Wednesday, January 29, 2014

(Federal Education) Minister Pyne Fails Another Test

Jackeroo Peter Barry shoes his horse
Jackeroo Peter Barry shoes his horse (Photo credit: State Library of Victoria Collections)
by Ian Keese, Online Opinion:

On January 20 Minister Pyne was given 750 words in the Fairfax Media to justify his Government’s review of the Australian Curriculum and I was looking forward to being provided with some good educational reasons for carrying it out.

I certainly agreed with the heading ‘Politics have no place in a curriculum review’ and his comment that ‘Partisan politics is at its worst when dressed up as public concern’.

Unfortunately most of the article was partisan politics at its worst, without any reference to the many positive aspects of the process undertaken by ACARA under the leadership of Professor Barry McGaw.

The process, which was initiated by the Howard Government, did move to tight deadlines and it was brought to completion in a remarkably short time considering all the stakeholders involved.

However the process was never ‘rushed, ad hoc, stop go’ as Mr Pyne claimed. I challenge Mr Pyne to provide evidence of this. At all stages the process involved wide consultation with a variety of experts, classroom teachers and the public, all of whom represented a broad cross section of political positions.

Partisan politics was also obvious in Mr Pyne’s appointment of two people who have been happy to criticise from the sidelines and who represent the views of a vocal minority.

Of course their views should be considered, among those of others far closer to students, with far more academic standing in education and representing other points of view.

The claim that his Government has a ‘mandate’ also demonstrates a very poor understanding of the democratic process.

While in a ‘democratic dictatorship’ it is winner take all, there are many reasons for this not being true in a genuine representative democracy. In this particular case the Coalition Government, under a leader who the electorate never really warmed to, essentially won by default as Labor self-destructed.

Secondly no one elector essentially agrees with all policies proposed by a potential government. After an election we always have to take the good with the bad but this does not take away our right to be critics.

Finally any ‘mandate’ has to be won day by day, and the evidence of opinion polls so far is that the Coalition  Government has lost whatever mandate it had fairly quickly, and it is likely that the initial breaking of promises on the Gonski Review followed by the wide variety of positions held on school funding within a fortnight have played a significant part in this.

We still do not know exactly how the financing of the Gonski Review is to be worked out, but Trevor Cobbold has argued ‘the government is using states' rights as a pretence to guarantee funding increases for private schools but not public schools.’

Of course the curriculum is far from perfect, and I have been a vocal critic of some aspects of the history curriculum, particularly at the secondary school level.

A few topics on widely spaced historical periods of a few Asian nations has been scattered through the curriculum, with minimal compulsion to teach any of it, but the worst part has been the failure to successfully integrate modern Asian History into a world perspective.

As well 15% (nearly two thirds of a year in a four year course) is devoted to World War I and World War I, while only half this time is devoted to the crucial years of Australian History from European settlement to the early years of the Federal system.

But despite these criticisms I am excited that through the History Curriculum students all over the country will have the opportunity of having a shared knowledge of the contemporary world and how, over thousands of years the world they live in came into being.

Any educator will find particular aspects of the curriculum to criticise, but in a democracy any curriculum has to be a compromise.

Teachers have spent hundreds of hours, much in their own time, preparing teaching programs and resources; publishers have invested in textbooks and IT resources; conferences have been held over all Australia working out how teachers might implement the curriculum in the best interests of their own students.

Plenty remains to be done including have enough qualified teachers to teach it. The best thing for Minister Pyne to concentrate on would be to focus on the real issues and on directing resources to supporting teachers rather than undermining all that has been done so far.

Let us see how the Australian Curriculum works in practise and then we will be ready for a thorough, widely consultative, review.
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