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Jan 21, 2014

Our education curriculum was not political -- it will be if Pyne gets his way

History educator and researcher Tony Taylor says Christopher Pyne's education review is unnecessary, unfounded and based on specious arguments. We need a credible review team -- and a credible minister.


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.

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).



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23 thoughts on “Our education curriculum was not political — it will be if Pyne gets his way

  1. leon knight

    An incredible minister is usually a compliment, but Tony has correctly identified this yokel as a laughing stock…and the ego of the chap is quite repugnant – a thoroughly nasty individual.

  2. Jimmy

    Pretty good assessment of the situation, I nearly fell over laughing readin PYnes piece over the weekend – does he think we are that stupid?

  3. Jan Forrester

    Thanks Tony! On many counts.

  4. klewso

    What’s new?
    “Con-troll information and you’re half-way to controlling thinking through perception! – Murdoch”?

  5. Venise Alstergren

    Christopher Pyne is the archetypal, bottom line microcosm that illuminates, with a dim and malevolent light, almost ninety percent of the parliamentary coalition.

    For anyone to call Christopher Pyne a laughing stock is severely over stating the man’s abilities. Every time he opens his mouth, or is running out of parliament, he illustrates his fifth-rate persona.

    After his initial salvo on the Gonski report and the speed with which the PM brought him back to heel, the electorate should have known the vitiated worth of this ankle biting clown.

  6. paddy

    Well done TT. Your piece has actually cheered me up.
    It’s way past time that someone *loudly* pointed out, that the Emperor/Minister has no clothes.

  7. MJPC

    Thank you Tony, for saying what hasn’t been said as clearly in the mainstream media. There are too many LNP ‘chums’ advising on too many policies in this Government. I and many did not vote for them, and certainly don’t wish to be dictated to by those who didn’t even sit for election, but are advocating policy.
    VA has also summed it in one.
    Can someone also tell me what is happening at Fairfax? Pyne and now, today in the SMH, one Peter Reith waxing lyrical on workplace reform ne’ workchoices Mk 2. I am polishing up my “Your rights at Work” campaign button. Here’s a tip: buy shares in balaclava supply companies if he has any credibility with this Government (as he undoubtedly does).

  8. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    Chris’s analysis of the problem and proposed solution shows how a private school education (Saint Ignatius’ College, Adelaide) can fail miserably in his case:
    Problem:”universities are teaching maths and English remedial courses”

    Proposed Solution: ” the curriculum should be orthodox and should tell students about where we’ve come from and why we are the country we are today, so we can shape our future appropriately,”

    I don’t see how feeding students ‘facts’ will help their Maths or English skills in any way whatsoever.

  9. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    I think it would be also good to analyse why the university is giving these courses instead of adjusting the prerequisites for their courses (see http://sydney.edu.au/science/outreach/teacher_resources/maths_in_focus.shtml) and I’d also be interested in how many mature age students require these courses (I’m well aware that if I wanted to study engineering for instance I would probably need to do these courses as I only did the General Maths subject in year 12 back in ’86.

  10. wbddrss

    I went to the website & had a quick read of


    & surprisingly as a non professional with a casual interest in education, I feel all the fuss is about a framework.

    Have I got the wrong impression? Can anyone help me?

    Very interesting stuff but not worthy of getting all excited over.

  11. Jimmyhaz

    It almost defies belief that Pyne has as much power as he does, shouldn’t Abbott start him out with something that suits his abilities? I personally recommend making him the official signatory to all coalition policies, something that shouldn’t strain him too much.

  12. Observation

    Pyne will be focusing on the content of history to be taught. Its an old political battle fought by his ilk for a long time to keep future generations towing the line.

  13. Andybob

    I heard a few complaints from scientist friends about them not having a Minister for Science. The complaints stopped immediately I suggested Pyne could pick it up.

  14. Chris Hartwell

    It gives me a sad that this … entity masquerading as an Education Minister shares my given name.

  15. Electric Lardyland

    And still it seems, that the major thing that Christopher ‘The Raging Poodle’ Pyne is intent on teaching the children of Australia, is that relentlessly lying and distorting the truth, is a perfectly acceptable tactic in the attempt to get what you want.

  16. JMNO

    To Shaniq’ua.
    I started university in 1967 and all first year students had to sit an English test in Orientation Week. If your English wasn’t up to scratch then you had to enrol in remedial English. It’s not new.

  17. paul saxby

    Thanks tony. Your articles should be compulsory reading in all staffrooms. A pity teachers are too busy being neo-Marxist revolutionaries to do so.

  18. aaron langley

    It’s just Whiny Pyney having another whinge. The only reason he’s in the cabinet is he makes the others seem likable in compareson.

  19. thelorikeet

    Pyne is clearly a serious political player. He commands exalted roles both as Minister and a Leader of Government Business. So we should not be fooled by his puppy-dog enthusiasm for corny jokes.

    His major goofs reflect the unreadiness of the Abbott leadership team for government. Government is hard, and not as much fun as cheap point scoring Opposition.

    The curriculum review is a big deal, a once-in-a-generation thing that will build the future of Australian education for the next 20 or more years. The most startling thing about Pyne’s action it is not the petty political prattle, but the exhumation of a real ideologue in the shape of the self-important and rhino-hided Kevin Donnelly, proponent of theocratic curricula, enemy of public education and former Andrews staffer (proving that two Kevins are clearly too many). Donnelly, who seems to be favoured by The Drum (someone else’s ABC, not mine?), postures, a little BA Santamaria like as a reasoned voice that speaks dangerous, right-radical content.

    The choice of Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire (a tokenistic nod to evidence-based policy) speaks volumes for what is meant to be done. Wiltshire will not be able to control Donnelly, or even contain him.

    Sorry, Ken. You should not have taken the gig with such a poor partner. It reminds me of poor old Kevin Ryan QC being made to sit as the token apolitical commissioner alongside form Liberal MLA, Peter Connolly QC (both were retired Supreme Court Judges) in the bogus inquiry designed to smash the forces of accountability in Queensland in the Borbidge government (for those with a Qld history bent). Kevin (there are way too many Kevins, really) looked like a defeated man as each painful inquiry day rolled past until the inquiry was finally euthanised by the Supreme Court.

    Alas, there will be no Court redemption for the curriculum review.

  20. klewso

    He’s got some big shoes to fill – Reith and Abbott were Howard’s Leader of the House – pity they didn’t wipe the dog shit off before wearing it in?

  21. Hamis Hill

    Ironically, the philosopher who introduced the Historical Method into economics, argued, economically, that conservatives had an interest to deceive and oppress the public, using all means at their disposal to have government intervene in the market in their favour.
    So will the answer to the implied question above be included in the new history curriculum being targeted by the conservatives?
    Here it is; as wages increase, so do savings and as savings increase so do interest rates drop.
    Hence the need to deceive and oppress and reduce wages by those live, not by their labour but by their investments.
    Labour and capital, it must be in the curriculum somewhere? No?

  22. Malcolm Street

    Hamis – the irony is that the upward distribution of income means that more money is going to people with a higher marginal propensity to save, ie savings as a proportion of the economy and so interest rates will reduce. It’s happening anyway…

  23. Hamis Hill

    Well, additionally,Malcolm, there is nothing ironic in the fact that people on low wages and carrying high debt find it difficult to sustain a “higher marginal propensity to save” as you put it.
    Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations article on Wages and interest rates described how in the late 1770’s in the American colonies wage rates were 60% higher than in the Mother Country, and consequently lower interest rates as savings filled the banks.
    There is a common modern intellectual conceit that things are “different” now than they were in Smith’s day.
    Certainly now Americans do not enjoy high wage levels, it being considered acceptable that people wash dishes to feed themselves and only consequently be able to afford the accommodation provided by bridge underpasses.
    So how is the wealth differential going in the US today?
    The rich accumulating more wealth, because their constant refrain that wage levels are too high is acceded to by government?
    Is Smith out of date, as many find convenient to proclaim, without having ever considered his original arguments?


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