Issues in Educational Research, 5(1), 1995, 1-9.

Curriculum makers or curriculum takers? The influence of tertiary selection on secondary schools

Rod Chadbourne
Edith Cowan University

This paper reports the findings of a study conducted in 1994-95 by and for the Western Australian Secondary Principals Association (WASPA). The study is grounded in the reported experiences, observations and reflections of high school principals in WA, not the theorising of armchair policy analysts. It documents the influence of tertiary selection on the Year 11-12 program in terms of what occurs in practice, on-site, in schools. Members of WASPA conceived the idea for the study, provided all the data and responded to successive drafts of the findings. A full account of the study is contained in a 97 page WASPA report (Chadbourne 1995).

Background and purpose of the study

For decades high schools in Western Australia (WA) have been heavily influenced by tertiary selection requirements. Complaints about the nature and extent of that influence have led to a variety of investigations and reforms over the past 25 years. For instance, the Dettman (1972), Beazley (1984), McGaw (1984), and Andrich (1989) reports have led to major changes in university entrance requirements and certification of students completing secondary schooling[1]. The general trend of these changes has been to add more weight to the school-based assessment component of the tertiary entrance score.

Despite two decades of reform, state secondary school principals have become increasingly concerned about what they see to be the continued domination of schools by university selection requirements. Their concerns spring from frustrated attempts to provide a relevant and high quality education for all students in the face of significant challenges created by changes in: retention rates, the job market, national education agendas and the social fabric of the community. As a result of these concerns, the WA Secondary Principals Association (WASPA) commissioned a study to investigate the current influence of university entry requirements upon the capacity of schools to provide a relevant and high quality educational program for all Year 11-12 students. This article reports the main findings of the study.

The three phase design of the study

In the first phase of the study, a draft report was written based on the experiences, observations and reflections of 19 secondary principals, as reported in audio-taped interviews. These principals were selected by the WASPA professional development committee; they represented schools in high and low socio-economic areas, metropolitan and rural schools, and male and female principals. Five members of WASPA formed a panel of interviewers. Between them, they interviewed eleven other principals on a one-to-one basis, in December, 1994. As indicated below, three more principals had input later. Also, throughout the interviews the interviewers provided their own perspective on the matters under consideration. This made some of the data gathering sessions more like collegial discussions than conventional interviews. At some of the interviews, the principals were accompanied by a senior staff member responsible for post compulsory programs in their schools. The interviewers were provided with a set of broad questions drawn up by WASPA professional development committee and a researcher (Rod Chadbourne) commissioned by WASPA. These questions asked for information about the affect of tertiary entrance exams upon: the aims and culture of the school; the school curriculum; teaching and learning strategies; processes of assessment recording and reporting; and patterns of work organisation in schools. The principals were also asked to propose ways to reduce the detrimental influence of tertiary selection requirements. Each interview lasted about one hour. The interviews were transcribed and returned to the participants for validation and clearance.

Following the interviews, the researcher drafted a report from the transcripts using the constant comparative method of qualitative data analysis and inductive coding methods (Glasser and Strauss, 1977; Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Maycut and Morehouse, 1994). He circulated this draft for comment to the five interviewers and three further principals who had been selected for the initial round of interviews but were not available at the time. Their responses were incorporated in a revised draft which was then circulated to all members of WASPA for discussion and validation at their March Conference (1995).

Phase two took place before and after the March Conference. It involved collecting data in various ways to determine whether the points and proposals made in the draft report were representative of the experiences and views of the broader WASPA membership. All principals were given a copy of the draft report two weeks before the Conference and asked to annotate it and mark parts they agreed and disagreed with; they handed in their annotated reports on the second day of the Conference. On the first day of the Conference, 88 principals filled in a 96 item survey based on the contents of the draft report, and they workshopped the draft report in small groups. Phase three of the study entailed amending the draft report on the basis of information gained from the annotated copies, survey results and small group discussions during the March Conference. A final report was then sent to 10 principals selected by WASPA for validation of amendments to the draft report made as a result of data collected at the March Conference.

Findings of the study

The findings of the study, as presented in this section, represent the views of the 88 principals (93% of the total WASPA membership) who attended the 1995 March Conference. The substance of these findings was documented in the draft report, subjected to written annotation by the principals, discussed during small group sessions at the Conference and tested through the survey. The statements below, then, constitute the distillation of all this work.

Influence of tertiary selection

According to a majority of principals, the TEE exercises an unhelpful influence on the aims and culture of schools, the school curriculum, teaching and learning strategies, processes of assessment, recording and reporting, and patterns of work organisation in schools. This applies particularly to the Year 11-12 program because tertiary selection requirements contribute to a situation where:

School aims and culture

  1. Preparation for the tertiary entrance examination (TEE) dominates the culture and aims of secondary schools to the detriment of other important values and purposes.
  2. Tertiary selection requirements encourage schools to operate in a way that perpetuates a hierarchy of teachers, students and subjects which, in turn, prevents all students gaining an equal sense of achievement and social worth.
  3. The personal and social development of students tends to be passed over and many students suffer from loss of self esteem and stress.

School curriculum

  1. The educational needs of the gradual achiever group ("bottom 20% of students") tend to be neglected.
  2. A subject-centred, content-based curriculum covered by a narrow range of TEE courses prevails over a learning-outcomes, process-based curriculum covering a broader, more flexible range of courses. Subject content is overemphasised to the point of becoming the objective rather than a vehicle to achieve the aims of education.
  3. The lower school curriculum is adversely influenced by the requirements of the upper school curriculum.
  4. Syllabus committees are dominated by university interests.

Teaching and learning strategies

  1. Teaching tends to be a headlong rush through the crowded curriculum with little time for higher order thinking skills.
  2. The effectiveness of teaching and learning TEE subjects suffers from excessive content, bookishness, individualism, competitiveness, didacticism, force feeding, conformity and traditionalism.
  3. The teaching and learning of TEE subjects is too examination-centred, assessment driven and teacher-centred.

Assessment, recording and reporting

  1. Teachers spend too much time on assessment, recording, and reporting, at the expense of spending time on teaching. They also suffer undue pressure to justify every mark.
  2. The assessment of students' work focuses too much on written tests rather than progressive alternatives that motivate and evaluate learning for understanding and mastery. Work organisation of secondary schools.
  3. Year 12 is effectively reduced to three terms, not four; that is, about 30 weeks instead of 40.
  4. Schools are forced to give TEE subjects priority over non-TEE subjects in the timetabling of classes, decisions about what subjects will be offered, and the protection of teaching time.
  5. Pressure to run small upper school TEE classes requires schools to have large lower school classes.
  6. The unpaid work that schools do to help universities select students takes up resources that could be better used for the school's central task of improving student learning outcomes.

Proposals to reduce the influence of tertiary selection

The principals put forward a variety of proposals to reduce what they perceive to be the detrimental influence of tertiary selection. These proposals can be grouped into two broad options: abolishing the TEE; and, making reforms within the system of external examinations.

Option One: Abolish the TEE:
Opinion is almost evenly divided among principals on whether to retain or abolish the TEE. The aggregated responses from eight survey items indicate that just over a third of principals want to the abolish the TEE, a third wish to retain it, and just under a third say they are undecided. During the initial round of interviews for compiling the draft report, a slight majority of principals advocated the abolition of the TEE and the remainder had reservations about that course of action. The annotated draft reports submitted by the principals contain a mixed response on whether or not to abandon the TEE. At the Conference, one discussion group was almost unanimously in favour of retaining the TEE while another group was almost unanimously in favour of abolishing it. Given the mixed nature of these results and the strength of concern about the detrimental influence of current tertiary selection processes on the Year 11-12 program, the study concludes that:

Option Two: Reforms Within the TEE:
Abolishing the TEE represents a form of radical restructuring. The second broad option involves attempting to reduce the detrimental influence of tertiary selection procedures by introducing reforms within the external examination system. Collectively, the principals in this study propose a wide range of such reforms, such as:

  1. Making more use of Distance Education and collaboration among schools within a district to provide students with a more comprehensive program.

  2. Adding flexibility to the management of time by having:

  3. Implementing semesterisation in Year 11 and possibly Year 12.

  4. Regrouping students into different types of schools by arrangements such as:

  5. Considering a range of curriculum reforms, such as:

  6. Increasing the provision and recognition of vocational programs of study.

  7. Introducing alternatives to traditional forms of assessing students' work.

  8. Extending and improving student counselling services.

  9. Re-thinking the provision for the gradual achiever group.

  10. Considering two secondary graduation proposals:

Table 1 summarises the results of survey items relating to the introduction of reforms within the external examination system (Option Two). It lists proposals made by principals in rank order according to the level of acceptance they attracted from the principals. It can be noted that very few of these proposals gain a two-thirds majority approval rating. This does not mean that over one third of principals reject a lot of the proposals. In many cases, principals are more undecided than opposed to them. In light of the level of uncertainty and the lack of clear endorsement for many of the proposals listed above, and given that steps need to be taken now to reduce the detrimental impact of the current tertiary selection process on schools, the study draws three conclusions.

Table 1: Summary of Survey Results Relating to Option Two
(n = 88) (A = agree, UN = undecided, D = disagree)


1. Extend vocational programs of study 88111
2. Improve student counselling services 84 133
3. Develop a cross district curriculum 721612
4. Introduce semesterisation of Year 11 67 1913
5. Make more use of Distance Education 66286
6. Allow more self supervised study at home 612316
7. Delay the TEE by three weeks 601624
8. Set up middle schools and senior colleges 601821
9. Implement student outcome statements 573112
10. Make graduation more inclusive 563410
11. Introduce semesterisation in Year 12 552816
12. Establish a Year 13 55 2817
13. Schedule early and late classes 543115
14. Institute a three year upper school 532422
15. Give schools control over one Year 12 subject 474112
16. Abolish exams for Year 12 non-TEE subjects 342343
17. Unload some Upper School curriculum into L.S. 313237
18. Abolish Year 12 mid-year exams 242551
19. Establish separate TEE and non-TEE schools 111673

Firstly, a pluralistic, rather than monolithic, approach seems to be warranted. That is, rather than a mandatory set of reforms, proposals should be seen as constituting a menu for change. Different schools could by encouraged to select from the menu those proposals which fit the local context within which they operate. Some schools have already done this. Others may need to be encouraged to do so.

Secondly, some items on the menu may require system-wide clearance and support. Other items may be matters for local discretion and resourcing. For example, one Conference discussion group recommended that abolishing Year 12 mid year exams, abolishing exams for non-TEE subjects, and scheduling early and late classes should be school decisions.

Thirdly, there may be a case for striking off the menu some items which attract a particularly low level of acceptance from the principals, at least for the time being.

Mutually exclusive options or complementary steps?

Another implication that can be drawn from the study involves viewing Options One and Two, not as mutually exclusive courses of action, but as necessary and complementary steps to combat the detrimental influence of tertiary selection upon the Year 11-12 program. The following interrelated assumptions underpin this alternative:

A final conclusion reached in the study is that, if removing the TEE proves impossible, then a lot can be achieved by a full scale implementation of the reforms listed under Option Two. Before embarking on such an exercise, however, it would be necessary to check that each initiative is educationally sound, organisationally achievable, and ideologically acceptable. To be educationally sound, an initiative needs to be able to promote improved student learning outcomes. To be organisationally achievable, an initiative needs to be capable of surviving obstacles such as industrial sensitivities, lack of professional and cultural readiness, parental and political opposition, legal barriers, and logistical complexities. To be ideologically acceptable, an initiative needs to be consistent with EDWA's Statement of Ethos and Purpose.


Andrich, D. (Chair) (1989). Upper secondary certification and tertiary entrance. Report of a review commissioned by the Minister of Education in Western Australia. Western Australia: Ministry of Education.

Beazley, K. (Chair) (1984). Education in Western Australia. Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Education in Western Australia. Perth.

Carmichael, L. (Chair) (1992). The Australian Vocational Certificate Training System. Report to the Employment and Skills Formation Council (Australia).

Chadbourne, R. (1995). Curriculum maker or curriculum taker? Principals' perceptions of the influence of tertiary selection upon the Year 11-12 program in secondary schools. Perth: Western Australian Secondary Principals Association.

Dettman, D. (Chair) (1969). Secondary education in Western Australia. Report of the Committee on Secondary Education in Western Australia. Perth: Education Department of Western Australia.

Finn, B. (Chair) (1991). Young people's participation in post-compulsory education and training. Report of the Australian Education Council Review. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Glasser, B. & Strauss, A. (1977). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

Lincoln, Y. & Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.

Maycut, P. & Morehouse, R. (1994). Beginning qualitative research: A philosophical and practical guide. London: Falmer Press.

Mayer, E. (Chair) (1992). Key competencies. Report to the Committee to advise the AEC and MOVEET on Employment-related key competencies for post-compulsory education and training. Canberra: AGPS..

McGaw, B. (Chair) (1984). Assessment in upper secondary schools in Western Australia. Report of the Ministerial Working Party on School Certification and Tertiary Admissions Procedures. Perth.


  1. Until 1970, the Junior (Year 10) and Leaving (Year 12) examinations dominated state secondary schools curricula. Since then, Western Australia has seen:

Author: Rod Chadbourne is a senior lecturer in education at Edith Cowan University. Before taking up his first tertiary position he taught in secondary schools for eight years in Western Australia, New Zealand, England and Canada. His recent research work has focussed on managing change in schools, teacher evaluation, devolution. and the impact of industrial disputes upon the nature of teachers' work.

Please cite as: Chadbourne, R. (1995). Curriculum makers or curriculum takers? The influence of tertiary selection on secondary schools. Issues In Educational Research, 5(1), 1-9.

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