asian. More generally though, the new history draft was well received. But it’s not the nature of  a published curriculum that is likely to be the real problem, it’s in the implementation that a curriculum stands or falls.

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And at the risk of sending Crikey readers into a catatonic trance, it’s important to point out that there are four stages of curriculum design and implementation.

First we have intended curriculum — the overt and covert aims of the instigators of curriculum change.  Then we have stated curriculum — what it says on the paperwork.  Next comes enacted curriculum — how it works at school level. Finally we have realised curriculum — what students have actually learned. For the purposes of this article, let’s leave intended, stated and realised aside and focus on the engine room — enacted curriculum.

To begin with, the variables in enactment are beyond the understanding of  us all. There are 3.5 million school students in Australia and almost a quarter of a million teachers working in 10,000 schools. Figure it out. From school to school, from classroom to classroom, from teacher to  teacher, from student to student, from lesson to lesson, and from day to day we have a huge and varied kaleidoscope of attitudes and actions, perspectives and understandings, kindnesses and cruelties, moments of inspiration and moments of combined incomprehension and boredom — as well as efficiencies and incompetencies, all kinds of activities can only be partly moderated by any curriculum, local or national.

And, in that immeasurable and constantly shifting kaleidoscope, there are two main ways of dealing with curriculum change.

In the first case, experienced and skillful teachers will look at the new requirements and say to themselves, “Within this new framework, how can I teach what I enjoy teaching and have been teaching successfully for years?”  And a process of highly localised modulation begins, which, if it works well, will meet the assessment requirements that ACARA proposes to introduce — and that level of autonomy is one of the joys of teaching.

The second case involves beginning teachers.  Their anxious question is “How can I successfully teach what it says in the paperwork?”  And, if they have been well prepared at university and if they are capable, they’ll probably find out how to do it and move into the skillful category of capability — if they are prepared well. And that’s where we need to pause for reflection and a bit of analysis because this is where it gets really tricky.

In Australian education faculties/departments/schools, too many of them theory-obsessed, there are only 16 secondary-level history classes with numbers more than 50.  The rest have numbers well below that figure. Of those 16, 10 are in NSW.  That means that the rest of the nation’s secondary schools will draw the majority of their new history teachers from a mere six decent-sized classes, a harmful legacy of the SOSE years.

In the national total, we are therefore talking about a mere thousand or so newly graduated teachers of history every year to service almost a million secondary school students.

This, in a national curriculum, where, outside NSW and Victoria, history is a new, core subject, and the arithmetic is obvious. We must have an army of newly-trained history teachers to service the national curriculum. But the arithmetic is depressingly simple: on current figures, we are not going to get that army if we have one additional new history teacher per year to teach a complex and challenging subject to one thousand secondary students. This, at a time when beginning teacher attrition rates in some states are hitting 25% after only one year’s service with almost 50% having left after five years service.

Combine these figures with an ageing/exiting teacher population and we get one of those old maths problems.  If the rate of entry of new history teachers coming into service is X and the rate of general teacher departure is Y, how long before we end up asking the caretaker to take Year 10 classes in the Russian Revolution?  And that is not a new question.

For the past 10 years, teacher union surveys have consistently shown that more than 50% of secondary teachers teach outside their area, which reminds me of an old US school joke — What do you call your new history teacher? (The answer is coach).

But it’s not just secondary schools that are a problem.

In primary schools throughout Australia, an emphasis on scheduling literacy and numeracy sessions has shoved history (and science) into the curricular margins, a situation not helped at all by some education faculty staff preparing their primary-level trainees by devoting themselves to slavishly catechising Gallic philosophers while others have been busily propagating generic social education, all at the expense of introducing primary teaching students to even the most basic understanding of history, a subject still despised by some 1980s retro educators.

The history national curriculum solution, in part, has got to lie therefore in a turnaround in the attitude of many education faculties.  A bit less Foucault (discredited scholar that he is) and a good deal more emphasis on the preparation of faculty trainees for careers as skilled, reflective and knowledgeable teachers of history.

That would be a good beginning. Now it’s up to the federal government to make it happen.

Tony Taylor teaches and researches at Monash University and is currently working as a consultant to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).