The Draft National Curriculum: A Model for Policy Feedback Online?

This morning, the draft K-10 National Curriculum opened for public feedback, comments, and discussion. This represents a significant improvement in large-scale online policy participation on an issue of wide appeal. And rightly so, as there are few families who will not be affected in some way by the standardisation of the K-10 curriculum.

Usually, I am not a fan of standardisation. But an issue which does need to be sorted out is the differences between states. And not just in the curriculum.

As a ten year old, I experienced the joy of moving to Queensland from NSW. I left NSW in Grade 5, and landed in Queensland in Grade 5. One sister left Grade 3 and landed in Grade 4, whereas another sister went from not being at school to being forced into school halfway through the first year. Different ideas about grades and commencement ages and so on played havoc during the foundational period of our education.

The curriculum was very different in a number of ways, too. The only real similarity was that we sang 'God Save the Queen' followed by 'Advance Australia Fair' with both the British and Australian flags unfurled every Monday morning. Our idea of the world was pretty much wrapped up in that weekly indoctrination process.

With the draft national curriculum up for feedback, I was quite concerned about how history will be taught. History is an important subject, but I was really worried that a particular view of history would be included to reinforce a nationalist idea of Australian identity.

By using the intuitive search functions, I was able to discover that my fears were unfounded. Although there are certain aspects of Australian history covered, this has not swamped other aspects of history. There is plenty of scope to broaden aspects of the history curriculum, but it does not resemble the Howardian view of Australian brain-washing that I envisaged.

Although there seems to be an ambiguous mix of copyright and Creative Commons 2.5, it is pleasing to see the use of the Creative Commons licensing in the online consultation portal.

The website is quite good, too. One feature of the National Curriculum website I like is that it requires you to provide your personal details and to login to view the content. I understand that feedback can be provided anonymously, but at least there is some control over how people participate.

Others might suggest that this is a bad thing. But I am fast being converted to the idea that if anyone is going to participate in public life, then their identity should be clear. Indeed, the anonymity of the Net is not as self-assured as it once was, as an 'anonymous' Perth reputation-slammer just found out.

Conversely, recent attempts to restrict political comment in South Australia were quickly terminated by a backlash of public opinion. But is political blogging the same as policy participation? I think not.

I argue that political blogging is more about the debates that occur before and after an item finds its way onto the policy agenda. But once an item is on the agenda, and indeed is about to be implemented, the rules need to change. Political bloggers and anonymous commentators can influence policy implementation and voters' decisions, but it makes little sense how anonymity is helpful when engaging in participation that is supposed to be meaningful.

Why? Well, it is one thing to live our private lives publicly (to paraphrase something I heard on the radio recently about social media), and another to actually participate in public life. Facebook are dealing with this problem right now.

But surely participation implies that others know who they are actually engaging with?

It might be appropriate for anonymity during the early stages of the policy cycle where a solution is being sought to a policy problem, but once an item is firmly being addressed by a particular policy, it makes little sense why anonymity should be required to take part in public debate.

Voting, surveys and opinion polls are obviously a different matter. And of course, journalism and 'the fourth estate' as means of keeping governments in check should not be confused with direct policy participation.

Clearly, there is a time and place for anonymity in the policy process. And there is certainly some way to go in enabling greater participation in deciding which policy problems find their way onto the policy agenda.

In short, the draft National Curriculum consultation provides a useful working model on how governments should enable public input on important policy issues. For me, the openness has allayed my fears of government-mandated history infiltrating primary and secondary education.

The opportunity to provide comments and feedback on the draft National Curriculum ends on 23 May 2010.