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Shift to Right means return to 'rigour'

The school inspector has long been a figure from history in Australia. For the past 20 years most schools have had sole responsibility for the curriculum and the assessment of pupils.

Students have faced external examinations only in their final years of secondary school. But a new mood of educational conservatism has arrived as voters reject Labor governments with strong connections to teacher unions.

Today, only two of the eight states and territories have Labor administrations - one having just been elected in New South Wales - and with the political change has come demands for greater school and teacher accountability.

Unable to resuscitate the school inspector, the conservatives have introduced standardised testing as a means of checking on school performance. In many of the states, pupils are now subject to formal external tests at the age of seven and 10 in primary school, again at 14 or 15 in some states, and in their final year of secondary school.

The former conservative government in New South Wales, for example, brought in a basic skills test in 1989 for grades 3 and 6. These were in addition to a test for entry to a selective high school, as well as a school certificate exam at Year 10 and the Higher School Certificate in year 12.

Pat Simpson, a senior official with the New South Wales Teachers' Federation, said: "The tests were introduced for political reasons in order to show the community that the government was 'doing something' about education. The politicians talk about 'rigour' but not processes or skills and they seem bemused by outcome-based education."

In South Australia, a new conservative government plans to make children sit basic skills tests in state (but not private) schools this August. The move has been strongly opposed by the Institute of Teachers, which has threatened to ban the tests.

In Victoria, the Federated Teachers Union called on members to boycott tests the government wants to introduce in grades 3 and 5. The union is also worried about a "general achievement test" brought in at Year 12.

Running alongside these developments has been the slow introduction of a national curriculum strategy intended to achieve some consistency across the nation.

"Profiles" developed for each learning area, and employment-related key competencies for older teenagers, describe what students need to know and do to become effective citizens with skills to make them employable.

Each profile was designed so that teachers across Australia could report in the same sort of way on their students' attainments. The profiles could have provided some indication of whether standards were rising or falling.

But political differences meant a meeting of all Australia's education ministers failed to endorse the scheme, leaving it up to individual states to act.

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