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Ensuring children are offered the best possible start to formal learning will be the result of a new study into the quality of early childhood education and care in Australia. The five year project, drawing on expertise from education experts in Australia, Canada and the UK along with the Victorian and Queensland Governments, was announced today following a Federal Government grant of $2.2million through the Australian Research Council.

There are important efficiencies to be won for Australian school-children through the implementation of a national school curriculum, says Chair of the National Curriculum Board and Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute (MERI), Professor Barry McGaw.

Professor McGaw, who led the team of experts reviewing the structure and content of a new curriculum for Australian schools says that being a relatively small country, we would do schooling better if we did everything together.  He said it would be done more efficiently, and we would be able to draw on a better skill base of teachers and curriculum creators, if we do it nationally.

"Even though we have separate systems in the states and territories, they are not all that different.  There was a recent study looking into some of the content in physics, maths and chemistry for example, and it was found that 90 per cent of the content is largely the same - yet it has been developed seven times."

Professor McGaw says it is often argued that we need a national curriculum to better support the 80,000 students who cross state borders each year.

But he says: "Increasingly in education practice the comparisons we’re interested in making are those across international boundaries - it’s another aspect of globalisation really."

Professor McGaw says the new curriculum will specify what is that students should be able to know, and understand, and do, and will detail content, however one of its main benefits will be that is allows for a genuinely common assessment of student outcomes and school performance.

"We do have in Australia now a common assessment of literacy and numeracy, but that’s a common assessment designed in the absence of a common framework - with a national curriculum we have the prospect of a common framework to shape the tests."

Professor McGaw says standout features of the curriculum are the attention paid to Indigenous traditions, both in their own right, and in relation to settlement cultures, and a renewed emphasis on the teaching of grammar.

"In English there will be three strands: literature, language and literacy.  Traditional grammar is important to learn but not in a decontextualised way.  The reason we gave up teaching it was because it was taught in such a boring way.  We need to have reasons why we learn grammar - we need to make grammar have a point."

Professor Lyn Yates says funding for school buildings and facilities will help improve student morale and retention rates.

In today’s state budget, the Victorian Government has allocated $402 million toward the rebuilding and renovation of 113 state government schools across the state. These funds will be combined with the Federal government’s allocation of $686 million for Victorian schools’ infrastructure projects.

Professor Yates said receiving such a large amount of funding from the Federal government in such dire financial times was an encouraging sign that the Government was taking investment in education seriously and that the funding will do a lot more than simply make things look “shiny and new.”

“Teachers, students and parents really get a sense of whether or not they are valued in an institution if it is shiny and new, we should never underestimate the morale and valuing aspect of improvements of infrastructure,” she says. 

Professor Yates predicted these improvements could increase retention rates, with students actually enjoying their surroundings and deciding to stay on till year 12. Professor Yates also said she hoped this funding will begin to close the disparity between rich and poor schools by “at least making the base level something people will feel happy about.”

Professor Lyn Yates is Professor of Curriculum in the Graduate School of Education.

The University of Melbourne will host information sessions in regional Victoria for students and their families to explore study options, scholarships and careers.