Australia and Scotland – failing children through progressive curriculums

Australia and Scotland – failing children through progressive curriculums

Australia and Scotland might be in different hemispheres but when it comes to education they are on the same plane.

In 2010 both nations introduced new curriculums that were heavily influenced by progressive thinking.

Oddly for school curriculums, ‘knowledge’ was downgraded as an ambition and was instead replaced by a more generic approach.

There was a move away from specific content-based learning to teach about exploration and acquiring critical thinking skills.

In both countries, the basic tenets of education – teaching and learning – were replaced with nebulous concepts favoured amongst trendy educationalists and teaching unions.

For example, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence aims to develop students as ‘confident individuals’, ‘effective contributors’ and ‘responsible citizens’.

There is nothing wrong with any of those ambitions, but in order for children to achieve them, they have to have knowledge first.

Both countries’ curriculums were rolled out by governments who arrogantly assumed they knew better than the millions of educators who had gone before them, and those in other countries which were topping the PISA rankings.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost and Scotland and Australia’s children are suffering.

The best method we have of judging academic achievement in 14-year-olds is through the PISA rankings.

And they make grim reading for both countries.

In 2009, before the new curriculums were rolled out, Scotland’s average score in maths, reading and science was 505. By 2018 it had dropped to 494.

Australia’s score in 2009 was 515, and by 2018 it had dropped to 503.

Both countries have fallen down the league tables and despite the obvious correlation between the 2010 curriculums and failure, neither country appears to be ready to accept that they’ve listened to the wrong people and made bad choices.

And there are plenty of voices telling them just that.

In Australia, for example, Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge stated that his country’s students have recorded their worst ever PISA results, falling below the OECD average in maths for the first time.

He said: “We have dropped from fourth to 16th in reading, eighth to 17th in science, and 11th to 29th in maths.

“A 15-year-old today is a full year of learning behind where the average 15-year-old was in 2000.

“In mathematics, they are a full 14 months behind, and three years behind the average 15-year-old in Singapore.”

In Scotland, the SNP’s education results were blasted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

He said: “Maths and science in schools in Scotland, unlike any other part of the United Kingdom, is going down in the PISA rankings.” And that in Scotland’s schools, “performance in maths and science is at a record low.”

The fact-checking website FullFact stated: “Boris Johnson is right to say maths and science in schools in Scotland have fallen to a record low in the international PISA rankings.”

Neither can these countries claim that funding is the issue because Australia’s has greatly increased and despite funding cuts in England and Wales, their results are pushing them up the PISA rankings.

In 2010, as Scotland and Australia made the wrong decisions, the coalition government in the UK was ending its progressive experiment that had clearly failed.

I was drafted onto the advisory committee that planned the primary maths element of the new curriculum.

It was rolled out in 2014 and was more traditional and structured.

And it is working.

Children moving up to secondary school have improved literacy and numeracy skills and are more able to cope with secondary education.

This is reflected in the scores they are achieving at 14 in the PISA tests. England and Wales are moving up the table.

Scotland and Australia must have seen this trend and watched how England and Wales replaced a progressive curriculum that was failing. But then they went and did exactly the same thing.

We all want to cultivate free-thinking – the ability to analyse and think critically – but this needs to come from a knowledge base that has been firmly planted in the early years of education.

The progressives are more interested in ‘how you learn’ rather than ‘what you learn’. They are prepared to sacrifice content in the interests of trying to develop ways of learning.

Both these elements are important, but the curriculum must be content-rich in primary education to provide a firm basis for future explorative and enquiry-based learning.

You need a solid understanding of maths – number, decimals, fractions, percentages, ratio etc – before you can start to apply this knowledge in an exploratory way.

The same is true of writing. It is important to learn grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling and develop vocabulary skills in order to be able to write creatively.

In an article on the Quillette website called the Tragedy of Australian Education, by Greg Ashman, this quote is pertinent: “When you treat knowledge, the very substance of education, with suspicion, what is left? What should be taught in schools, if not knowledge?”

Foundations in literacy and numeracy are crucial and those on the progressive wing simply ignore the evidence of the failure in their approaches in the 20th century, which were based on Rousseau’s ideas.

All they advocate is more of the same in different forms. Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results is said to indicate insanity.

I wouldn’t go that far but for politicians to replace their curriculums with ones that work would be admitting failure. And politicians rarely do that.