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Issue #1661      October 22, 2014

National Curriculum

The right imposes its biases

It looks like the Abbott government wants to turn every crank and conservative critic of public education loose on the struggling system. Biases and assumptions are running riot as cash-strapped schools brace themselves for the introduction of another national curriculum. “Rigour”, the “basics” and making students “industry ready” are among the chants of assorted Coalition-friendly “reformers”. They want to turn back the clock for Australian students.

Sydney University students condemn racist emails sent by Professor Barry Spurr and applaud the university’s decision to suspend him.

Perhaps the most stunning appointment for the overhaul of the curriculum was that of University of Sydney Professor Barry Spurr. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has tasked him with re-jigging what is taught in English classes. Not surprisingly, the professor supports a greater emphasis on “western Judeo-Christian culture” and much less on that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Unfortunately for Pyne, evidence has come to light that the professor has described the PM as an “Abo lover”, Nelson Mandela as a “darkie” and Desmund Tutu as a “witch doctor”.

In emails from his university account examined by New Matilda, the would-be reformer refers to women as “whores” and blasted “bogans”, “fatsoes”, Mussies” and “Chinky-Poos”. Given the political climate in Australia today, the review of Labor’s national curriculum of 2011 and the choice of experts appointed to “fix” it was always going to be ideologically charged. But the sorts of changes being proposed and the rawness of their bias are causing widespread concern.

The University has stood Spurr down.

The key recommendations of the review by education researcher Kevin Donnelly and business academic Ken Wiltshire recently were to:

  • Reduce overcrowding of the curriculum;
  • Greater focus on literacy and numeracy in the primary curriculum;
  • Apply the three “cross-curriculum” priorities – engagement with Asia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia and sustainability – only where they are deemed “relevant;”
  • Overhaul the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority so it operates at “arms-length” from state governments, possibly as its own company.

The last-mentioned recommendation would be another step towards the complete privatisation of the system of education in the country and another nail in the coffin of free, universally accessible, secular public education.

The subject recommendations pander to conservative gripes about what is presumed to go on in Australian class rooms. This is considered to be inferior to what happens in Japanese class rooms, for instance, so in the area of mathematics, algebra will be introduced earlier in the primary years and probability will be introduced later. Phonics will be used when teaching reading. These ideas will be debated back and forth on technical grounds but it is in the humanities that a re-engagement in culture wars is obvious.

Literature studied will be from the “Western canon”. History will focus on the “impact and significance of Western civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage, values and beliefs.” Other cultures and traditions will struggle to get a look in under the new curriculum as the Abbott government shows how hypocritical its protestations of tolerance and advocacy of multiculturalism really are. The message in the review and the government’s embrace of it is that too much Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture was taught previously and too much inclusion shown to other religious traditions. An understanding of Islam will be among the main casualties of this re-orientation to “Judeo-Christian” values.

Elsewhere, Abbott has announced some extra spending on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Most of the money is earmarked for “innovative maths resources” and to encourage participation in STEM subjects more generally. Teachers are underwhelmed by the $12 million commitment, which is tiny by comparison with the Gonski funds lost as a result of the federal government’s budget about turn.

Another pet project of the PM is a trial of an industry-linked Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH). Abbott visited such a school linked to tech giant IBM while he was in New York and has taken this latest opportunity to put $500,000 towards another US-style education project. The five industry centres these P-TECH-type schools will focus on are food and agribusiness; mining, equipment and technology services; oil, gas and energy resources; medical technology and pharmaceuticals and the advanced manufacturing sectors. Big business will have a hand in designing courses for the students at the schools. Abbott continues an established practice of adopting education “reforms” from the US without evidence of benefit to anybody except to the for-profit sector.

Misguided social engineers have long imagined that the best outcomes for education would be achieved by gearing it to the needs of big business (i.e. its drive for profits). Shadow education minister Kate Ellis commented that “Schools aren’t sweatshops for churning out entry-level workers.” Aware of concern at further encroachment of business interests onto school grounds, Abbott insists the P-TECHs are “not part of some dramatic new redesign of educational architecture.” He’s right, the privatisation of the system and its subjection to market forces has been a bi-partisan priority for some time.

Australian Education Union federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said the exposure of the shocking emails sent by Barry Spurr damaged the credibility of the review and showed it was an ideological exercise with little value.

“Education Minister Christopher Pyne hand-picked right-wing commentator Kevin Donnelly as one of the two men charged with running this review, and selecting the independent reviewers such as Professor Spurr,” Mr Gavrielatos said.

“Mr Donnelly is a supporter of corporal punishment in schools, and is on the record as expressing racist and homophobic views. He has also worked as a consultant for tobacco company Philip Morris, producing materials to be used in schools.

“He is a former Liberal Party staffer with a strong political bias.”

Next article – Editorial – Ebola: We live in one world

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