The 21st Century Education ‘Debate’ in Australia

“More than anything else, we want to take the politics out of this issue.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Christopher Pyne

The Federal Minister for Education, Mr Pyne, has made an inglorious start to his time in office, according to most pundits, with clumsy attempts to (re)frame the educational debate in Australia. I will not dwell on the Gonski ‘backflip’ debacle, late last year, where the government held three policy positions in one day but the most recent announcements cannot pass without comment.

Minister Pyne has established a review by two men, Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire, into the Australian Curriculum. Readers not involved in education in NSW should know that the first year that the Australian curriculum needs to be implemented (but only for Year 7 and 9 students) is 2014. Yes, that’s right, before the new documents are formally implemented they are being reviewed for ‘partisan bias’. Most commentators see this government education strategy as one designed to reignite “the culture wars” of the Howard era.

ImplementationSource

The major issue most educators will have with the Minister’s announcement is that is an intellectually indefensible position to cry “partisan bias’ and then appoint cultural warriors like Mr Donnelly, the Chief of Staff for Kevin Andrews during the Howard Government and Mr Wiltshire  (“On all counts, Coalition deserves independents”). By all means include these two passionate educators but surely the impression of balance could be struck with some other appointments who hold different POVs, especially considering the kind of language the minister is employing about bias. This all points to the strategic reignition of ‘culture wars’ rather than a genuine concern for the learning outcomes of our children.

Here’s the official policy document (below) and Mr Pyne’s opinion piece in The Australian.

Announcement

Religion in Education

What galls many educators and parents is that Mr Donnelly, a prolific author of books and opinion pieces denouncing most aspects of contemporary education, is already talking about having more religion taught in public schools. Mr Donnelly’s words are doubtless chosen carefully as part of the overall strategy to inflame tensions (already running high after the last years of funding debates about the ‘Gonski reforms’). Please read, “Be careful what you wish for…” as it is an insightful post, with some interesting data about Australian youth, in the context of Mr Donnelly’s comments.

Religion is currently favored in all sorts of ways in Australia, from tax deductions and exemptions to publicly funded chaplaincy programs. There hasn’t been much fuss about this, but if the right chooses to engage in a religious culture war, all that will change.   John Quiggin

My American readers probably do not know that church and state are not separated constitutionally in Australia which means that our Independent School sector (mostly Roman Catholic or Anglican) is federally funded by taxpayers. There are many debates about this issue and the level of funding but what is clear is that this sector is growing rapidly, especially in the cities where more affluent Australians reside and ‘the market’ is strong. This is a contentious issue but religions are, to use an inflammatory but factually accurate description, “supernatural charities” who do not pay tax in Australia. This is never discussed during funding debates nor is patrimonialism. I see the larger picture being one to do with how democratic societies work. Once again, I’d highly recommend that everyone who can reads The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama to see the patterns for how democratic societies are historically manipulated (patrimonialism) by the powerful for their own benefit.

Commentary

What’s worth reading about this current educational furore?

The slow news period in early January meant there have been plenty of commentary in The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers as well as at the ABC website but I find the articles published in The Conversation about education generally of an excellent standard, especially articles challenging simplistic notions of curriculum design.

You may have missed Ewan McIntosh‘s insightful blog post, “Why do Education Ministers feel the need to use History lessons as their policy vehicle?” and a great article, “Everyone’s an Expert on Education” – Pyne’s Education Revolution of Two Men” worth reading at AusOpinion (Thanks for the link, Mark).

My favourite commentary about this vexing issue is from Father Bob, a catholic priest. Please watch the whole interview, he is very educated and wise. (Thanks for the link, Brendan)

Conclusions

This is not the way most (any?) educators wish to commence the year. The Australian Curriculum has been debated ad nauseum for years and is about to be implemented. The notion that Mr Pyne can have a report this year and make changes for 2015 would seem unrealistic, by any standard, based on the consultative processes that usually take place between the states and sectors etc.. There are so many better ideas for the federal minister to encourage and support than this grenade-lobbying exercise and politicking.

What should we be doing?

Working out how to de-balkanise the curriculum using intelligent cross-curricular models like Big History, as envisaged by Professor Christian and funded by Bill Gates, would be a good area to explore or working out how to update our pedagogy, using the SAMR model in preparation for BYOD makes sense. I’d much rather be debating how we reform the HSC pen & paper exams, semester reporting and formal assessment systems than any other educational topic. That is complex, much needed work that requires all our collaborative efforts on behalf of our students.

I wish this blog post could have have replaced ‘debate’ with ‘dialogue’ but alas…that’s not the world we currently inhabit. Dialogue is needed rather than polemics but in this current environment many will feel the need to defend against politically motivated attacks that will not improve life in classrooms for students in our diverse, complex, multicultural society. (Thanks for the link, Tomaz).

Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Make Poverty History Australia: http://flickr.com/photos/26884448@N04/7292534708/

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The views expressed at this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

2 Comments

  1. Suzie:

    THE most sensible commentary I have read.
    In WA we are implementing the AU curriculum already. As in now 2013, and 2014. Apart from the perceived need for a review at this particular time, the political bias of the reviewers ensures that it won’t/can’t be an objective review. Teachers and parents I’ve spoken too are at a loss. Our next door public school lost around $250 000 from its budget due to state and federal (no Gonski here!) budget constraints – losing staff. And now the curriculum that has been workshopped, had input from across all parts of the education sector and has been open to public review and submissions is next in the firing line. I’ve stopped working towards 2014. I’m taking a holiday and a breather.

  2. Gemma:

    Thank you for a constructive insight into this decisive initiative. I shall follow the links with interest.

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