Curriculum Policies project

Research Assistant

Kate O’Connor

Project Details

In Australia, much of the analysis of curriculum policy has been concerned with particular reports, or with commonwealth developments, or with particular subject areas or the agendas of a single state. This project aims to build a foundation picture of what has been happening across states over the past thirty years: in changes and continuities within as well as between the different states. It is interested in the changing approaches state curriculum policies have taken over this recent period to knowledge, to students, and to how academic and vocational agendas are marked out.

The project School knowledge, working knowledge and the knowing subject: a review of state curriculum policies 1975-2005 was funded as a Discovery Project by the Australian Research Council for 2007 and 2008, and was supplemented by further funding from the University of Melbourne through 2009. The main work on this project has now finished, but themes and questions developed from the project continue to be the focus of work by the project leader, Professor Lyn Yates in her new Australian Research Council Discovery Project Knowledge Building in Schooling and Higher Education: policy strategies and effects.

The background to the original project was a meeting of curriculum scholars from around Australia held at the University of Melbourne in October 2006. Participants were concerned about the decline in serious study of curriculum in teacher education and postgraduate study, and the extent to which curriculum discussion in Australia is dominated by political agendas and by media and single issue advocacy and lacks broader historical perspective and wider knowledge of curriculum scholarship. The current project was developed as one contribution to providing a basis for Australian students, teachers and policy-makers to take stock of how curriculum has developed in this country.

The intention of the project was to build an initial mapping and resource and an overview analysis of what has been important in curriculum formulation around the different Australian states from 1975 to 2005. As a two-year project with a national scope, this was not intended to provide a detailed history of curriculum over that period. Rather the intention was to focus at 10 year intervals on the key documents, emphases and formulations evident. It was a project working with policy texts and with interviews, and confined to a secondary schooling focus. Its analysis of curriculum policy was centered on these questions:

  • Where is knowledge seen to reside, and what sort of a thing is it seen to be?
  • How are the 'academic' and 'vocational' purposes of schooling depicted?
  • What characteristics and dispositions is the learner assumed to bring to schooling, and how is difference among learners construed in terms of curriculum policies?
  • What types of knowledge and what types of outcomes are named as core?
  • How are agendas about schooling as a vehicle of knowledge and learning of the young being put together with agendas about schooling as a mechanism of competitive selection for life beyond school?

The intention was to gain a sense of changes over time (in those decades preceding the formation of a National Curriculum Board), and also to gain a sense of differences and commonalities in values and approaches of the different Australian states to curriculum questions. For those interested in a more detailed account of the background, rationale, design and international and national theoretical context of the project, this can be accessed in Part E of the ARC application


  • Lyn Yates – Project leader and CI
    Lyn Yates is Foundation Professor of Curriculum at the University of Melbourne.
  • Dr Cherry Collins – CI
    Cherry Collins is an Honorary Principal Research Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education
  • Kate O'Connor – Research Assistant
    Kate O'Connor is a research assistant in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
  • Dr Katie Wright – Research Fellow
    Katie Wright is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
  • Dr Brenda Holt – Research Fellow
    Brenda Holt is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and the Chief of Staff at Trinity College.

Research Outcomes

The project had two main agendas:

  1. to gain a perspective on changing policy conceptualizations of Australian curriculum (knowledge/ student/academic/vocational) over the decades from 1975 to 2005; and
  2. to gain a perspective on state differences in values and approach in these decades prior to the formation of the National Curriculum Board.

It aimed to produce resources that other scholars and students might access that brought together the story of these decades across Australia; and it aimed to develop an interpretive account of the significance of its findings for the field of curriculum.


Key Documents

Political Context

The project findings are summarized under the following headings

  • Curriculum resources and the problem of writing about curriculum in Australia, show details

    Our attempt to build a resource of key curriculum documents for each state at each ten year interval revealed the enormous practical difficulty of building even the most preliminary overview and mapping of key agendas across Australia. Despite some prior pilot work, a good knowledge of existing literature, and confining the project’s scope and focus to the framing agendas that are constructed for secondary schooling, the amount of primary document and archival searching required and associated difficulties was much more onerous than anticipated, and the project had to do much more foundational work than expected before the main focus of the project could even begin.

    The conceptual ambiguities regarding what is an appropriate curriculum document and the practical difficulties in sourcing non-current documents, meant that the task of collecting documents for analysis for each state and decade is a major research exercise in its own right. In most cases, consistent archives of reports and documents are no longer maintained in a catalogued repository once new policies are introduced. To begin to build the list of documents we used for the purpose of mapping each decade in each state, we had to engage in a lengthy process of going from library searching to interviews with those who provide documents from their own private collections, or provide further information about where something may be found.

    The problem is that even within the guidelines we set up regarding the state documents we analysed, there is no consistency to the form documents take. Sometimes they are explicitly produced as a framework document; sometimes as a report, parts of which may be enacted and parts not; sometimes important parts of a state agenda may effectively be carried not by a report but by instructions to principals; sometimes specific enquiries and instructions may be developed about girls or boys or gifted or indigenous students and so on – and these may or may not be incorporated in other general policies, or given concrete effect. We tried to capture some of this complexity by proceeding with multiple types of analysis, using the interviews, seminars and feedback from those doing other studies of curriculum over the period to develop an overview comparative mapping across states and decades.

    Our findings regarding the difficulties of seriously studying curriculum in Australia have been reported in a number of papers. In particular, Lyn Yates reported on the project difficulties and curriculum over the period 1975-2005 in an AARE symposium entitled 'Australian Curriculum Inquiry as Educational Research: ‘Really Useful’ Knowledge for the 21 Century?'. In addition, an article relating to the difficulty of analyzing the curriculum interests and changing focus of Australian education theses over last thirty years entitled ‘Classifying Curriculum Scholarship in Australia: A review of Postgraduate Theses 1975–2005’ was published in the Australian Educational Researcher, Issue 37 (1), pp. 125–143.

    The resources we provide via this website which we hope other researchers will make further use of are:

    • chronologies of curriculum policy
    • key curriculum policy and major education reports
    • Commonwealth, state and territory governments and education minister
    • curriculum Masters and Doctoral theses
    • subject-based journal contents
  • Australian Curriculum Trajectory 1975-2005, show details

    In terms of our first aim for the project, unearthing the changes to the conceptualization of knowledge in curriculum policy over recent decades, we found a trajectory over the period of study towards:

    • focusing on what students can do rather than what they should know;
    • being more oriented to managing and reporting rather than curriculum as such; and
    • having more interest in the developing child and the kind of world they are in, than more epistemological questions and arguments about knowledge-building.

    This trajectory is one about which there is currently major international debate in the sociology, policy studies and curriculum literature; and is one which has significant implications for policy and reform.

    Of course these developments were taken up with significantly varying degrees of emphasis by different states, but at an overview level, some commonalities over the period are evident as states faced worries about youth unemployment in the 1980s, and as they all began to turn from more taken-for-granted understandings of the school curriculum in the 1970s to the later decades where they are pondering ‘new times’ and worrying about what kinds of young people schools should be producing, and what this means for designing the curriculum. The sheer quantity of curriculum reforms over the period of the study around the country is one sign of the changing context and agendas to which curriculum (at a policy level) was trying to speak.

    Another interesting element of following the changes over the four decades, and especially of interviewing people in different states who had been actively involved over a long period, is the experiences many leaders had amassed about what had gone wrong in earlier iterations of policy and policy implementation, and especially their understanding of the ways aims, adequate resourcing, political agendas, and accountability agendas often did not work in harmony. There were some widely shared understandings of why the earlier attempt at national curriculum commonality via Statements and Profiles in the late 80s and early 90s had been abandoned; and experiences of a number of people previously very critical of national and centralized approaches of the problems they had faced with managing an ‘essential learnings’ approach in the face of new accountability demands. These interviews gave some sense of why, in addition to an unusual political context of state labour and federal governments across the country, the time was more ripe for the National Curriculum Board in 2005, and also how the approach it was taking was directly taking up a number of the issues that had been difficult to manage in the preceding period – the burgeoning jargon and expansion of curriculum demands, for example.

    One of the key debates about knowledge in recent times is about the role of subjects, compared with interdisciplinarity compared with competencies or skills. The papers arising from the project show the ways these agendas were being managed in Australia, with some growing emphasis through the 90s and turn of the century on the latter compared with the former, although the teachers themselves were trained in disciplines; and documents at the big policy level were often more attuned to the desired outcomes from schooling than the issues of what translated those hopes into practice in schools.

    The growing concern with finding forms of managing and auditing what both schools and students were achieving was also an important trajectory of the period of this project. In the 1970s, curriculum documents tended to be thin, offering broad guidelines, with much being taken for granted or left to schools to implement. In the 1980s and 1990s, the documents became big and glossy, produced with public marketing and communication to the foreground, but also often attempting to pin down in micro-detail what should be achieved, what students should be able to do and who they should be by the end of school. Some aspects of the trajectory observable in curriculum policy thinking cuts across ways curriculum debate in the media is often seen, as direct expression of values of the left or the right about what should be known. In our study both progressive curriculum activists and managers of standards can come together, as they did in working up the national profiles in the early 90s.

    This trajectory is one about which there is currently international debate and one which has significant implications for policy and reform. Some of the questions which this international debate takes up are whether the focus on competencies and skills is producing shallow foundations and paying insufficient attention to disciplinary structure today; or, conversely, whether curriculum lags sadly behind the kinds of knowledge, technologies and possibilities now seen in the home, in the community, and in cutting edge research. Another debate concerns the implications of a management and assessment and auditing approach to curriculum, where more attention is being given to external accounting and accountabilities than to the life of schools. The project showed the way Australian curriculum making has tried to grapple with these problems, sometimes taking an outcomes and capabilities approach to the curriculum; sometimes emphasizing the need for standard templates that could be used across all the different ‘key learning areas’; sometimes trying to work from community consultation; often running into a clash between aims and implementation, especially when assessment and accountability was added to the framework.

    Papers on these findings have been presented at Australian and international conferences. Initially the project questions and early findings were used to convene a linked symposium with papers from six other countries at ECER in Gothenburg (2008), and this in turn led to a special issue of the European Journal of Education 45 (1) 2010, co-edited by Lyn Yates and Michael Young (University of London) on globalization, knowledge and curriculum. This special issue explores those important questions about knowledge, the 21st century and new management imperatives against a consideration of curriculum reform in Australia, in a number of European countries and in South Africa, and sets up some questions that need to be addressed further: the issue of difference and inequalities in relation to the approaches to curriculum; and the question of curriculum theorizing and the need to set the current discussions more properly against a consideration of universities and the creation of new knowledge.

    An article from the project, 'The Absence of Knowledge in Australian Curriculum Reform' is published in this special issue. This article reflects on the extent to which leading curriculum actors we interviewed failed to talk about knowledge as part of their agenda for curriculum; and also our analysis of some of the frameworks that were set up in the 1980s and 1990s, which had strong aspirations for a certain type of person to be produced via schooling, but quite unclear details (as compared with rhetoric) about the curriculum and knowledge as a means to this.

    The ECER symposium also led to an invitation to develop a World Yearbook on Curriculum in Today's World (edited by Lyn Yates and Madeleine Grumet University of North Carolina Chapel Hill), again taking up issues and findings from this project; and with contributions from countries around the world. Here the questions are about the substantive changes in the world, and what kind of a relationship to the world and to who we and others are curriculum in different countries is setting up. The Yearbook was published by Routledge in 2011.

  • Curriculum and State Differences, show details

    There are some enduring differences in how different states have approached curriculum, for example, in South Australia, by foregrounding a strong social justice concern, and attention to those who might be disadvantaged; in Queensland by a continuing preoccupation with rural students and some need for diversity and devolved approaches; or in NSW, a concern with standards and being seen to maintain traditions and benchmarks. These differences often have historical or geographic or demographic roots. They can be seen in the ways questions about assessment or about the organization of the system or about year 12 and beyond are addressed; that is, they are evident both as explicit values seen in the language of documents and interviews, but also in the ways questions about the arrangements for organizing curriculum are approached, and in what is taken as the starting points of policy questions.

    The resources we have made available for others to review on this website include analysis of the policies of specific states and overviews of each state’s curriculum policy. The limited funding time-frame of the current project has not made it possible to produce detailed analyses of each state, but one analysis, of South Australia, was published in an article by Cherry Collins and Lyn Yates in the Australian Journal of Education, Issue 53 (2), pp. 125-140. The article, Curriculum Policy in South Australia since the 1970s: the quest for commonality, discusses the particular emphases and agendas of South Australia at the overarching curriculum policy level over the past four decades and argues that although there have been significant changes, some continuity of perspective has persisted, in terms of prioritising social justice concerns, focusing on the development of the individual student, and seeking commonality in curriculum provision.

    A more comparative attention to the project findings on state differences and curriculum issues in Australia has been published in a book Australia’s Curriculum Dilemmas: state cultures and the big issues, edited by Lyn Yates, Cherry Collins and Kate O’Connor. The book shows the ways some big issues for Australian curriculum – knowledge and competencies; values, inclusiveness, assessment, retention – have been addressed in markedly changing ways over recent times, and across different states, and uncovers the ways different Australian states have taken different starting points for what matters in relation to curriculum. In addition to chapters on the main themes by the editors, the book includes contributions from senior figures across the different Australian states who have had a long-standing involvement and hands-on experience with the curriculum of their state. The book was published by Melbourne University Press in 2011.

    This background attention to state differences is of interest for two reasons. First it is remarkably difficult to get perspectives on the history of Australian schooling which is not a study of a particular state, or is not primarily a study of commonwealth initiatives. But comparative study is enlightening if we are to consider ‘Australia’s curriculum dilemmas’ – the title of our forthcoming book. Even the preparation of teachers tends to take a within-state set of agendas as its ‘commonsense’. Some history of the bigger and differentiated Australian history of curriculum is a form of scholarship that needs to enlighten our conceptions of what we might do. This project and its publications provide a starting point on this comparative understanding of our national history and context for curriculum, but, despite some scattered very interesting pieces of work on individual states, it is a remarkably under-developed area of research.

    Secondly, this attention to state differences in history and values is interesting given that we now have an agreed national agenda in train, with ACARA. How will the new curriculum policies work in practice in contexts which have different historical cultures or values in regard to curriculum?

Some of these findings were intended aims of the project – for example, changing conceptions of knowledge over the period of the study. Some of our findings were not intended – the amount of groundwork that has to be done in even bringing together the resources from which we might study our own history of curriculum in Australia. Work we have done in relation to this latter problem helps to elucidate some of the conceptual difficulties, some of the practical difficulties, and to make available here some resources on which we hope further researchers might build.

A complete list of the publications arising from this project is also available.

Published Research

Edited books

Yates, L., Collins, C. and O’Connor, K. (Eds) (2011) Australia’s Curriculum Dilemmas: state cultures and the big issues. Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne.

Yates, L. and Grumet, M. (Eds) (2011) Curriculum in Today’s World: configuring knowledge, identities, work and politics, World Yearbook of Education 2011, Routledge, Abingdon, U.K.

Journal special issue co-edited Lyn Yates and Michael Young:
‘Globalisation, Knowledge and the Curriculum’. European Journal of Education 45 (1), 2010

Journal articles

Collins, C. and Yates, L. (2009) Curriculum Policy in South Australia since the 1970s: the quest for commonality. Australian Journal of Education, 53(2), pp. 125-140.

Yates, L. (2009) From curriculum to pedagogy and back again: knowledge, the person and the changing world. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 17(1), pp. 17-28.

Yates, L. and Young, M. (2010) Globalisation and the curriculum. European Journal of Education, 45(1), pp. 5-12.

Yates, L. and Collins, C. (2010) The absence of knowledge in Australian curriculum reforms. European Journal of Education, 45(1), pp. 93-106.

O’Connor, K. and Yates, L. (2010) Classifying curriculum scholarship in Australia: a review of postgraduate theses 1975-2005. Australian Educational Researcher, 37(1), pp. 125-143.

Conference papers

Yates, L. (2011) Curriculum as a public policy enterprise: Australian state differences and the past forty years of curriculum reforms. [contribution to symposium on: Curriculum policy: cases of translation], BERA Annual Conference, London, September.

Yates, L. and Collins, C. (2008) The absence of knowledge in Australian curriculum reformulations. (Part of 6-country symposium on The Changing Forms of Knowledge in Contemporary Curriculum Reconfigurations) ECER Conference, Gothenburg, September.

Yates, L. and Collins, C. (2008) Australian curriculum 1975-2005: what has been happening to knowledge? [contribution to Australian Curriculum Inquiry as ‘Really Useful’ Educational Research: A Symposium], AARE Conference: QUT Brisbane, December.

Yates, L. (2007) From Curriculum to Pedagogy and Back Again: knowledge, the person and the changing world. Pedagogy, Culture and Society Seminar, University of Manchester, February.

Yates, L. and Green, B. (2007). Curriculum Inquiry in Australia. ACSA Conference, Melbourne, July.