Words by Christine Todd
Illustration by Cameron Baker

The Coalition Government is on course to create a new episode of history wars as it launches a less-than-comprehensive review of the national curriculum.

The curriculum review is designed to address what Education Minister Christopher Pyne perceives to be a clear leftist bias in the history curriculum for Australian primary and secondary school students. The minister has stated that the review will examine why the curriculum has become so politicised, why it refuses to acknowledge “the legacy of Western civilisation” and why it is “not giving important events in Australia’s history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as ANZAC Day”.

While curriculum reviews should be regularly carried out, independent organisation the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) already exists to serve this purpose. Its latest review, which took several years, included extensive consultation with teachers, parents, industry experts, and governments in all states and territories.

The urgency with which Pyne has demanded the latest review to be undertaken, as well as its remarkably short reporting date of only six months, suggests the report will be shallow and its content predetermined. That this could achieve in six months for the national curriculum what hundreds of education experts achieved in five years is foolish, and politically brazen.

The ideological tug of war between the left and the right in education is far from new. Right-wing critics, such as co-head of the new review, education commentator Kevin Donnelly, have lambasted the current curriculum for focusing too much on leftist ideals such as sustainability, trade unions, Asian perspectives, and the Australian Labor Party. Donnelly has also condemned the curriculum for promoting subjective interpretations of what Australian citizenship meant to different people, and has stated that the national history curriculum undervalued the importance of  “western civilisation and the importance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and ways of life”.

Such allegations are baseless when held against the reality of the curriculum. Pyne’s suggestions that the curriculum does little to celebrate the memory of the ANZACs fail to note that a significant unit of study on the First World War is examined almost solely from the perspective of the First Australian Imperial Force. Critics have also complained that the curriculum does little to celebrate conservative leaders of the past, focusing solely on Labor prime ministers. That the curriculum also discusses protectionist PM Edward Barton and Australia’s longest-serving Liberal Party PM, Robert Menzies, appears to have been conveniently ignored.

Pyne’s suspicions are far from surprising, given the long-standing perceptions of the Australian education system as a left-wing profession dependent on union support. Nevertheless, the hasty installation of two conservative education commentators in response to leftist bias in the system does not reflect well on a government that has spent its first few months in power enraging the left by removing and fund-slashing all of the projects and committees that Labor and the Greens held dear. This suggests that the government is willing to use the national curriculum as a vehicle for political point scoring in the short-term.

That the two nominated heads of the review are experts in the field of curriculum review is itself in contention. It is instead likely that education commentator Donnelly was hired simply to inflame the left with his radically conservative perspectives on what content should exist in the curriculum. Donnelly’s major claim to credibiity is his position as Director of the Education Standards Institute. However, further research suggests that this ‘Institute’ is nothing more than a one-man show registered as a trading name for Kevin Donnelly’s consulting business Impetus Consultants Pty Ltd. Donnelly uses the Institute as a means to validate his commentary on the national curriculum and his views on social issues more broadly. So far Donnelly seems only to be a man with opinions, albeit opinions conveniently favourable to the policy objectives of the Coalition Government.

Further, Donnelly’s belief that there should be a greater degree of religious education in schools is no secret to anyone that has read his biting commentary on education policy. That he expects such religious education to rotate primarily around the importance of Judeo-Christian values reflects poorly on his ability to undertake an impartial review of the curriculum. What will be his recommendations regarding the prevalence of primary level exercises that teach respect and tolerance of a diverse range of value systems? Will his recommendations suggest that western civilisation and Judeo-Christian values are the superior and preferred perspectives upon which to examine Australian history, in effect whitewashing Australia’s past? How is this biased and entirely partisan approach to a curriculum review any different to the left-leaning bias he so aggressively criticised?

For such an ideological battle to be undertaken within the domain of the national curriculum is a cause for concern. While it is not a surprising place for an ideological battle to occur, subjecting the curriculum to arbitrary political whims certainly bears the potential to inflict damage on the education of Australian children. The new review will now prevent the full roll-out of the national curriculum until 2015, a delay that our school administrators, teachers and children cannot afford. Contrary to Pyne’s claims, teachers are generally not part of a grand left-wing conspiracy, and just want to get on with the difficult job of teaching. Politicians from both sides of the fence need to stop letting their interests interfere with the Australian education system and take their politics outside.