Curriculum and assessment in the Antipodes

| November 4, 2010

By Jane Hofmeyr

How often have I heard, “Outcomes-based education (OBE) has failed everywhere it has been tried – even Australia has abandoned it!”

Given this claim, I decided to explore curriculum and assessment issues on a recent study tour in Australia and New Zealand. The fascinating similarities and differences
in curriculum and assessment I discovered illuminate many of the issues that South Africa has struggled with on its curriculum journey, and those facing independent schools.

The curricula

As in South Africa, it became clear that when people in Australia and New Zealand talk about OBE, it can mean very different things – philosophy, curriculum design, intended versus implemented curriculum or type of assessment.

Let’s look at the similarities and differences:

  • National qualifications frameworks: As we do, both countries have these for registering and rendering comparable all unit standards/qualifications in education and training.
  • Learner-centred, outcomes-based approach: Not surprisingly, their school curricula are firmly underpinned by a learner-centred, outcomes-based approach, with specified outcomes or ‘standards’ in terms of knowledge, skills and values that pupils must achieve. Australians and New Zealanders use the term ‘standards’ rather than ‘outcomes’, although the terms are in fact ‘kissing cousins’.
  • Stage of curriculum development: The curriculum development stage of each country is very interesting from our point of view: while New Zealand has a broad framework curriculum like South Africa’s first post-apartheid one (Curriculum 2005), Australia is currently in the process of changing its original broad framework to a national curriculum that specifies the content and objectives fully, just as we are doing here. In the Australian federal system, education is primarily the responsibility of states and territories, each of which provides the funding for and regulates the public and private schools within its area. Thus, until the 2009 Labour federal government’s ‘education revolution’ that has introduced an Australian National Curriculum for the whole country, there was only an outcomes-based national curriculum framework that was a guide to the states in developing their own curricula, which often differed quite significantly. In describing the introduction of the national curriculum in 2009, the Education Minister said that the national curriculum will set out “the essential content for each year of learning as well as the achievement standards students should be expected to perform… This will not be a curriculum ‘guide’ or a supplement to what states and  territories currently teach,” she said, “it will be a comprehensive new curriculum…” By contrast, within a philosophy of standards-based assessment, the New Zealand curriculum comprises a set of broad national curriculum statements that define the learning principles and achievement objectives that all New Zealand state schools are required to follow. The statements are based on the premise that the individual student is the centre of all teaching and learning, and provide national direction while allowing for local discretion.
  • Process of curriculum change: The Australians designed a thorough four-stage process in developing their new curriculum: Curriculum Shaping, Curriculum Writing,
    Implementation, and Evaluation and Review, based on implementation findings. Even so, with significant public comment and revision built in, the process is taking longer than planned and will only be finalised for all grades in 2011. Similarly, South Africa’s current process is also taking longer than thought – but it is far better to do it properly than rush the revised curriculum.
  • Controversy: In Australia, there has been huge controversy about its school curriculum for many years. The criticisms and flaws in its OBE curriculum were uncannily like ours: the original national statements and profiles were problematic, and implementation at the state and territory level was less than successful. Dr Kevin Donnelly, a notable conservative Australian educationist, claims that, at the primary level, “the intended curriculum failed to give students the necessary foundation knowledge, understanding and skills”. He believes that “teachers need to be better supported and resourced with clear, concise and unambiguous road maps of what is to be taught”. In fact, in terms of Donnelly’s analysis, what the Australians are doing is shifting the original OBE curriculum to a standards approach
    that is more academic in focus, relates to specific year levels and contains concise, measurable curriculum descriptors based on academic disciplines. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Assessment and examinations

  • Accountability: Believe it or not, the idea of external assessment of schools was first mooted by the national teachers’ union for public education, the AEU! Influenced by the English system, the Australian Labour government has now introduced external assessment of schools with national literacy and numeracy tests at years 3, 5, 7 and 9. In the interests of greater transparency and accountability, it also developed a My School website so that parents and the community have access to information about their child’s school, including national testing results and school attainment rates, indicators relevant to the needs of the student population and the school’s capacity. Needless to say, as in England, opposition has developed to key stage testing and My School.
  • Standards-referenced assessment: Similar to ours, their assessment is not norm-referenced but criterionor standards-referenced. Both performance standards and content standards – with outcomes as key reference points – are used, as well as a range of modes of assessment.
  • Choice of examinations: The degree of choice in both countries is quite remarkable. For instance, in Australia, the National Curriculum will not mandate the assessment, examination and reporting requirements for the Higher School Certificate (HSC), which will remain under the jurisdiction of the states. As is the case here, in Australia independent schools can choose to write the HSC or international examinations. Many choose the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) at AS and Alevels and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. Interestingly, in both countries, state schools can also offer international examinations. For instance, there are 24 government and nongovernment schools in Australia offering the IB. In New Zealand, all schools are encouraged to write the state’s school-leaving examination – the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) – but even state secondary schools can add another pathway. In fact, the CIE were first introduced by a prestigious state school, Auckland Grammar.
  • Debate: The issue of which examination is ‘better’ is also alive and well there. I met Heads who argued for the NCEA for patriotic reasons and because it suits most students. Others are devout advocates of the CIE or IB as more academically rigorous and reliable alternatives. Some favour the breadth of subjects in the IB as opposed to the more specialised approach of the CIE.
  • Cost: Many schools complained about the very high costs of the IB, which are not visible at a first glance. In addition to the examination fees, there are the expenses
    involved in paying for the flights and accommodation of the IB panel of experts (who come out to assess the school two or more times for full accreditation), buying all the teaching and learning resources and, most significantly, sending a group of teachers to overseas IB training courses and meetings annually.


In all three Antipodean countries, the similarities in curriculum and assessment approaches and developments are striking, and show that it is not only ‘backward’ South Africa that has curriculum challenges! The key difference lies in the significant autonomy Australia and New Zealand have given to both public and independent schools in terms of choice of curricula and examinations.

However, the greater specification that is occurring in the Australian curriculum has also produced concerns that it will result in less curricular freedom for
independent schools, especially as they receive state funding. “Autonomy, diversity, choice and competition” are identified by Donnelly as the characteristics of stronger performing education systems. Of great significance for quality improvement in our education, he goes on to state that: Stronger performing systems adopt a strong, discipline-based approach to school subjects focusing on essential learning, especially in mathematics and science… Secondly, stronger systems provide clear, rigorous and measurable intended curriculum documents linked to text books, teacher training and classroom practice. Thirdly, more successful systems have greater time on task in the classroom, less disruption and a greater emphasis on formal, whole-class teaching.


Category: Summer 2010

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