Shakespeare, Beowulf and Chaucer could be back in the NZ English curriculum – should they be?


For the second time in as many years, New Zealand’s secondary school English curriculum will be rewritten, a move which has generated disquiet from teachers and academics alike.

The revised year 7-13 English curriculum, to be released in July, is expected to include compulsory Shakespeare and grammar lessons, as well as a recommended reading list ranging from contemporary New Zealand authors to Chaucer and Beowulf.

Supporters say these changes will establish a “knowledge-rich” curriculum with a set of recommended texts. Currently, individual teachers have the autonomy to select what is taught in their classrooms.

But others have expressed concern about a seemingly secretive process. The New Zealand Association of Teachers of English, for example, learned of the curriculum changes from the media.

Teachers are also concerned about the emphasis on traditional literary texts, such as Shakespeare and other works. They worry many students might find these works inaccessible. As parents and teachers await the draft curriculum, it is worth considering what is changing and why.

A curriculum without content

The international push to develop knowledge economies over the past three decades has led to demands for “competency-based” education organised around achievement objectives.

For teachers this has meant outcomes-driven teaching, including planing their lessons around the knowledge and skills students are expected to have at the end of each unit. For students it has meant becoming “self-managing” learners who play an active role in setting the course of their education.

The principles of competency-based education are present in New Zealand’s national curriculum (which describes itself as a “framework rather than a detailed plan”, and national qualification standards (NCEA), which compartmentalise knowledge into separate achievement standards.

This does not mean there has been no literature in classrooms. But there has been a higher degree of curriculum variability between schools, as well as content driven by student interest rather than disciplinary merit. A pick-and-choose assessment framework has become the default curriculum for the final three years of secondary school.

Moving towards a knowledge-rich curriculum

Part of a wider international movement, a knowledge-rich curriculum seeks to infuse the “breadth and depth” of disciplinary knowledge into school subjects.

This approach differs from the changes made in 2023, which focused on “giving practical effect” to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Under the 2023 changes, schools had to ensure the curriculum reflected local tikanga Māori (Māori customary practices or behaviours), mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and te ao Māori (the Māori world).

The current rewrite will likely be informed by the curriculum design coherence model – a tool designed to link content with concepts and to make the internal logic of subjects visible.

How this will play out in an English curriculum remains to be seen. So far, it seems literary, popular and traditional texts will be categorised into year levels on recommended reading lists. Grammar will be prescribed from year 7 to year 13.

Culture, knowledge and secondary school English

The rewrite’s emphasis on a knowledge-rich curriculum raises questions about the balance between school-subject knowledge and the knowledge young people bring from home.

When the plans for the curriculum rewrite were revealed, one working group member told media:

Every child throughout the country has the right to the very best English language and literature.

But while all students should have access to the same high-quality texts, access in itself doesn’t address inequality across our education system.

Research clearly shows not all students have the same opportunities to fully engage with rich and complex content in secondary English classrooms. Providing access to certain knowledge is only one aspect of addressing educational disparities.

A wider conversation about English

Both the 2023 English refresh and the current rewrite are attempts to recalibrate the effects of New Zealand’s devolved curriculum. To achieve this, both rewrites have sought to identify and protect what the authors believe to be the knowledge that matters.

But culture cannot be prised from the curriculum. The working group needs to produce an English curriculum in keeping with Aotearoa New Zealand’s bicultural foundation and contemporary society.

English’s long history is more nuanced than a binary traditional versus progressive description. Now is a good time to clarify which models of English are most desirable to New Zealand as a country, and why.

There also needs to be a nationwide conversation about what a literary canon could look like for our country. How might recommended reading lists be curated to ensure all students have access to a broad range of traditional and contemporary literature?

The changes to secondary school English over the past two years are manifestations of enduring questions about the purposes of curriculum and the cultural artefacts that bring a subject like English to life. Now is a good opportunity to tackle these questions.

Author Bio: Claudia Rozas is Lecturer, Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland, Waipapa Taumata Rau