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Pyne’s Curriculum Mess

Tuesday, 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.

Maralyn 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”.

Maralyn 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!





What is wrong with the education debate?

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

The ideas developed about the education debate and the enumeration of the issues which I think are important, were summarised in an informal talk at the Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle in August 2012 arranged by the NSW Chapter of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia (ISAA).

Much of the problem arises from the focus on schools, which is where in fact students spend a relatively small amount of time, and ignores the time when greatest changes in brain architecture and cognition take place which is early childhood, and the principal influences which determine the quality of that development most of which relate to relative socioeconomic status. It is for these reasons that the principal indicator of student educational achievement is the socioeconomic status of the parents.

Continue to the Ourimbah talk.

Two essays which have appeared in recent months deserve special attention. One is by Carmen Lawrence, former Premier of Western Australia, Minister in the  Australian Government and a member of the panel on Education reform chaired by David Gonski.

‘Mind the Gap: Why the rising inequality of our schools is dangerous’ by Carmen Lawrence appeared in The Monthly for July 2012

The other is by the distinguished American educational researcher Professor David Berliner; this essay really brings together some of the most important issues concerning the relationship between educational achievement and inequality in the United States, a topic on which Berliner has written over the last couple of decades. The essay is ‘Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth’ and appears in Schools Matter for October 17 2012.

The introduction to Berliner’s essay says,

“The real education experts, academics who study and research education, teach at universities and colleges and are teachers themselves, produce volumes of peer reviewed articles, write books and give lectures to share their findings, ideas and solutions to improve education. The problem is those who control the purse strings in state education departments, government and at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, are held hostage by corporate interests who have hijacked our children’s pedagogy. With the new Common Core Standards adopted in more than 46 states, testing every kid, in every subject, and mining the data will only exacerbate the dysfunction and lead to the inevitable revolt we are already seeing across the country. Most parents, students and teachers living through this economic depression see scarce resources further dried up and spent on more testing and more data. Austerity in the poorest and neediest schools districts has exposed the harsh reality of three decades of failed education policy that ignores inequality and poverty.”


It is appropriate to mention another event. That is because of the influence of the media: yet again Australian media failed to take advantage of the visit to Australia by distinguished researchers, as it did a couple of years ago when the University of Melbourne hosted a major conference on Curriculum.

The website of the American Association for Educational Research, perhaps the leading education research organisation in the world, featured the following report.

“The World Education Research Association (WERA) held its annual Focal Meeting in conjunction with the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) and the Asia-Pacific Education Research Association (APERA) in Sydney, Australia. AERA leaders, including President William Tierney; Past Presidents Arnetha Ball, David Berliner, Eva Baker, and Carol Lee; and Executive Director Felice Levine, were participants at the AARE/APERA/WERA conference, held on December 2–6 at the University of Sydney.

“The AARE/APERA/WERA international conference included more than 1,200 paper presentations and symposia, with keynote addresses by AERA Past Presidents Berliner and Ball. In addition, there were twelve outstanding symposia designated as “invited symposia,” including an AERA guest symposium at which President Tierney spoke passionately about academic freedom. There were also two WERA invited symposia; one of them, entitled “Culture, Poverty, and Opportunity to Learn: International Cases of the Complexities of Addressing Race, Ethnicity, and Class in Education,” featured AERA Past President Lee as one of three presenters.”

The above info is from AERA Highlights 10 January 2013. Further information is at and numerous other sites.

So far as I can determine no Australian media featured any mention of this conference or any interview with the distinguished delegates. So much for media reporting of education, media which is often quite prepared to seize on the latest international tests to criticise Australian education without paying any attention to the  dynamics or principal reasons for achievement, quite apart from misrepresenting the performance of Australian students by selective and inappropriate use of statistics, as Professor Alan Reid pointed out in ‘A dumbed down debate, but those tests still hold some lessons’ (Sydney Morning Herald, December 19, 2012).

Early Childhood: The Issue missing from the Education Debate (in Australia)

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

Substantial heat is generated in Australia about child care and parental leave. Whilst there are economic issues involved in respect of the parents, the much more important aspects concern the young child and the future economic and social impact, let alone the impact on the individual. For the most part those issues are being ignored in the debate being held over the last few years in Australia. The situation in the US and in Britain in respect of early childhood and parental leave contrasts with that in much of continental Europe including Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands and in some Asian countries including Singapore where childcare is funded by governments or at least heavily subsidised where parents are unable to afford it.

Australia is lagging in this matter as in many others. The consequences are future significant economic impacts in unemployment and social dislocation. Funding untrained persons to mind the young children of parents enjoying more than reasonably satisfactory economic and social conditions, as is advocated by some politicians, completely ignores all the evidence and is a waste of taxpayers money! Failure to invest in early childhood leads to increased costs later on either in educational expenses or in countering antisocial  behaviour, it leads in many families to poorer educational outcomes and a diminished life not least because of the economic conditions of the parents relating to excessively demanding working conditions often for both parents or no employment at all. The experiences of young girls growing up in those circumstances is visited on the young children they have in adult life. The experiences of young boys influences their passage into adolescence and adulthood.

Early childhood intervention is not child minding but an investment in the future more important than almost any other intervention in education. It must involve qualified early childhood educators. Think of parental leave and the costs of good support in early life, the experiences of urban settings of high rise apartments and the lives of “minority” families which are portrayed time and again in police dramas brought right into our living rooms on our TV screens. Numerous studies demonstrate just how significant the physical, social and economic environments portrayed in these dramas are in producing the tragedies which perpetuate poverty and violence.

Around 50 per cent of the educational achievement of children at school is contributed by what the child brings to school, as Professor John Hattie’s meta-analyses have shown and a substantial part of their subsequent achievement involves the relationships established in the early years of the child’s life.

Study after study in many countries shows extraordinary gains for investment in early child care as well as the critical importance to the child in later life of the relationships developed in the first few years. Yet firm meaningful policies are not put in place in countries such as the US. This would be considered astonishing until one realises that most of those involved in approving the necessary legislation are not directly affected by such policies. They more often find it useful politically to exhort parents to exercise their parental responsibility!

The investment we make in very young children is the most important investment we make!

Continue to the essays Early Childhood: A World of Relationships, Early Childhood: The Nature of Early Experiences and Early Childhood: Critical Relationships with the Mother

Continue to Education: Life’s Choices – Introductory Background


Economics and Educational Opportunity

Monday, April 2nd, 2012


There seem to be two worlds in which education reform, along with everything else, proceeds. In one a purely statistical and theoretical view of economics prevails. In the other sociology, a view informed by studies of the social interaction of people. To move from the former view to the latter is to enter through a kind of ‘green door’ from a society dominated by individual utility maximisation to one more concerned with social value and which recognises the sometimes irrational behaviour of people. One is based entirely in theory and has a utility related to its alleged predictability derived from sophisticated mathematics, a predictability which in most cases is at best difficult to test. The other is supported by extensive research on what people value and what they do not and how they actually behave in relation to their stated values.

These extracts from the essay on economics critique neoclassical economics and its application to education policy. Neoclassical economics and neoliberalism which is derived from it has gained substantial influence over the last 50 years. In that time economic growth in many countries has been accompanied by a number of important features. These include the application of notions about competition, choice and accountability to policies on schools and universities as well as early childhood. The last several decades have also seen increasing disparities in wealth within populations accompanied by “offshoring’ of many jobs in order to decrease costs. In several countries costs of education, of schools and of universities, have increased also. In the view of a number of economists this has led to a decline in the standards of education.

The focus on economics as if it is the basis of  human society has been criticised by a number of scholars and writers and the failure of neoclassical economic theory and practice seen in severe economic turbulence has led leaders of a number of nations to question its appropriateness. In other cases the deregulation advocated by the proponents of neoclassical economics have led to profound fluctuations in national and international economies with “speculative bubbles” being enhanced by use of complicated mathematical algorithms and complex financial instruments as well as artificially low interest rates and excessive lending and borrowing at individual, corporate, government and national levels.

These notes on economics accompany essays on community and inequality. It needs to be kept in mind that the socio-economic and educational levels of parents are the most accurate predictors of  children’s educational achievement. This is not because of some link with intelligence but with the profound differences in opportunities which are provided to those at higher economic and social levels.  The differences which these opportunities make are evident in the first year to 18 months.

Continue to Education – Introductory Background

Continue to A Word on EconomicsNeoclassical Economics : a Failure of Theory or a Theoretical Failure? and An Alternative View: Behavioural Economics


Education: Life’s Choices

Sunday, April 1st, 2012


This is an entirely new section of the website intended to contain extracts from a forthcoming publication of essays on education in almost all of its manifestations and relationships. The following summarises some of the main propositions and conclusions of the essays and outlines the content and scope of the essays.

The Book and the Essays

The set of essays in the upcoming publication will deal with education from early childhood to lifelong learning beyond and outside of school. The proposition is that achieving educational gains, which are important both individually and at the community and national level, depends on special attention to early childhood, to the nature of the school experience, the individual potential of students recognising that all are capable of success but that special attention is needed to those having difficulty achieving the required standard.

The principal thesis of the collection of essays is that many different things are connected. Attention to early childhood is essential: successful emergence from those early years is influenced by the social and economic circumstances of the family and also by the experiences of the mother when she was young. The health of the child is also influenced by the social and economic circumstances of the family and that in turn influences brain and cognitive development. The economic circumstances of the family are determined very much by the employment situation of the parents. High levels of unemployment likely lead to domestic problems which lead to poor health which reduces the likelihood of successful cognitive development. Economic and social conditions continue to influence the child’s educational development through school and  beyond.

Of the greatest importance is the fact that early childhood intervention has greatest impact on low socio-economic families: support for preschool and for parental leave is an employment issue – the usual focus of the debate – but it is much more importantly an educational  issue. The evidence is that especially in the case of low socio-economic families, simply having very young children minded by a friend or relative will not advantage the child’s cognitive development. A full fifty percent of the child’s achievement at school is determined by what the child brings to the school experience. If that has been poor it is far less likely that any subsequent intervention will overcome the deficit. Unless substantial additional resources are allocated!

At school and beyond successful learning comes from successful teaching which is enhanced by leadership at the principal level and other senior levels, encouragement of cooperation amongst teachers, and students, and setting of high standards of instruction and student achievement. It also requires superior recruitment, appropriate remuneration and significant trust.

The principal gain of education must be seen as advancing human development at the individual level, with gains which flow to the community broadly and secondarily to the economy. Primary emphasis on matters such as economic indicators and economic motivations and purposes are a break on achievement in the longer term.

It is intended that a very broad range of issues which affect educational outcomes be traversed, ranging from economics and community issues through early childhood to the nature of superior teaching and work issues concerning teachers such as pay and performance and school leadership, student issues including curriculum, standardised testing and the importance of creativity and its encouragement, to school issues including the debate about public as opposed to private and independent schools. Education outside and beyond school are also dealt with.

The recent experience of education reform in Australia, the UK and the USA and internationally generally as revealed by numerous international studies, especially the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will be dealt with.

Whilst the 12 or so essays focus principally on Australia the context is international. The essays draw extensively on research papers and documents, media articles and books.

Conclusions are drawn as to what features are revealed by the experiences of various countries and the huge number of studies of education and the impact on educational outcomes of social and economic issues and government policies.

In the best education systems achievement is considered to be advanced by assuming that all students are capable of achieving success, that recruitment of teachers needs special attention, that teachers should be trusted to deliver professionally and that adequate time for training and development is essential. And so on. This view does not pay attention to beliefs in neoliberalism but emphasises cooperation and especially attention to those having difficulty in achieving their potential. Early childhood development is recognised as essential to later educational achievement.

As to the research in education it is often asserted that there are many significant uncertainties even on such fundamental issues as to what constitutes effective teaching! Forgotten is the fact that there is no area of human endeavour in which knowledge is complete, let alone perfect. However, to assert that knowledge and understanding of the most fundamental aspects of education are lacking is nonsense! Knowledge and understandings available now are more than sufficient to make the most critical decisions to support superior learning outcomes.

For instance, despite high quality research by many different people and groups that show that merit pay does not lead to improved performance of teachers and therefore higher achievement of students (or even to higher performance of other professionals and very probably all persons in organisations, nonprofit and commercial alike), there are those who continue to refer to economic studies (which anyway are at the very best inconclusive) and for the most part discount other research which does not support the proposition they favour. That in such a contentious area any introduction of merit pay would be not only opposed but understandably disputed as to its merits leading to unproductive conflict seems to be ignored.

There are similar situations with issues such as standardised testing, the curriculum, school leadership, early childhood intervention, university teaching and organisation and so on. In the US research by educators funded by the Federal Government was required to conform to the same level of rigour as research in the pharmaceutical industry which, to anyone familiar with the area, is a nonsense!

The essays in this section are extracts. I hope they give the flavour of what is intended.

Continue to the Introduction