Published in The Weekend Australian on 18.01.14
For more than a century a national school curriculum has eluded Australia. In its place has been a version of the old state-based rail-gauge widths, each state with its own curriculum, making life difficult for families wanting to move across borders in search of better opportunities. Among the 80,000 families who move interstate each year are defence force children who often change states four or five times during their schooling. Now, in the year in which a national curriculum is to be fully implemented, it is to be reviewed on the grounds that the new federal government has decided it is left-leaning.
In announcing the review, education minister Christopher Pyne said he wanted to take the "politics out of the issue," seeking a curriculum "free of partisan bias." Bad people, it seems, put politics into the curriculum, causing it to contain the partisan bias from which it must be rid.
We didn't have to look far for the culprits. It was, we were informed in last weekend's edition of this newspaper, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard who, as prime minister and education minister, had mandated three themes and told the curriculum development authority to go off and stick them into every subject. This March 2010 interference had sparked Coalition criticism, providing impetus to the review.
The nation's prime minister and education minister prescribing curriculum themes and content would indeed constitute political interference. The only trouble is that this statement of fact about the meddling of Rudd and Gillard is a fabrication. It was the independent National Curriculum Board that came up with three cross-curriculum themes, as set out in its statement on shaping the Australian curriculum issued nine months before the alleged political interference. Rudd and Gillard never made any such statement.
But they could have hand picked a bunch of inner-city lefties to do their political dirty work for them. The body responsible for developing the curriculum, the National Curriculum Board, was chaired by Professor Barry McGaw, former director of education at the OECD – hardly a bastion of the left. The board comprised members drawn from state education departments, research institutes and the Catholic and independent school systems. It undertook extensive consultation over several years to come up with a curriculum that has been adopted by all states and territories, five of which are run by conservative governments.
And what were these three left-wing themes that now infect the national curriculum? It takes a very special perspective to consider Australia's engagement with Asia, sustainability and indigenous culture to be left-wing issues. Perhaps they were so considered in the 1950s, but not in the 21st century. Surely not.
Anyway, the good news is that through the announced review the kiddies are going to be saved from the Asian way of looking at physics. We know, because a Perth physics teacher made the front page of last Saturday's newspaper by telling us there's no Asian way of looking at physics. Phew, Newtonian physics and Einstein's relativity are coming back in and Confucian physics, whatever it is, is getting punted.
Children are being saved from this left-wing madness by someone committed to taking the politics out of the national curriculum - Liberal Party member and former chief of staff to a Liberal minister, Dr Kevin Donnelly. In his defence, it is true that Dr Donnelly never concealed his income from tobacco company Phillip Morris for producing material for school students that encouraged them to make their own decisions about doing something wrong.
Writing for this newspaper, Donnelly argues that the curriculum should be free of bias, impartial and disinterested. It is not a criticism, but as a partisan, Donnelly is none of these. Many fine Australians are partisan, but they shouldn't be reviewing the national school curriculum. Engaging a partisan to review the alleged political content of a curriculum developed by an independent, non-partisan authority would make a good sequel to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four.
Though a fierce critic of the Rudd and Gillard governments, co-reviewer Professor Ken Wiltshire does not carry the same baggage as Dr Donnelly. His review of the Queensland curriculum in the early 1990s led to valuable reforms. It caused the Queensland curriculum to go back to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Gillard told a conference in November 2008 that while she had gone a long way in keeping politicians out of the process she was personally thrilled with the review's focus on a return to basics.
Now that the national curriculum review has been announced, if Wiltshire and Donnelly can suggest unbiased improvements then no harm and some good might come of it. But if their review were to seek to inject into the curriculum the world view of the prime minister and the education minister, it would risk shattering the state consensus and return Australia to the rail-gauge economics of up to eight different curricula within a single nation.