Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s national curriculum review has probably been holed well below the waterline, with revelations at Senate estimates yesterday that the Coalition-linked figures chosen to lead the review had not been vetted by education experts. Moreover, the ongoing Barry Spurr business is the latest scandal in a process that has been doomed from the start. But there was an easier way — and if the Coalition studied the history it is so keen to review, it would have remembered the much more successful process of the Howard government.

Pyne’s shambolic review differs totally from my own experiences when working with a pre-Abbott Coalition government as a history education consultant (1999-2007). The way the system then worked (more or less) was this:

The minister wants a review. In this case it was MP David Kemp’s 1999 history inquiry. The review is based on some kind of preliminary evidence that something needs fixing. Its terms of reference are then couched in relation to the public good. A non-controversial inquiry team with solid professional integrity is tendered for and appointed. One or two middle-ranking public servants from the minister’s department ride shotgun on the process. Two ministerial advisers keep track of things from a political point of view and to make sure that the minister will not be surprised. It will be the advisers’ job, in consultation with the inquiry team and the public servants, to check the process and to keep an eye on those involved. The minister agrees to, and signs on, the involvement of all paid consultants. The review arrives at its set of conclusions and, with a measure of credibility, is placed before the public and the stakeholders.

Pyne’s review did not follow that template. Criticised at the outset by respected members of the education community as premature and as a political stunt, the process attracted yet more criticism for its appointment of two opinionated Liberal supporters as reviewers. Then, in July last year, we had the embarrassing spectacle of Pyne having to disown the corporal punishment views of co-reviewer Kevin Donnelly. Now we have Pyne’s public renunciation of Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a specialist consultant who leads the list of 15 review auxiliaries.

Adding to the perception of Coalition bias, that same list suffers from an over-representation of the private school system (only one government school individual), has no indigenous representative, and no multicultural representative (standard for federal, state and territory reviews). The list also includes three academics, two of whom (Greg Melleuish and Alex Robson) have close links with the Institute of Public Affairs, and a third (Tony Makin) whose paper attacking the Rudd/Swann handling of the GFC was launched by Mathias Cormann in September 2014. And, of course, there’s the problematic Barry Spurr.

“Pyne could have also looked overseas for a better model … Pyne did not do this.”

It’s not just the people though. The language of the review is suffused with religiosity and support for the Cold War propaganda mantra of our “Judeo-Christian heritage“.

Pyne could have also looked overseas for a better model. Much is made in the Australian review of England’s current national curriculum (one of four in the UK) implemented by the Thatcher government in 1992. The UK’s approach to a national curriculum in the early 1990s faced a great deal of hostility from the teaching profession (workload, assessment, overcrowding, politicisation and Eurocentrism). In 1993, under a Conservative government, the curriculum was reviewed by a team led by eminent, impartial and universally admired civil servant Sir Ron Dearing, who was at that time chair of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Dearing issued an interim report in 1993 and a final report in 1994 with slimming-down suggestions that were largely implemented by a Conservative government in 1995, spending 744 million pounds on the amendments. The whole review process took two years, not a mere seven months as has been the case with the Pyne review.

Pyne did not do this. First, he announced that there would be a review of the national curriculum because he thought it contained leftist bias, a manifestly absurd idea. Next he appointed a controversially partisan inquiry team. Then came the Pyne-approved subject specialists, many of them chosen for published or an otherwise known predisposition to the Pyne/Donnelly/Wiltshire point of view but none apparently checked for excruciatingly inappropriate views before they were signed on. In the review itself we get a document that eschews evidence-based analysis, has a strong religious bias and plumps largely for the conclusions that Pyne thought of first (leftist bias undetected though). Ludicrously, the review then argues for two differing conclusions. Unsurprisingly, the document is met with a mixture of apathy and derision. That’s a pity because in among the ideology, there’s some good stuff. In my area of expertise alone for example, geography subject specialist Alan Hill has good things to say, as has history specialist Clive Logan. Both are working teachers, by the way.

Pyne may now have a hard job convincing state and territory education ministers at the next Education Council meeting of the credibility of the overall curriculum review process, of its findings and of its desire to have a curriculum suffused with Christianity. The Dearing review was altogether different in style as was the Kemp history inquiry, with both inquiries achieving a measure of acceptability and success mainly because of the manifest integrity of the process. In sponsoring a review so ideologically driven and so carelessly managed, Pyne’s 2014 version could well be hoisted by its own partisan petard.

*Tony Taylor is adjunct professor at the Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney.

Peter Fray

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