February 25th, 2014
The Minister for Education in the Abbott Government, the Hon Christopher Pyne, continued his destruction of the former government’s education policies in early January of this year when he announced a review of the National Curriculum developed over the last five or so years and about to be implemented in all states. The announcement is a further step in the dismantling of the entire education policies of the former Labor Government.
The latest decision is the undermining of the Gonski reforms by allowing that the states need not contribute any increased funding to implement the National Plan for School Improvement. As Trevor Cobbold points out that is fundamentally destructive of the basis of the National Plan. In other words the Coalition by supporting states’ rights has sabotaged the Plan. This is a breach of the commitment given by Mr Abbott before the election and also goes against the policies of the Howard Government.
As Cobbold points out not only did the Howard Government subject state and territory government to conditions for federal funding, but it went so far as to circumvent state and territory government control over their own schools by funding schools directly, subject to conditions.
Predictably, in announcing the curriculum review, Pyne claimed the government had a mandate for the review, justified it by claiming it would be robust and that it should not be a partisan issue. His two reviewers, consultant Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor of Public Administration at the University of Queensland Ken Wiltshire were immediately identified as well-known opponents of the new curriculum.
There are particular reasons why all this fuss by the Minister about the curriculum is a waste of people’s time and based on no understanding whatsoever of education, learning and schooling.
The curriculum is useful when it forms a strong basis for discussion in the classroom and encourages understanding and further inquiry. And more importantly, if our aim is to have young people emerge from school able to reach their potential and be productive members of the community in the brad sense of that word and able to understand the world around them and interested in the future and in humanity, then we have to recognise that the education process doesn’t start at school but in the earliest years, in the home with parents, carers, other children and amongst a physical and emotional environment which has profound and long lasting influence.
Pyne’s curriculum review has been heavily criticised by academics and education researchers, media commentators and parents and citizens groups as premature at best and unnecessary at worst.
Marilyn Parker in her Daily Telegraph blog branded the exercise a shambles. She quoted reviewer Dr Kevin Donnelly as complaining that every subject had to be taught through a perspective “where new age, 21st century generic skills and competencies undermine academic content”, “the draft civics and citizenship curriculum air brushes Christianity from the nation’s civic life and institutions and adopts a postmodern, subjective definition of citizenship”.
Dr Donnelly has also asserted that, “The history curriculum, in addition to uncritically promoting diversity and difference instead of what binds as a community and a nation, undervalues Western civilisation and the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life” and the English national curriculum as adopting “an exploded definition of literature, one where classic works from the literary canon jostle for attention along side SMS messages, film posters, graffiti and multi-modal texts”.
Marilyn Parker also made this prescient comment:
“Next will be an attempt to change how teachers teach.
“Kevin claims “One reason why the cultural-left has been so successful in controlling the education system is because the majority of Australia’s professional bodies, subject associations and teacher training academics are hostile to a conservative view of education epitomised by choice and diversity, an academic curriculum, meritocracy and traditional styles of teaching.”
Indeed Mr Pyne has announced a review of teacher education! That is for another time.
Commentator Mungo MacCallum (“History repeats in curriculum war”) writing in The Drum, the ABC’s comments site, on 21 January observed that Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s review of the national curriculum will not be left solely to his two hand-picked cultural warriors of the extreme right. “They now say they will co-opt experts in every field, as well as call for submissions from all the state and territory curriculum authorities, the independent and Catholic schools, principals, teachers and parents – just about everyone, in fact, except the students themselves. In effect they will be starting again from scratch, and since the process of evolving the original curriculum took several years, Pyne’s ambition to see the results of his review incorporated in the curriculum for the 2015 teaching year seem unlikely to be realised. Indeed, state authorities in New South Wales, to name but one state, have dismissed the idea as fanciful.”
MacCallum also observed, “Wiltshire, whose expertise has been in the broad field of public administration, has some experience in curriculum reform; he headed a similar exercise for Queensland’s Labor premier Wayne Goss, a job which brought him into open conflict with Goss’s chief of staff, one Kevin Rudd. But once again, he has no known acquaintance with maths and science. It is hard to see this ideologically driven review coming up with big improvements in the teaching of either discipline.”
Associate Professor Tony Taylor at Monash University has been intimately associated with the review and formulation of history curricula. In 1999 he was appointed Director of the Australian Government’s National Inquiry into the Teaching and Learning of History and, from 2001-2007, he was Director of the Australian Government’s National Centre for History Education. He has researched and published extensively on history and education. He was a senior consultant with successive Coalition and ALP federal governments in formulating three drafts of a national history curriculum and also developed national professional standards for the teaching and learning of history.
Professor Taylor wrote in The Conversation 10 January, “These appointments come as no surprise. They are entirely in line with the government’s brazen approach to appointing close supporters to positions of authority and influence. The justificatory rhetoric that surrounds the current nominations is familiar, stale and inaccurate.”
Taylor commented in the Fairfax Press on January 16 that “Since federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s launch last week of a two-man curriculum review panel, of conservative educationist Kevin Donnelly and conservatively inclined business academic Kenneth Wiltshire, levels of incredulity, derision and cynicism among educators and political commentators (outside News Corp media) have gone off the Richter scale.” He continued, “Pyne might as well have announced he was rearranging the communal henhouse by shoving two foxes through its front door. The curriculum history wars, part of the bigger culture wars that have been blighting the Australian cultural and political landscape for more than a decade, were on again.”
Professor Taylor also observed, “Finally, any criticism of this world view is to be regarded as subversive and is based on godless Marxism or is just plain atheist in origin. Occasionally ill-informed mentions of bogyman postmodernism are thrown into the mix. These complaints form the basis of the current curriculum review.”
Reporters Josephine Tovey and Judith Ireland (“Education: Christopher Pyne’s move to review curriculum dubbed a political stunt”, January 11) reported
the lead writer of the new history curriculum, Professor Stuart Macintyre of the University of Melbourne, as pointing out that the curriculum had been developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), over three years, involving consultation, submissions and contributions from a huge number of people – more than 4000 submissions and surveys were received in relation to English, maths, science and history alone. ”Whereas this is to be conducted by two people who have particular backgrounds. How they’re expected to apply expertise is beyond me, both in the subject areas and in curriculum”.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s board chairman, Barry McGaw, said he welcomed the review. But he also said the authority had used a ”rigorous, national process” that had produced a high-quality curriculum. ”The Australian curriculum is setting higher standards across the country, perhaps most notably in mathematics and science at the primary school level”.
On the other hand, Professor Judith Sloan, writing in The Australian (October 12, 2013), described the national curriculum as mired in half-baked fads. “I HAVE never been a fan of the idea of a national school curriculum. I can understand why some people find it attractive. What happens to the 80,000 odd school-aged children whose families move interstate every year? How confusing it must be for them to deal with differences in curriculum. Actually, this is a very weak argument. In point of fact, the differences in the content of school courses have never been vast across the states.”
Professor Sloan trashed the economics curriculum: “The bottom line is that the national curriculum on economics and business for years 5 to 10 is tosh. It is page after page of earnest, largely worthless, drivel. I pity the poor teachers who have to use this guide as a basis for preparing teaching materials and lessons.”
The Australian Council of State School Organisations, a peak national group affiliated with most state and territory parents and citizens associations, was reported by Daniel Hurst in The Guardian of 13 January (‘National curriculum review premature, say parents and teachers’) as questioning the review’s timing and motivation.
“The council’s chief executive officer, Dianne Giblin, said parents were “a bit bemused” by the review because the national curriculum was yet to be completely rolled out. She said parents and parent groups had been heavily involved in developing the national curriculum, with the process attracting thousands of submissions.”
Minister Pyne has said, as reported by Hurst in The Guardian, the aim of the review “was to turn out a robust curriculum, a good curriculum that improves the results of our students” and he said he was confident Donnelly and Wiltshire would produce an objective and fair report. He said the national curriculum should not be a static document and should always be questioned, tested and argued about. “I haven’t appointed a committee that tries to please everybody and therefore does not produce a robust result,” Pyne said.
Neither Donnelly or the other reviewer Professor Ken Wiltshire at the University of Queensland are curriculum experts. The study of curricula is a discipline in itself and one of Australia’s education researchers, Professor Lynn Yates of Melbourne University’s Graduate School of Education is a leading expert in the field. A major conference on the curriculum held at the University of Melbourne in late February 2010 involved distinguished experts in many disciplines. It was hardly reported in the media.
The reasons why the review of the curriculum is a waste of time is at Moving deckchairs on the wrong ship!