Whose Values?: On the National Curriculum Review

Last month, the federal government announced a review of the just-completed national curriculum, with a view to correcting what it sees as a skew to the left. Rachel Power, a journalist with the Australian Education Union, gives her view on what the review will mean - and why she believes its focus on values is a diversion from Australia’s real education problem: equity.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne is determined to shift the education debate from one about funding to one about ‘values’.

Despite last year’s Gonski debacle, when public outrage thwarted Pyne’s attempt to scrap the needs-based school funding reforms, the minister remains confident that he has a ‘firm mandate’ to pursue his agenda for fixing Australia’s education system.

His next target: the national curriculum. The Abbott Government claims parents and teachers are calling for a review, despite the fact that the new curriculum is barely finalised, let alone implemented.

Much like his attempt to fast-track changes to schools funding, Pyne seems certain that by next year he’ll have whipped up a better curriculum than the one devised over five years by independent experts.

Along with greater school autonomy, better teachers and more parental engagement, reforming the curriculum is one of ‘four pillars’ Pyne sees as the key to improving student outcomes.

He claims that Australian students have been ‘going backwards for a good decade’ in OECD statements, NAPLAN data and other studies. This is his ostensive basis for wresting back all aspects of school education — from teaching methods to the curriculum — from the clutches of the lefty, tree-hugging progressives dominating educational thinking in recent decades.

High-achieving school systems in Finland, Korea, Singapore and Japan show that moves to ‘cut it right back to basics’ instead of teaching ‘edgy babble’ are most effective, says Pyne.

The Coalition Government is convinced that the Australian Curriculum is skewed left — evidenced by ‘two references to trade unions, four references to progressive ideas and associated movements’ and not enough focus on what conservative parties have done for this country.

Pyne is particularly concerned about whether the curriculum’s three themes — Australia’s place in Asia, Indigenous Australia and sustainability — really need to be factored into subjects like maths and science.

‘I’m not going to pre-judge the outcome of the national curriculum,’ Pyne told a media conference on January 10. ‘But suffice to say there has been criticism of the national curriculum over a lengthy period of time.’

The two men comprising the ‘objective’ review panel, Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire, have already been among those making their criticisms clear.

Ken Wiltshire, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Queensland Business School, has publicly condemned the national curriculum as having ‘no apparent values serving as its foundation’.

Conservative commentator and former Liberal staffer Kevin Donnelly has argued that under Labor governments, schools have been ‘forced to adopt a politically correct, dumbed-down curriculum that ignores the basics and that preaches a politically correct view of subjects like English and history’.

No matter that Barry McGaw, chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), defends the curriculum has having already been ‘shaped by careful analyses of the curricula in high-performing countries’ and that the three curriculum themes are only addressed where relevant and barely covered, if at all, in courses such as maths.

Pyne is determined to resuscitate John Howard’s ‘black armband view’ of Australian history, suggesting that the curriculum is too heavily weighted towards the nation’s Indigenous history rather than recognising the ‘benefits of western civilisation in our society’.

The Anzac spirit has ‘informed our Australian culture and our character ever since [colonisation],’ he wrote in the Australian, ‘and I don’t think that lining it up with NAIDOC week, Reconciliation Day, Harmony Day and so on gives it the central focus that it deserves in our curriculum.’

Donnelly has made similar points, saying: ‘Instead of Asia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, why not define the curriculum in terms of Australia’s Western heritage and Judeo-Christian tradition?’

Amid all this focus on Christian values, however, Australia’s long-held value of equity seems to have been lost. The latest OECD report exposed a widening gap in outcomes between the lowest and highest performing students in Australia, with student achievement clearly linked to wealth, location, gender and background.

But Pyne dismisses any correlation between disadvantage and performance, insisting that there is ‘no equity problem’ in Australian schools. The only reason students in non-government schools ‘tend to perform better’, he asserts, is that private schools are more autonomous and their parents more involved.

By his calculation, a school’s capacity to effectively operate autonomously, attract parental involvement and meet student needs has nothing to do with its resources or the socioeconomic status of its families.

In the lead-up to the election, Pyne described the funding debate as an ‘asinine distraction’ from the real issues and that rather than more resources for schools, his priorities would be a return to ‘more traditional’ and ‘didactic’ teaching methods.

Pyne conveniently ignores the weight of evidence showing that equality of opportunity is a crucial factor in producing high-performing schooling systems. One of the most striking aspects of Finland’s well-funded education system is that its central aim is equity — but as a direct result, it achieves excellence.

But Pyne believes that any school’s funding model should ‘reward … rather than penalise private investment’ by parents.

The Gonski Report found that a major boost in government investment, particularly in the public sector, is necessary to improve results. Even the Business Council of Australia has backed the Gonski funding model as ‘an important step towards lifting the quality of Australia’s education outcomes’.

Member of the Gonski review panel Ken Boston has argued that, ‘If there had been no Gonski report, there would be no review of the national curriculum.’

If Pyne can convince Australians to blame the curriculum, bad teachers and a lack of parental engagement for our drop in performance, he will have succeeded in diverting us from the real problem: the inequality of opportunity caused by years of inadequate funding.

Portrait of Rachel Power

Rachel Power is a freelance writer, editor and artist. She has contributed to many publications, including Mamamia, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings and The Age. She has worked as a court illustrator for Channel 9, production editor of Arena Magazine, and is currently communications manager for the Australian Education Union (Victoria). Rachel is the author of Alison Rehfisch: A Life for Art, The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, and Motherhood & Creativity.