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Issue #1623      January 22, 2014

Editorial

Abbott’s culture war over national curriculum

The Abbott government has opened a new front in the “culture wars” currently being waged in the corporate media and public institutions by reactionary forces. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has ordered a review of the national schools curriculum unveiled by the Gillard government in 2010. According to the Liberals, the curriculum is the reason Australian students have slipped slightly on international performance tables in recent years. Inadequate funding for public education is not mentioned. Moral “relativism”, an ideologically-driven left “bias”, a focus on Asia, Indigenous rights and sustainability are cited as major reasons for an alleged decline in student ability. And the government has chosen just the right people to “fix” it.

Kevin Donnelly and Professor Ken Wiltshire have been appointed to head the review. Pyne wants an “orthodox” curriculum, “balanced in content, free of partisan bias and deals with real-world issues”. Abbott has complained that the current curriculum doesn’t emphasise enough the role of business in the development of the country and that Labor prime ministers and the unions get too much praise.

Mr Donnelly and Professor Wiltshire would be inclined to agree. Kevin Donnelly has a long association with Coalition pet education projects and Ken Wiltshire’s claims to fame was an article in The Australian in 2010 putting a very thin argument as to why independent members Tony Windsor, Rob Oakshott and Bob Katter should support a minority Coalition government rather than a Labor one. The fact that the Coalition got more votes than Labor in the relevant electorates was the long and the short of it. The Professor of Public Funding at the University of Queensland Business School has also been a strong critic of Labor’s schools funding reforms.

Kevin Donnelly is keen to dismiss suggestions that the outcomes of his review have been predetermined. Heaven forbid! A recent piece by him in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled “Western values must be at core of school reforms” engages critics. He said the review will be open and transparent and will even call for public submissions. It is unlikely that any submissions would persuade Donnelly to another point of view about the role of education in a society like Australia. He has several conservative axes to grind.

Donnelly’s appointment has been controversial and deserves to be even more so. He heads the Education Standards Institute which “favours an education system based on standards, equity, diversity and choice and the values and institutions that promote liberty, democracy, an open and free society and a commitment to Christian beliefs and values,” according to its website. He is a former teacher in Victoria and a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University.

A very embarrassing item on Kevin Donnelly’s CV is his time at tobacco company Phillip Morris producing an education program called “I’ve Got the Power” for the federal government. It dealt with peer pressure and decision making but omitted to mention smoking as one of the crucial challenges to be faced by young people. The omission was rectified in a later versions distributed to Aboriginal students. More than 1,500 students in Australia and New Zealand got the information pack.

Mr Donnelly also advised the Howard government on the Discovering Democracy civics program ordered originally by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. Former education minister Amanda Vanstone announced in 2005 that Donnelly’s Education Standards Institute (engaged under its trading name of Impetus Consultants) had been paid $165,997 to give its particular brand of advice to the Coalition government since 1996. Donnelly opposes same sex marriage. Like the PM, he has called for the Bible to be taught in schools. He favours rote learning and constant evaluation. He dislikes the Australian Education Union and has contempt for multiculturalism. “The cultural left has taken the long march through the education system and enforced its biased, ideological world view on the schools,” he said last November.

Mr Donnelly’s appointment to the review of the national curriculum, to make it “robust”, restore “balance” and remove “bias” shows just how driven the federal government is to actually removing any vestiges of those attributes still surviving within the education system. In its place Abbott and other zealots for the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, limited bourgeois democracy and capitalist markets, including the “market” for education, are preparing the alternative of their dreams.

Next article – Asylum seeker struggle enters dangerous phase

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