The Prime Minister, John Howard, joined the national debate about the syllabus this week, saying it had been “dumbed down” and describing the literature taught in schools as “rubbish”.
Don Carter, English inspector for the Board of Studies, said Mr Howard’s comments did not relate to the NSW syllabus, which had a strong basis in the classics. He said the candidacy in the advanced English course was 37 per cent higher than it was in 2001.
That is at the bottom of an otherwise interesting story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, English teachers shy away from novel approaches. God I am sick of that reactionary mantra, utterly sick of it, because in the case of the NSW HSC English Syllabus it is patently false. John Howard and I both sat for the Leaving Certificate in the 1950s, and I am sure we both got an “A” at least in English doing a course far less demanding in both thought and content than the current top level English (“Advanced”) course, the only fair comparison, as the majority of the current HSC candidature would have been anywhere but in school in John’s day and mine. They would have been in apprenticeships, or working in all those clerical and manufacturing jobs which no longer exist in our brave new globalised world. Go to my “Education” tag for more, or visit my English and ESL Pages.
John Howard would probably fail the current HSC English; his critical literacy skills would never pass muster, and he would be incapable of reading outside his own narrow ideological perspective.
The Herald article quite rightly points out that by inclination, or by laziness, the majority of English teachers in NSW are actually quite conservative.
Despite having more than 40 selections in the standard English course, teachers were prescribing old favourites such as Bruce Dawe’s Sometimes Gladness, Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi and David Williamson’s The Club over consecutive years.
They were also failing to practise the type of critical theory they were teaching their own students.
Kerry-Ann O’Sullivan outlines her findings in a PhD thesis, “Silent Voices: A Study of English Teachers’ Responses to Curriculum Change”, which received a Macquarie University Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation and has been endorsed by the English Teachers Association.
The association’s executive officer, Eva Gold, said English teachers were struggling to find the time and resources to adjust to the syllabus, introduced for students of the 2001 HSC.
“They are finding it very difficult to [readjust] their thinking to the depth the new syllabus requires,” Ms Gold said. “We need to be looking for more opportunities for professional development.
“Computer texts should be a very popular choice, but haven’t been [and] websites are not used as broadly as we would hope.”
Dr O’Sullivan said the limited take-up of new choices stemmed from a lack of resources and teachers’ familiarity and comfort with texts they had taught before.
And I sympathise. The new approaches are in fact very challenging for both teachers and taught.