Christopher Pyne Tony Abbott

Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s disingenuous defence of his curriculum review panel (mostly recently in the Fairfax press) may work for his most immediate supporters, but it won’t wash with an informed public.

He tells us that a Coalition review of the national curriculum has been long promised. This bit, at least, is true, but the promises have consistently been framed in the language of political revenge.

He tells us that parents want a review of the national curriculum. Which parents? How many parents? I see no sign of significant, sustained national parental interest in a review.

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He also says the current national curriculum was rushed, ad hoc, stop-go, which is simply not true. The process began in 2008, almost six year ago, and it is still ongoing. Implementation has been slow and careful. New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, is just on the point of full implementation. If anything, the national curriculum design process was unhurried, hugely consultative and over-careful, the very opposite of rushed.

Pyne asserts that the curriculum design process was politicised. Wrong again. The national curriculum was developed by the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, a standalone statutory agency led by the highly respected and apolitical Barry McGaw. Unsubstantiated accusations that ACARA was politicised do a serious disservice to McGaw and his staff. And, as someone who was involved in the ACARA history design process, I can say that there was no ALP involvement in curriculum design — none whatsoever. Not only that, but the states and territories, many of them conservative, were involved in the process from the very beginning.

Further, Pyne misleadingly asserts that there are “serious doubts” that the current national curriculum is meeting education policy demands and it needs an independent review. There are three points to make here. First, how can there be substantive doubts about a curriculum that is not yet fully implemented and that, based on a national research project I am currently conducting, has strong support from teachers and from the states and territories? Second, who is expressing these “serious doubts” apart from Christopher Pyne? Third, Pyne’s definition of an independent review is wilfully misconceived to say the least.

The Education Minister also tells us that “petty” criticism of his two reviewers won’t help. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? One is a failed Liberal preselection candidate for East Yarra in Melbourne, and the other publicly tried to persuade independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to support Tony Abbott in 2010. Criticism of these reviewers has been focused on their political tendencies, their professional suitability and conflict of interest issues. These are not petty matters.

In my view there is nothing wrong with a snapshot interim professional review, but to make it happen and to give it any kind of credibility, Pyne should have appointed a suitably apolitical panel, not two Liberal Party chums. If Pyne were serious about an authentic, independent investigation, he would not have taken the partisan political way he himself condemns.

Finally, I write as an academic with a 40-year history in practical curriculum development in the UK and in Australia. As an individual who has no political affiliation, my criticisms of the Pyne review are solely to do with my opposition to political meddling with the national curriculum.  I also write as a professional who has worked at a federal level with the Howard Coalition government from 1999-2007 and for ACARA from 2008-2012. All three of the Coalition education ministers with whom I worked — David Kemp, Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop — were intelligent, committed professional politicians who had particular points of view but were dedicated to their task.

The impression I have of Pyne is that he thinks that a ministerial line in obfuscation, speciousness and fabrication is a good substitute for real knowledge of his brief. And, unlike Kemp, Nelson and Bishop, Pyne has become a laughing stock.

As for the national curriculum, review it when it has been operating for at least three of four years, but for goodness sake, put in a credible review team. And get a better minister.

*Tony Taylor has advised former federal governments on the history syllabus. His most recent books are (co-edited) History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives (2012) and (co-authored) Place and Time: Explorations in Teaching Geography and History (2012).