History in Australia, including in Western Australia (WA), has faced a paradoxical situation in the last twenty-five years. On the one hand the school subject has experienced a decline in the proportions of students enrolled. This has been attributed to popular perceptions of its irrelevance in a period of increased emphasis on utilitarian, technical school curricula (Kelly, 2004; Marginson, 1997; Smith & Lovat, 2003), its limitations for Australia’s expanding multi-cultural society (Barcan 1997; Halse, 1996; Macintyre 1997) and it being increasingly subsumed into such integrated subjects as ‘Social Studies’, ‘Society and Environment’, ‘Peace Studies’ and ‘Discovering Democracy’ (Moroz, 2001; Thiveos, 1999). On the other hand, history has become of keen interest to adults, in part due to the burgeoning tourist industry. It has also become an issue of political concern as state and particularly Commonwealth politicians have exerted growing interest and influence in schools’ History curricula, with regards to content, skills and processes, and outcomes (Barcan, 1997; Clark, 2003; Macintyre & Clark, 2003; Taylor, 2000a). As a result, school History curricula have become increasingly significant issues in Australian education policy, due to a concern among some groups to institute measures to halt its decline and restore its popularity, and due to a concern among other interest groups and policy actors to have a greater say in the content and nature of the subject.
The aim of the research reported in this study was to analyse the policy processes behind changes to History curricula in the post-compulsory years of schooling in WA in the last two decades of the twentieth century. The study seeks to explain the changes to History curricula in the state and to analyse the policy process behind those changes. This chapter introduces the study by outlining a number of its features. First, there is a section that explains the purpose and significance of the study in more detail. This is followed by an historical background to the study. Attention is then turned to an overview of the policy context of History curriculum within WA. The next section introduces the theoretical framework within which the research was located. A section which provides an overview of the research methods used in the study follows. Finally, the structure of the remainder of the thesis itself is outlined.
Purpose and significance
This study focuses on the policies of three statutory authorities with regard to the curriculum for History in Years 11 and 12 of secondary schools in WA. The statutory authorities were the Board of Secondary Education (BSE) from 1974 – 1984, the Secondary Education Authority (SEA) from 1985 – 1996 and the Curriculum Council of WA (CCWA) (1997 onwards).
The proposed research represents a substantial and significant contribution to knowledge, in three domains. First, it contributes to the knowledge and understanding of changes to the History curriculum in a particular educational setting, that of WA. Although these changes have occurred at a time of considerable reform to the nature of the subject in the international context, the research provides detailed knowledge of the changes in one Australian state within that global context.
Secondly, the study contributes to our knowledge of the policy processes involved in curricular change more broadly. It does so by extracting from key players and stakeholders in the process their understandings of what happened, and why. Such knowledge helps to improve an understanding of policy making processes in the future by rendering those involved in policy making more aware of the previous experiences of key players or actors.
Thirdly, the study contributes to knowledge about the consequences of curricular policy statements, through the communicated experiences of those affected by the policy texts. As Finch (1986) has stated, most evaluations of policy involve quantitative data, usually focussed in terms of the expected outcomes of the policy makers. On the other hand, a policy study using qualitative methods such as that reported here elicits the understandings that the people directly involved have of the context of practice of the policy. The findings may be of significance to those interested in increasing understandings about the differences between the intentions of policy makers and the outcomes identified by those involved in its enactment.
Curriculum policy with regard to History since the 1980s has been well chronicled and analysed in England and Wales (eg. Ball, 1990, 1994a; McKiernan, 1993; Phillips, 1998b; Taylor, 1999), Canada (Osborne, 2003), and in the USA (Ravitch, 1998; Symcox, 2001; Whittington, 1999; Yoder et al., 1994), but there has been limited research of developments in History curriculum from a policy perspective in Australia during this period. Contestations between different interest groups over the nature and direction of History have been illustrated recently (Macintyre 2003), but more at a tertiary and generalist level, although Clark (2003) has described the strife that has developed over school History in Australian states. Studies in policy developments for History in NSW have been undertaken (Harris, 2001; Harvey, Maxwell & Wilson, 1996; Reynolds, 2001), but they have generally focussed on History in the compulsory years of schooling, and have invariably involved only one phase of change. This study analyses the situation in Western Australia in the post-compulsory years of schooling, in a longitudinal study across three phases of changes, and in an in-depth manner.
Background WA is one of six states within the Commonwealth of Australia, and under the terms of the Constitution which prescribes the Federal system of government within the nation, the determination of educational matters, including the production of school curricula, remains a ‘residual power’ of the State Government. Control over school curricula in the compulsory years of schooling was, for a long time, exercised by the Director General of Education and the Department of Education. From 1915 to 1974 responsibility for school curricula in the post-compulsory years was devolved to the Public Examinations Board (PEB), an institution with the authority to conduct public examinations for secondary accreditation and for entrance to The University of Western Australia (UWA) and to other tertiary institutions as they evolved (White, 1975). The PEB actually emanated from UWA. Following reforms to the public examination system in WA after the Dettman Report (1969), post-compulsory school curricula were brought under the umbrella of a government statutory body, initially the BSE, from1972 to 1984, later the SEA, from 1985 to 1996, and currently the CCWA, since 1997. The account of the historical background to modern upper school History curricula in WA which follows illustrates the tight coupling of upper-school curricula with the system of public examinations.
History curricula in Western Australia before 1983 Fletcher (1982) and Williams (1957) both identify the formal beginning of History as a school subject in WA with its addition to the primary curriculum in 1893 (Minutes, Votes & Proceedings (MVP), 1893, Schedule V, p. 981). However, earlier records of teaching History in the colony appear, in a statement of curriculum in Catholic schools in 1870 (MVP, 1870-71, pp. 109 –111), and in the regulations for the examination for a University Exhibition (Government Gazette, 1886, p. 142). By 1913, there was a formal History syllabus for Classes 4 – 6 of primary schools in WA, with the emphasis being entirely on British History. In the ‘central’ (post-primary) schools, History was a compulsory subject, with an expectation that there be between 135 and 150 minutes of study in it a week. The course, History and Civics, was entirely utilitarian and students were required to study the history of industry, commerce, and work in the previous two centuries and a course in citizenship and democratic institutions (Education Department of WA, 1913).
A secondary school History syllabus was first reported in 1913. It was the syllabus prescribed for the new Perth Modern School, which opened in February 1911 (EDWA, 1913), and it became the basis of History curricula for the new secondary schools that appeared during the next two decades. The syllabus coincided with the beginning of the examination system that came to dominate secondary education in WA. Before 1915, WA school students seeking university entry had to sit examinations provided by The University of Adelaide. With the establishment of UWA in 1911, demand arose immediately for a local examination system, a call answered by 1914 when students sat the first public examinations sourced in WA (Helm, 1979). The Syllabus Manual of thePublic Examinations Board (PEB) was first published in 1915, and for the next 59 years it contained the syllabus statements for examinable secondary school subject curricula in lower and upper years. Two levels of examination were available, the Junior Certificate to accredit students completing the compulsory three years of secondary school, and the Leaving Certificate for those completing the post-compulsory, upper two years of secondary school. At first, the two purposes of school certification and matriculation were incorporated into the one Leaving examination, but later separate matriculation examinations were held.
An analysis of the History syllabuses in the PEB manuals from 1915 to 1974 reveals the dominating influence of examinations upon secondary school syllabuses and suggests a number of stages of development of secondary History curricula, based on the examination system. In the first five years, there were a series of revisions to course content made in what seems to be a period of adaptation and adjustment. From 1920 to 1950 there was a period of consolidation, with only minor changes to a relatively stable framework. Collins (1951) conducted a survey of principals, teachers and a sample of university students, and the findings of his study provide a comprehensive snapshot of History teaching in WA in the 1950s. Of particular relevance was the widely held perception of the negative impact of the examination system on the nature of the History curriculum. The teachers surveyed complained of difficulties in completing the examination syllabus and of the constraints that the syllabus placed on their teaching methods. Too often, they stated, they were driven to didactic methods simply to get through the syllabus (Collins, 1951, pp. 95 – 98), which resulted in negative perceptions of History among school students (pp. 103 –114). Both students and teachers surveyed stated the potential benefits of reducing examinable content, by giving them time to explore issues and ideas, and the opportunity to practice a greater variety of methods, and thus spark greater enthusiasm among students.
Evidence from the developments in the late 1950s and 1960s suggests that some of the concerns expressed by teachers and principals in Collins’s study were addressed by the PEB. White (1975) suggests that the influence of certain lobby groups, in particular the State Schools Teachers’ Union of WA, did much to reform the examination system. However, some of the anxieties over History teaching expressed by teachers in 1952 were very similar to those expressed by teachers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and clearly had not been addressed.
One development in the 1960s, which was to impact on secondary school History curricula, was the State government’s commissioning of specialist reports by individuals or working parties into aspects of the education system. The first was the Petch Report (1963) on public examinations in WA, followed by the Neal Report (1964) on the curriculum of the lower secondary years. The Dettman Report (1969) recommended the implementation of the findings of Neal’s report, but also went further. One additional recommendation was that there be greater integration of subjects in lower secondary schools, in response to the problems of an overcrowded curriculum and to reflect the greater breadth of ability in the secondary student cohort. Thus Social Studies, an integrated course based on Geography and History, as advocated by Neal in 1964, became a major component of the new Achievement Certificate established in 1973. Dettman’s major recommendation was the ending of all public examinations as the means of secondary school assessment, both lower and upper.
While the subsequent excision of the Junior Certificate examination had been foreshadowed in the Neal Report, the attack on the Leaving Certificate was more of a surprise. The champions of the existing system at upper secondary level rallied to the defence of common, external public examinations, for several reasons (White, 1975; Collins, 1992) and they were to remain the sole means of upper school secondary certification and university matriculation for another decade. However, the demise of the PEB, and the longstanding domination of UWA in the examination system, was inescapable. The 1975 public examinations for school leavers were conducted under the auspices of the new Tertiary Admissions Examination Committee (TAEC), overseen by the BSE and supervised by the Tertiary Institutions Service Centre (TISC) (Chase, 1974).