The teaching of Australian history at VCE level is set for an overhaul next year in a bid to attract more students and turn around a decline in enrolments that teachers warn could make the subject unviable.
The new version of Australian history will replace the current study design – described by one expert as a “rollicking race through a lot of content” – with four deep dives into distinct themes, including Aboriginal land management, race and immigration, landmark environmental fights such as the Franklin Dam campaign and struggles for women’s equality.
Topics including the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and the frontier wars between First Australians and colonialists will also be given more exposure.
The overhaul has been sparked by a recent, sharp decline in enrolments in VCE Australian history. The number of students who completed the subject almost halved between 2014 and 2019, from 1245 students in 2014 to just 632 in 2019, equating to 1.27 per cent of VCE students in the state. Last year the number rose to 710 students.
“The numbers are reaching the kind of state where, if there wasn’t some kind of intervention it’s likely Victoria could end up losing that subject,” said Deb Hull, the executive officer of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria.
Victoria is already the only state that offers Australian history as a standalone subject in years 11 and 12. It was taught in just 50 schools last year.
Senior students were surveyed before the introduction of a new Australian history study design, which will be taught from 2022.
Ms Hull said the feedback suggested students found Australian history less compelling than other VCE history subjects such as revolutions, which includes in-depth studies of the French, American and Russian revolutions.
The difficulty of the exam, which requires advanced essay-writing skills, was also off-putting for many students who were seeking to maximise their ATARs.
“The [Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority] asked students and got some pretty clear answers: one of the problems was the nature of the exam at year 12,” Ms Hull said.
“Students want to do well and are often tempted to choose the path of least resistance where they can optimise their results.”
The new version of Australian history’s structure has been modelled on VCE revolutions: rather than seeking to teach students the entire span of Australian history chronologically, the subject will be broken into four themes, with students to conduct two semester-length investigations of themes including creating a nation, power and resistance, and war and upheaval.
VCE Australian history teacher Briony Parker loves the current version of the subject, but she conceded it was “a tough sell” with students who often think “it’s about bushrangers and the gold rush”.
Ms Parker, who teaches at Brighton Catholic girls’ school Star of the Sea, said the new version was “trying to tap into what the kids are into”.
“The course is great but the numbers are low and I think we’ve got to try and make it sexy,” she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said a review of the subject in 2019 “provided an opportunity to renew, restructure and revitalise the study for the next generation of students who are passionate about our nation’s history”.
Victoria has its own curriculum but the history overhaul coincides with a review of the Australian curriculum ahead of a new version being released in 2022.
The draft version of the new curriculum has prompted debate about its greater emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories.
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