who owns the curriculum?

07 Sep

in this part the book the board social and political contexts that influence the curriculum are discussed in relation to four specific issues

groups and individuals who see themselves with a stake in determining the content of the school curriculum

the mechanisms the are used in a democratic society to resolve different views of the curriculum

equity issues and the curriculum

essential learnings

the school curriculum and its stakeholders : who owns the curriculum?


By the end of this chapter, you should be able to :

  • Identify the various meanings attached to the ‘ school curriculum ‘ and the different approaches made to it.
  • Formulate a personal definition for the term ‘curriculum’
  • Understand the concept of ‘stakeholder’ as it applies to the scholl curriculum
  • Appreciate the roles of different stakeholders.

It is very tempting for educators to  regard the curriculum as a private transaction between the teacher and the student, or student and the activities and experiences that are provided in the course of the school day. In one sense it is that, but there is also a much broader context in which such transactions take place. It is a context that is part of social, political and economic structures of society. In seeking to understand the school curriculum, therefore, we are also seeking to understand the complex forces and patterns that characterise of society. The curriculum does not stand apart from society-it is firmly embedded in it.

Our explorations in this book will focus on the curriculum as both a social and a personal construct. This firts chapter attemps to clarify the meaning of the term ‘curriculum’ and identify stakeholders who have an interest in the content and function of the curriculum.

School curriculum : a search for meaning

The first point to note about the term ‘school curriculum’ is that different meanings  are attached to it. It is not unusual for curriculum workers to be concerned at the lack of consensus about the field to which they devote so much of their energy. The following is a typical comment.

It is a field…that remains contentious in terms of definition and delineation. After perusing all the curriculum texts on our collective shelves, we rediscovered what we and others have known for sometime : ‘ A quick survey of a dozen curriculum books would be likely to reveal a dozen different images or characterisationsbof curriculum. It might even reveal more, because the same authormay use the term in different ways ‘ (Schubert 1986, p.26; Gehrke et al.1992,p.s1)

Table 1.1 (on the following page) sets out some views of the curriculum taken by academic writers. The ambivalence among academics is not reflected in the views of most governments. Governments in many parts of the world have taken an unprecedented interest in what they see as the school curriculum (Lee 2001 ; Curriculum Development Council 2001 ; Pennington 1999). This interest is predicated on the value that governments so often see in the school curriculum as an instrument of social and economic development as outlined in the Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Shcooling  the twenty First Century.

Australia’s future depends upon each citizen having the necessary knowledge, understanding, skills and values for productive and rewarding life in an educated, just and open society. High quality schooling is central to achieving this vision.

This statement of national goals for schooling provides broad directions to guide schools and education authorities in securing these outcomes for students. (ministerial council on education, employment, training and touth affairs 1999)

The enthusiasm of governments for the school curriculum is matched by that of the bisiness community. Bisiness people see the curriculum as the means by which students gain the requisite knowledge and skills to make them productive workers. This is particularly so in the context of the growing knowledge-economy, as pointed out by the president of the Business council of australia.

The emergence of knowledge as the key factor of production in developed economies like Australia’s. puts great weight on the importance of ensuring we have a well educated and trained workforce. A good education system also enables to respond to the challenge of adapting to changes arising from innovation. Life long learning is a necessity for success in the knowledge based economy. (Anderson 1999)

TABLE 1.1 Conflicling views of the school curriculum

‘an interrelated set of plans and experiences that a student undertakes under the guidance of the school’                                                      Marsh & Willis (1995,p.10)

‘some claim that a curriculum is the content or objectives for which school hold students accountable. Others claim that a curriculum is the set of instructional strategies teachers plan to use’.                                                                    Posner (1995, p.5)

‘A curriculum is an organised set of formal educational and/ or training intentions’ Prott

‘The curriculum is always, in every society, a reflection of what the people think, feel, believe, and do’                                                       Smith (1950, p.3)

‘Curriculum encompasses all learning opportunities provided by the school’ Saylor&…

‘…(curriculum) is what the older generation chooses to tell the younger generation….(it) is intensely historical, political, racial, gendered, phenomenological, autobiographical, aesthetic, theological and international. Curriculum becomes the site on which the generations struggle to define themselves and the world’              Pinor et at (1995. Pp 847-848)

The business people community is in no doubt that the curriculum is important and that it must be structured in a particular way to deliver outcomes that are relevant to employment opportunities and the economic needs of society.

Parents also take a great interest in the curriculum, as they need to have faith that it will benefit their children. These children routinely leave home every day for school and return in the afternoon. Parent usually take it on trust that children and young people know more and can do more when return home than when they left in the morning. This trust is based on the school curriculum-the experiences and activities that children have been involved in during the day. For many parent, their views of the school curriculum have been shaped by their own experiences as students as well as by the aspiration they have for their children. Parents wish to see their children grow and develop in personally rewarding ways. Yet they are also very much attuned to the future; in which direction are their children heading for the years after school? Is the curriculum equipping them adequately? And will they be able to achieve the kinds of things they see as important? These questions are rarely  conceived logically, rationally or analytically; rather, they come from the heart and a deep concern for loved ones. Parents are a constant reminder that the curriculum is inextricably linked with values, feelings, affection and love -it is not merely an abstraction for academic inquiry or goverment manipulation.

And then there are the students the group for whom the curriculum is designed, the group for whom teachers are trained, the group for whom both society at large and parents in particular have such great aspirations. How do students conceive of the school curriculum? This is a difficult question to answer but some disturbing indications emerged in the National Education Longitudinal Study conducted in the United States in 1988. Twenty-five thousand United Stated eighth graders, their teachers, parents and principals, were part of the survey sample. The result were not particularly inspiring.

  • Teachers said that about one out of five eighth graders was inattentive in class
  • More than one in five eighth graders usually or often came to class without pencil or paper. A similar proportion came to class without having finished their homework.
  • Nearly half (47%) of the students said they were bored for at least half the time they spent in school.
  • More than 10% of eighth graders were frequently absent. A similar proportion were frequently disruptive.
  • About one-third of the students had been sent to the office for misbehaving.
  • At least one-third of eighth graders reported that tardiness, absenteeism and cutting class were moderate to serious problems.

Clearly, the results are highly culture-specific and it would not be wise to see the as applying universally. Yet them provide a picture of young people who are disengaged from learning, for whom the curriculum of school is meaningless and irrelevant. If these is even the slightest possibility that students in other countries feel similarly it their United Stated counterparts-or even if the percentage who feel that way is not as great-it still sends a strong signal to those who construct and design the curriculum. The clients or the end-user (to use two very ‘in vogue’ terms) may not feel the same way about the curriculum as many adults do, whether those adults are academic, business people, politicians or parent. Young people have a view of themselves and their world; they have aspirations and dreams, and it may be that the way we currently put together the curriculum is not always able to meet these concerns.

What conclusions can be made from all this? Is the search for meaning in the curriculum simply a conundrum in which these are conflicting and competing positions incapable of being resolved? This may a convenient academic description, but it is not good enough for our young people or for society.  Educators must make a greater affort to reconcile apparently conflicting views, for more is at stake than simply the resolustion of an academic issue. In seeking to understand better the role of the curriculum in the 21st century, the puspose should be to ensure that children and young people are well aquipped to handle whatever it is that this new century  will call them to do and to be. The curriculum of school is essentially about the future; it cannot be based on curriculum models that have been handed down from the previous centuries. It seems important to ensure that the curriculum of schools is able to help students construct a future that is both personally and socially rewarding.

This will involve rethinking the purpose of the curriculum away from the nation of conflicting and competing interests and towards the idea that there is a core of common interests that binds people together. This is not to minimise the importance of difference. Yet for a society to function there must be common interests and common bonds that bring the people together. This is a key idea for understanding, will be explored further in the following paragraphs.

Stakeholders in the Curriculum

There is, first, the interest of individuals; students, parents and teachers. These individual interests may or may not be mutually exclusive.

Students usually attend school under compulsion until about age 15 (age requirements for school attendance differ from Stake to Stake). Even though their attendance is compulsory, they still have personal, social and vocational aspirations. What is more, students are part of changing and evolving culture that are often at odds with those of the adults with whom they have to interact. The school curriculum must be able to meet their aspirations and take into account the changing culture standards from the perspectives of the students themselves. Otherwise, the results that came out of the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study in the United Stated- disengaged and disruptive students who see little value in what school has to offer-will characterise the education system.

Parents also have aspirations that need to be recognised. These may be vocational in nature but they may also be personal and social. Above all, parents want to see their children do well and they invest their faith in the school and its curriculum to ensure that this happens.

Teachers came at this from a different angle-they are the professionals. Their training equips them with knowledge and skills that in all likelihood dispose them towards the  academic rather than the vocational, the theoretical  rather than the implement the curriculum guidelines that govern the school. Yet more importantly they interpret those guidelines and add a pedagogical dimension that creates day-to day curriculum experiences for students. Theachers in reality are the mediators of the curriculum.

Not only are there concern and interests coming from individual within the school, groups of individuals also have spesial interests that the school curriculum must address. In Australia, for example, it is now recognised that the curriculum  must in particular address the spesial needs of girls, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, people with disabilities, people from a non-English speaking background, young people who live in poverty and the geographically isolated. Each of these groups has spesial interests that cannot be met by assuming that everyone is the same. The curriculum must cater for difference and show how such difference is valued.

It is not enough to recognise that there are individual and group interests and concerns within the scool. To these must be added the interests of groups that are external to the school.

Government have interests that are largely although not exclusively economic in nature. Charting economic growth and development has become a major preoccupation with governments and hence their concern. The nature of the school curriculum will determine the knowledge and skills that future citizens will possess and hence their capacity to contribute to the nations economy in a productive way. Of course, government are interests in more than economics. In general, democratic government wish to see a community that is socially cohesive, politically literate, culturally sophisticated, tolerant and just. The school curriculum can do much to contribute to these objectives as well.

The business community shares much of the government’s economic interests. For business to be productive and prosperous, they need workers who are literate, numerate and skilled in a variety of other ways. While business are capable of providing a good deal of training  themselves, they also have to rely on young people coming out of school to supply the range of talent and skills they require.

Universities and other agencies of further education and training have an interests in the shape and form of the school curriculum. In Australia, universities have exerted an enormous influence on the curriculum, especially in the later years of schooling. In an age of mass secondary education, however, the role of universities in this regard is being increasingly questioned.  Nevertheless, as the next step in the education process for a rising number (although by no means the majority) of young people. They will always want to play a ‘watchdog’ role to ensure that potential students come equipped with the requisite knowledge to undertake furth studies.

There are also other community groups that have a stake in what happens to young people at school. Social service agencies in particular have to deal with the social, medical and welfare issues related to young people and their families. These issues cannot be divorced from what happens to students in school. Sometimes when school authorities are trying to diagnose an educational problem, it seems they neglect to look beyond the school to the students life outside. School often try to solve problems for which they do not have the skills or expertise, particularly in the areas of mental health and family problems. Students misbehaviour can often be traced to family or peer group issues rather than to an educational cause. Students have lives outside the classroom and the external environment is a powerful influence on attitudes and behaviour. Teachers and school authorities are not always the best people to provide advice and assistance in this broader context.

In an important sense, academic conceptions of the curriculum both help and hinder us at this point. They help in the sense that they provide labels for the different conceptions that are articulated in the broader society but they hinder because these labels tend to compartmentalise. Thus, when different orientations to curriculum are labelled as ‘academic’, ‘instrumental’, ‘self-actualisation’, ‘sosial reconstruction’ or ‘critical’, barriers are constructed that suggest there orientations are self-contained. Rather than create barriers, it would be better to create new categories of thinking about the curriculum-categories that will include the needs of all the individuals and groups that heve been referred to so far. This model for the curriculum is shown here in table 1.2.

Table 1. 2 Orientations and functions of the school curriculum

Curriculum Orientatiosn >>>>>> Curriculum Functions

Knowledge, skills and values that:

Cultural                         >>>>>> ensure the foundations of society are transmitted the next generation

Personal                        >>>>>> provide for the intrinsic needs of individuals and groups

Vocational                      >>>>>> ensure students are equipped with the  necessary knowledge skills to enable them to participate actively in the world of work

Social                             >>>>>> enable society to function in a harmonious way for the benefit of all

Economic                        >>>>>> ensure that the productive capacity of individual  and the nation as a whole is taken into consideration

The main point to note about this proposed model is that the orientations and functions are not seen as mutually exclusive but as complementary. In constructing  the school curriculum they must all be taken into consideration, with the aim of meeting the needs of all individuals and groups.

A Case

The complexity associated with the public interest in the curriculum was shown in Western Australia in 2006 when some parents organised a demonstration againts the use of Outcornes Based Education (OBE) in senior secondary education.

Parents, teachers and students held an anti-OBE rally on 14 June 2006 outside Parliament House in Perth, Western Australia. It was part of a broader campaign on the part of community groups to protest against OBE as specific form of curriculum development for senior secondary students, even though it was already well established in primary and secondary schools. The main criticisms of OBE were that, though it did provide students with acces to essential knowlegde and skills, it did not provide enough support for teachers and assessment processes were problematic. These dissatisfactions became magnified in public campaign led by groups such as People Lobbying Against Outcomes Based Edeucation (PLATO) and it was even possible to buy bumper stickers with slogans such as ‘OBE Fails Kids’ and ‘ OBE Destroying Your Kids’ Education’. Eventually, the Health and Education Standing Committee of the Western Australia  State Parliament conducted a hearing into OBE, but it resulted in two reports-a Majority Report and a Minority Report-representing different views. The government nade some changes but the timetable for implementing OBE was not changed. Following the reports, the government abondoned the use of the term ‘Outcomes Based Education’, preferring instead ‘Outcomes and Standards Education’.


  1. Why do different group in the community feel so strongly about the school curriculum?
  2. In a democratic society, how should these differences be resolved? Why do you think parents felt the need to demonstrate publicly against OBE? Is this the best or inly way to make public views known?


If teh curriculum is seen as the means by which young people and adults gain the essential knowledge, skills and attitides they need to be productive and informed citizens in a democratic society, then everyone in the community has a stake in the shape and form that the curriculum takes.

Politicians and employeds look for a skilled and competent workforce. Parents look for the means by which their children can live a rewarding and satisfying life. Advocates of issues and cause want to ensure that students are aware of and sensitive to the major issues that will confront them when they grow up. Society as a whole may wish students to have grasp of certain basic skills (e.g literacy and numeracy) and certain kinds of knowledge (e.g an understanding of the history of their country).

No one is neutral when it comes to the curriculum. The eventual form that the school curriculum takes in the shape of Guidelines or Frameworks, therefore, represents a compromise between groups/ individuals in society seeking to influence the education of young people.

It might be said that the curriculum is constructed by groups/ individuals to suit the particular interests they represent. In this sense, the curriculum it self is not neutral-it represents a point of view or a perspective. It is often contested and often the subject of public debate and discussion.


  • Who has the most legitimate claim to influence the school curriculum: business and governments or parents and teachers? Do the claims of different groups necessarily have to conflict?
  • What do you think the role of  students should be in determining the shape and form of the school curriculum? Do you think everyone in society gets an equal chance to influence the contruction of the school curriculum?
  • What does you answer imply for the actual shape that the curriculum takes?
  • Review the defenitions of curriculum provided in table 1.1 . Which do you agree with?
  • Which do you disagree with?
  • Formulate your own view of the school curriculum based on your reading of this chapter and additional reading selected from the following references share your views with one or two colleagues and see what similarities and differences there are. Keep this formulation and came back to it from time to time as you read this text.


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