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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
16/03/2016
Electoral education

RANDALL, Mr Robert William, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority

[10:17]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and, therefore, has the same standing as the proceedings of the respective houses. Do you have an opening statement?

Mr Randall : I do, if you do not mind, just to cover some background and provide a basis for conversation. The first thing to note is that the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority is a Commonwealth statutory authority established under an act of this parliament responsible for developing and monitoring the Australian national curriculum, as well as the national assessment program and various reporting functions, including, for example, the My School website.

It is worth noting that responsibility for the delivery of education lies with state and territory authorities—governments, departments and the like. With that in mind, ACARA has been set up as an interjurisdictional entity—I think there are only a few of us around—with a board made up of nominees from the Australian, state and territory governments. The board comprises a nominee of the federal minister and each of the eight state and territory ministers, and a nominee from the independent schools and the Catholic Education Commission, as well as a couple of other people.

It is worth noting that one of the things that ACARA has recently done is develop an Australian curriculum in civics and citizenship. We also administer the sample assessment program in civics and citizenship. With that background, I think I am in a position to provide some commentary on one element of your terms of reference: the teaching methodology and results of the national civics and citizenship curriculum. But, again, I will remind the committee, by stating the obvious thing, that what I am going to say is complicated by two things: firstly, states, territories and schools are responsible for implementing the Australian curriculum. If you like, we set the intention; they are responsible for the implementation of it. So I can talk about setting those intentions, the standards and the like, but when it comes to the pedagogical practice and how it varies a bit around states and territories my comments will be observations.

The civics and citizenship curriculum was made available for use in December 2013. Subsequent to ACARA's submission to the inquiry in July of last year we finalised some changes to the curriculum. That was signed off by the council of education ministers late last year. It is now on our website available for implementation. Given that the website is there, it is available and federal, state and territory ministers have signed off on it, my understanding is that five out of the eight states and territories have started using the curriculum so approved. Five of them have started using it as written. In some cases, there is one that is in a slightly adapted form, but the intentions, from my observations, are largely consistent.

Given the recency of the curriculum, it is interesting to note—and we might have some discussion about this—when we last did the test, that was before we had a national curriculum. We now have a national curriculum which is at stages of implementation. So some of my observations may be talking about: here is what we expect; here is what we would like young people to be learning, and we will get some evidence in a year's time, or two years' time, when we do another round of testing as to how that is going.

I think it is worth me just digging in a little bit. You may have seen it already. I have brought various bits here. We could, time permitting, and depending on where you want to go, get into specifics of what is in the curriculum. But if I can just scan across, firstly, the curriculum that has been approved. I could go back into what was there, what changed, what did not change, but I will talk about what is there. We can focus on foundation year—the year before year 1, through to year 6—or year 7. I qualify that because in South Australia we still have year 7 in primary school, whereas the rest of the country now has year 7 in high school.

Mr GRIFFIN: South Australia tends to be a bit slower—

Mr PASIN: I think they want to change. They just have no money to change.

Mr Randall : I think it is a matter of where it is in the cycle of whether it is catching up or setting the pace.

Mr GRIFFIN: We have noticed the same thing in this building.

Mr PASIN: It is no surprise that he is leaving.

Mr Randall : I should not have led that way. In the primary curriculum, if you like, we have it within the humanities and social sciences curriculum, and in years 7 to 10, or in high school, we have a separate civics and citizenship curriculum, which does have a strong focus on electoral education. From our point of view it is always debatable as to whether it could be stronger or not, but it is there. I guess the really important point to make is that there are now consistent expectations across the country. What was there a few years ago varied.

The key organising device—strand, I call it sometimes—of government and democracy focuses learning in years 3 to 10 on Australian democracy and the key institutions, processes and roles that people play in the Australian system of government. Learning in the area begins in year 3, where students are introduced to the concept of democratic decision making. In the primary years, for example, students are taught about the three levels of government in this country, values that underpin Australia's democracy, key features of the electoral process, including the responsibilities of electors and representatives, and the history and key institutions of Australia's democratic system of government, including the Constitution and the Westminster system.

In the secondary years students acquire a deeper understanding of government democracy as they learn about key features of government under the Constitution: separation of powers, roles of the executive, houses of parliament, the division of powers and the process for constitutional change. They also explore freedoms, processes and systems, such as the electoral system, that enable active participation in Australia's democracy and consider how people's choices are shaped at election time. They further explore how government is formed, including the role of political parties and independent representatives, and the process through which government policy is shaped and developed. I will not make any comments about the results of the test last time around. On that opening statement, I am happy to take questions.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Randall.

Mr PASIN: You said there has been a recent agreement of ministers at a state level. It would be really good if the secretariat got a copy of that. Does that mean that we have a national curriculum and it now is open for state departments to basically buy in, effectively, to teach the program, or is it a requirement?

Mr Randall : Let me make two comments on that, depending on whether we get to the specifics. The national curriculum is there. You can go to our website. This is a print-off from our website, setting expectations, signed off by the COAG education council—the nine state, territory and federal education ministers—last December. That is signed off, in the sense that that is setting national expectations. That is what ACARA was set up to do. Part of my responsibility to this parliament and others is to produce that curriculum.

The second part is implementation. The expectation is that people will get on and implement it. Depending on how far back in time we go, the force and expectation has varied about whether it is just an expectation or whether there are funding links and the like. After the ministers have signed off on it and set the expectations about what we want young people to do, our expectation as an authority, when we go to test next time, will be to see how well children are learning what is in the curriculum.

Mr PASIN: So ACARA is not only responsible for establishing the curriculum, it is also responsible, in effect, for testing achievement relative to the curriculum itself?

Mr Randall : Yes. Some of the testing programs that we inherited preceded the development of a national curriculum. Educators will always have a debate about what we are testing, but the curriculum sets the expectations and our testing program. The population one we run is NAPLAN, the literacy and numeracy testing program. The results were on the My School website last week. We have three sample assessment programs—civics and citizenship, science literacy and ICT literacy—on a three-year cycle. They will be on the back of a national curriculum and very explicitly linked to that. My intention is that, later this year, we will release a report on science. Our commentary will be about what children have shown in relation to what is expected of them in the curriculum, including our view about where we could do better.

Mr PASIN: My experience is that teacher quality significantly affects outcomes in this space. Does ACARA get involved, in terms of assessing the competency of teachers to deliver this?

Mr Randall : No. But, just for completeness, can I mention that the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, AITSL, has been set up, with a similar time frame to ACARA, to set national teaching and school leadership standards, and the follow-through of its work does go to teacher quality.

Mr PASIN: One of the bits of feedback I get from regional centres in particular is that the national curriculum is great. But principals come to me and say they just do not have the teaching resources that are competently able to teach what we are talking about. Can I go to my pet project, which is PACER. We have obviously seen that that program—or, at least, the rebate—has not grown with inflation. Do you see merit in the program? Are there any plans to expand it?

Mr Randall : It is not my program, so I cannot comment on that. I would like to make an observation in relation to your previous point. The proposition behind a national curriculum is that we can do better as a country working together nationally than we can with eight states and territories working separately. So the question of resources can become a national question or, at the very least, it is about sharing between one state and another so that, on the back of expectations, you can raise the quality of resources available. I am not aware of which state you are from.

Mr PASIN: South Australia.

Mr Randall : Prior to this role, I worked in New South Wales. The relative size of states, and their ability to develop resources, varies. That is a historical fact. But resources that are being developed for the national curriculum, by national bodies and others, become available to all states and territories. I have confidence that, as we proceed with this implementation, there will be more and more resources. So in a few years time the principals you speak to might say they are getting resources they did not previously have.

Mr PASIN: Obviously the work you have done in terms of the national curriculum was, among other things, a product of the review of the Australian Curriculum and the final report. Is civics and citizenship mandatory to year 10?

Mr Randall : The design of the curriculum sets expectations that students will learn it in years 3 to 8. There is also a curriculum available for use in years 9 and 10. Decisions are taken at either a state, territory or school level about its provision to students.

Mr PASIN: And you would be aware that there was some commentary around there being a strong case for the program to be mandatory in year 12, given the proximity of that cohort to voting, in particular.

Mr Randall : In my experience in my current role and in previous roles, there is a whole range of cases for what should be included in the school curriculum. The current chair of our board makes the observation that there are only so many hours in the school day—

Mr PASIN: I appreciate it is crowded. We were talking about that last night.

Mr Randall : Similarly, I think, in some of the recent discussions I have been party to there has been the desire to maybe make subjects like mathematics compulsory in years 11 and 12 and a debate about that, because that varies. The expectations of what is studied in years 11 and 12 is a state and territory matter; it goes with the certificates which are in state and territory governance arrangements. So I am aware of the expectations. I am aware that, as we went through our development process and the review, some of those increased, some heightened and some shifted. What we have tried to do is deliver a curriculum which—if I hark back to the previous speaker—delivers firstly an expectation that was not previously there consistently across the country. That is a significant step up. Then, as we continue to monitor implementation, I imagine you in this committee and other members of parliament would be interested to see what return we get on this change and investment, and then where we might want to do more.

Mr PASIN: When is the earliest time at which we will have that evidence?

Mr Randall : That is a great question.

Mr PASIN: When will you be able to say to this committee, 'We've now had the national curriculum, it's being implemented and we are starting to see the results, good or bad'?

Mr Randall : We are at civics and citizenship again this year, I think. It is probably too early for that to have any effect. Probably I would be saying that 2019, our next cycle of assessment, is when we are going to have some empirical data.

CHAIR: None of your NAPLAN data catches the humanities and social sciences at the moment?

Mr Randall : No. Just literacy and numeracy.

CHAIR: Okay, just maths and English.

Mr Randall : Maths and English. That is the full cohort annual testing, and then we have these three which are three-yearly cycles. Science was last year, civics and citizenship is this year and ICT and literacy are in 2017. I have some advice going to the nine education ministers in June, I think, to agree to the continuation of that three-year cycle.

Mr GRIFFIN: And that report has been going on since 2004, is that right?

Mr Randall : Yes, it goes back a while.

Mr GRIFFIN: I note from your submission that broadly across that period it is finding relatively consistent levels of engagement. My first question on that is: do you think that the levels of engagement it is showing are reasonable? I always think the danger in this area is that you can always look to improve, but we also should be conscious of the fact that it is never going to be perfect. So what is a reasonable level of engagement with respect to proficiency et cetera that means that most people are in a situation where they are getting sufficient exposure to be able to actually understand and participate? I take the point you make which is that with the development and the implementation of the national curriculum, hopefully the next time you do this survey on that three-yearly period you will be able to see some difference. What sort of difference do you think we should be looking to see?

Mr Randall : Firstly, all of the testing up to date links back to what has been called a statement of learning—some previous broad agreements about what we would like young people to learn. The key difference—and this goes to the second part of your question—is that the curriculum is there. What we will do as we get ready for the next round of testing is to make sure that this more explicitly aligns to get that alignment there. So the next round of testing should help us with that.

As to your question of how good is good enough, the current number is around 50 per cent proficiency. People think it does not seem quite right because people have in their head that 50 per cent is like a pass. The proficiency standard we set is actually quite a reasonable standard. I could write this up and say, 'Close to half or more of the population actually have a really good understanding of these things,' and then you can go from there. I think we would always like better. Again, I pick up the resources question. I would like to think that, on the back of this, we could expect an increase in that. The logic is: we want kids to learn this. We think this is important stuff, so we would like to see more kids learning it. That is your question, if I listen to myself there—I would like to see the results going up.

Mr GRIFFIN: I know it is hard sometimes not comparing apples with apples, but, in the context of international experience, are there any conclusions we can draw as to what the survey shows with respect to the level of understanding and involvement compared to some other comparable countries overseas?

Mr Randall : Not readily. Again, I am happy to take that on. Not readily, because it is an apples and oranges question. I think the previous witness talked about some of those comparative studies a bit more. The danger sometimes is, again, they are apples and oranges, but it does not stop, sometimes, comparisons being made. It would be a matter of what we are comparing ourselves to. We will, as we proceed with our work, try to answer your question empirically. If we can link our data to similar testing—you will have all heard that sometimes we talk about PISA assessment out of the OECD. One of the things we are endeavouring to do is to not just draw comparisons. While they are both testing similar things, we are going to try to build some empirical links—that is, have the same items or link or comparison items. We have not got them built in at the moment. We will look to create those opportunities, but apples and oranges does not facilitate that.

CHAIR: Anything else?

Mr GRIFFIN: No. I think that covers off the main questions I have.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I am fine.

CHAIR: This has been very comprehensive. We have wound up faster than intended. We could talk for the sake of talking, but it is not my style. Thank you very much for your appearance here today.

Mr GRIFFIN: I think the key thing you are raising is that, given some of the changes on the national curriculum scene, we may well be in a situation where, if you were appearing before the committee in three years time, there would be some very useful data.

Mr PASIN: We will have data to make an assessment.

Mr Randall : And reinforcement. We, the nation, have set expectations for all kids, wherever they are.

Mr PASIN: That is right, and we are going to measure it.

Mr Randall : That is a significant step up from where we were a number of years ago. That is a good first thing—then backing the resources, backing the things and then we will have data. All of that is a nicer proposition and maybe a more powerful one than we have had previously. I would be happy to come back in a few years time and talk about, hopefully, the improved data.

CHAIR: Wonderful. Thank you very much, Mr Randall. We look forward to seeing you again.