NESA draft History 7-10 Syllabus - What is missing?

Article by Murray Print, Professor of Political Education, University of Sydney

22 December 2023


The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), as part of its responsibilities for the NSW school curriculum, released the draft History 7-10 Syllabus earlier this year. The draft syllabus is currently in a consultation period. This might not sound like ground-breaking news given most people think that the History Syllabus is all about pyramids, Vikings, Aboriginal Culture and histories and a sprinkle of First Fleet Convict stories.

But this curriculum review of the History 7-10 Syllabus should be one of the most important education discussions going on in NSW right now.

NESA takes an ‘adopt and adapt’ approach to incorporating Australian Curriculum content into NSW syllabuses. The draft syllabus is supposedly aligned to the F–10 Australian Curriculum (version 9.0).
Really? Where is the Civics and Citizenship 7-10 curriculum? Its presence is clearly stated in the Australian Curriculum, but omitted from NESA 7-10 syllabuses. Why? When democracies around the world are experiencing backsliding and the rise of extremism the need for active and informed citizens is clearly evident.

The recent ANU report on Australians views towards democracy reflects Western democracies’ general concerns in recent years about a weakening of their democratic institutions and a loss of support for democracy.

The Australian Government is so concerned it established a taskforce in early 2023 to advise it on what could be done to strengthen Australian democracy. These efforts appear to be largely directed towards short-term solutions.

It also evident that young Australians lack understanding of our democracy and our democratic way of life. For some time the NAPCC results show less than half of Year 10 students have a reasonable grasp of our democracy. The most recent NAPCC revealed only 38% of Year 10 students achieved the performance standard – a massive 6 out of 10 students don’t really understand our democracy and system of government.

If NESA refuses to have a standalone Civic and Citizenship Syllabus, and learning Australian democracy is essential, where could students learn this content in Years 7-10?

Obviously it should be in a compulsory subject. Geography? English?

The History Syllabus is the most likely choice. Civics and citizenship is clearly linked with History and is even found within the NAPCC. The same NAPCC Year 10 assessment on which Year 10 students perform so poorly.

Why is the review of the NSW History 7-10 Syllabus important?

First, if NSW students are to learn about democracy, the Constitution, government, the purpose of laws and the way the legal system contributes to our rights and freedoms, the only compulsory opportunity is as part of history syllabus. The content that is included in the NSW History 7-10 Syllabus is the key indicator of the essential knowledge, skills and understanding that NSW students will be given to be equipped as active and engaged citizens, able to maintain a democracy and participate in Australia’s civic life.

Secondly, the existing History 7-10 Syllabus is dated from 2012. Since then we’ve done a significant amount of time and research in improving civics education in Australia including the Final Report for the Review of the Australian Curriculum released in 2014 and the release of the Australian Curriculum on Civics and Citizenship completed by a panel of Civics Education experts.

What do we know about the NSW Draft History Syllabus?

NESA’s draft History 7-10 Syllabus is a significant improvement on the current History 7-10 Syllabus. This was not a hard task given that it is over a decade old and there was almost no civics education in the earlier syllabus.

As reported by the Rule of Law Education Centre, “…in New South Wales, it is possible for students to experience no, or very limited, exposure to civics and citizenship ideas in a historical or contemporary Australian context throughout their entire New South Wales schooling.”

However, the Rule of Law Education Centre has also commented regarding the draft History Syllabus’s failure to build knowledge and develop critical concepts consistently over time, to teach students key concepts and relevant, precise terminology vital to deep understanding, and to provide an understanding of key events in Australia’s democratic heritage. Further the Centre noted with regret that key concepts were presented as optional, rather than compulsory, learning by their incorporation as suggested topics into the elective Commerce subject.

In reality the Civics content included in the History 7-10 Syllabus is more about history and less about civics education. It is more about learning Australian history and less about providing substantive knowledge that equips active and informed citizens. It is more about what works best for History teaching and less about what is important for our democracy to flourish.

In reference to the Australian Curriculum, Professor Anne Twomey expressed: “The curriculum should focus on building up the knowledge and understanding of students of the system of government and the skills to participate in it, so that they are empowered to perform their role as citizens in an informed and competent way.’  This is consistent with NESA’s charter that sets out its aim “To enable all children and young people to fulfil their potential through a high-quality education that is characterised by equity and excellence, equips them to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens, and nurtures development of the whole person, preparing students for meaningful work and living lives they have reason to value.”

What still needs to be addressed in the NSW Draft History 7-10 Syllabus?

Given the NSW context with NESA, if Civics and Citizenship Education takes a different structure and organisation from the Australian Curriculum, NESA should provide further detail when finalising the NSW Curriculum that provides greater transparency which includes:

  • Why civics education is included in History rather than its own separate subject.
  • Whether they support the Statement of Learning for Civics and Citizenship developed on behalf of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs that set out the knowledge, skills, understandings and capacities that students in Australia should have the opportunity to learn and develop as part of their civics and citizenship education.
  • The sequence of learning that specifies what every student should know and understand about our Government and Law, Citizenship in a Democracy and the Historical Perspectives that impact the past on Australian civil society.
  • A call that all teacher education graduates in NSW be required to complete a dedicated unit in Civics and Citizenship education.

Can civics and citizenship be taught in NSW History classes? Of course it can even if many history teachers will resist.

Teachers can be updated through NSW universities and subject associations. It is not difficult content to teach and is found in the Australian Curriculum. It revolves around three content components:

  1. Government and democracy
  2. Law and citizens
  3. Citizenship, diversity and identity

If NESA is serious about fulfilling it’s Charter to equip NSW students to be active and informed citizens, it is imperative there is a strong focus on civics education within the History 7-10 Syllabus.


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