Centralised control results in a hierarchy of out-of-touch elites, neglects local agency, and creates unnecessary layers of red tape and bureaucracy. It stifles innovation, hinders customisation, and leads to inefficiency. This is in part why the Voice to Parliament was rejected, and why the National Curriculum should also be abandoned.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA) serves as the authoritative source, responsible for setting curriculum standards, educational expectations, advice, delivery, assessment, and reporting on the National Curriculum. Established in 2008, ACARA is governed by a 13-member Board with appointments approved by the Federal Minister for Education. Its bureaucracy employs 105 staff, with the CEO earning $438,000 a year and the Chair remunerated at $78,000, resulting in a total annual cost to taxpayers of $29 million.

Note that ACARA does not operate any schools or employ any teachers – it is purely bureaucratic – functioning as a layer of office workers dictating directives to those in the classroom trenches.

One of the primary drawbacks of ACARA’s centralised nature is the lack of local agency. When policies and standards are determined at the national level, they often fail to account for the unique needs and circumstances of individual communities, regions, and states. This one-size-fits-all approach ignores the fact that what works in one part of the country may not work in another.

The statistics reveal that when ACARA was established in 2008, the benchmarked Year Nine student reading results indicated that 92.9 per cent of all students were ‘at or above the [then] minimum standard’. However, only 70.7 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students met that benchmark. In 2022, the figure for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had dropped to 67.2 per cent. Further, the 2022 results highlight another significant gap, with 91.5 per cent of students in major cities ‘at or above standard’, while only 76 per cent of remote students and 47.5 per cent of very remote students met the minimum benchmark set at the time (benchmarks have since changed). The discrepancy between results in urban and remote areas is stark.

This ‘demotion of agency’ is evident in both the Voice to Parliament and the National Curriculum. Each of these fails, or refuses, to acknowledge the unique challenges and opportunities that different communities face. Most notably, they ignore the vast differences between life in regional and remote areas of the country and life in our major cities.

Neither the Voice to Parliament nor the National Curriculum acknowledge these differences between communities, allowing a centralised bureaucratic elite to mandate policies that may appear sound on paper but are often impractical, unwarranted, or ineffective in practice. Local communities are usually better placed to identify and understand their specific challenges and opportunities, something a centralised and cosseted bureaucracy fails to appreciate.

This lack of local agency results in frustration and disengagement, as communities are forced to follow bureaucratic mandates that don’t align with their particular priorities.

Even within the major cities, the National Curriculum neglects to acknowledge the agency of the local environment. It promotes a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t address the varying needs or opportunities of local communities, ignoring the diversity of backgrounds, the culture, the environment, and the perspectives that exist within each one of them.

With decisions flowing from the national level, they must pass through multiple layers of approval and implementation, resulting in a slow and convoluted process. This leads to inefficiency, a lack of accountability, delays in responding to emerging challenges, and limited adaptability. This burdensome administration and reporting process does nothing to address the downward spiral of our children’s academic performance.

ACARA’s 2022 internal survey of staff perceptions of organisational performance revealed that 82 per cent of respondents were satisfied with ACARA’s progress. As part of this, ACARA stated that its Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) provides employees with the opportunity to support actions aimed at driving ACARA’s contribution to reconciliation and includes various tangible and practical actions to develop and strengthen relationships with First Nations Peoples.

Soon after ACARA trumpeted the high satisfaction level of its staff, the 2023 NAPLAN results, which ACARA implements, revealed that a third of all Australian students, and 52.5 per cent of very remote students, had failed to meet the year nine minimum reading benchmarks.

ACARA has created an ideologically driven curriculum that ignores the true purpose, and the often very particular nature, of education – to the detriment of our students.

This rarefied bureaucracy is out of touch and risk-averse, choosing instead to create and then tick boxes – boxes more often than not with a political rather than educational purpose.

However, the same problem has just been dressed up with new terms. Parents receiving a report indicating their child is ‘strong’ would rightly believe their child’s grasp of the subject matter, and their capacity to manipulate it, is robust. However, the new indicators provide no clarity as to whether their child is barely over the line and in fact at risk – i.e. much closer to ‘developing’ than ‘exceeding’ – and is not secure and comfortable with the subject matter at all.

So, the wide-reaching and misleading descriptor ‘strong’ recreates the very problem ACARA cited as the reason for the overhaul. Coupled with the inability to audit and compare years of crucially important data, it makes one wonder why the changes were made at all.

The results are comparable to the independent international assessment undertaken by the OECD’s Program for International Students Assessment (the PISA program) which measures the ability of 15-year-olds across 78 countries to use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge to meet real life challenges. If you suspect your average performing child is not as competent as you were, you are right. OECD comparative results reveal the average 15-year-old Australian student today is more than a year behind the average 15-year-old of twenty years ago and is several years behind their Asian neighbours. The most recent OECD results available from 2018 showed just 60 per cent of Australian year nine students read at a proficient standard.

Despite a 60 per cent increase in school funding over two decades, standards have continued to decline. Year after year governments have refused to acknowledge, let alone meaningfully address, the real issues in our education system, and funding is not one of them.

A commitment to core skills attainment in the early years, mandating explicit teaching with emphases on phonics and ‘numbers facts’ is urgently required.

Subject integrity must be reinstated by the removal of the activist ideological agenda within the curriculum that mandates subjects are taught through the prism of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Culture, and Sustainability. Put simply, political correctness and woke ideology permeate every subject at every year level, and our children emerge from the process unthinking ideologues completely unprepared for the realities of the workplace in a highly competitive world.

Initial teacher training needs urgent attention to ensure those at the coalface are proficient in both subject content and in the teaching method required to impart that content, to ensure the success of those in their charge.

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare recently said once students fall behind, it’s ‘very, very hard to catch up’. In this he is correct. The appalling decline of our education system has been flagged year after year. Big questions need answering, chiefly: Why do we continue to ignore the very future of our nation?

Merely changing the way we describe the dire situation we find ourselves in only serves to avoid this question and to obscure the real changes urgently required.


Colleen Harkin

National Manager, Class Action Program and Research Fellow