Oct 23, 2014

Pyne’s curriculum review should have learnt from history

Christopher Pyne's education review was rushed, partisan and now seemingly doomed. Adjunct professor Tony Taylor at the University of Technology Sydney says it didn't have to be this way.

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.

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23 thoughts on “Pyne’s curriculum review should have learnt from history

  1. Steve777

    Pyne sets up a hasty review headed by two hand-picked right wing culture warriors to give him the answers he wants. They Curriculum Review has no credibility. It’s report, when available, should be shredded.

  2. david hare

    With all due respect Pyne’s review was only ever intended to have a specific ideological outcome.

    He has no interest in a meaningful review. It is incredibly naïve, if not disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

    Thank god now Spurr’e filthy private ranting are likely to ignite the whole damnable process.

  3. Ross Carnsew

    It pains me to say it, but Pyne is a political genius who puts his fellow ministers to shame. Here we all are, arguing about curriculum reviews and the political or ideological background of the reviewers.
    Pyne can crash through with this or simply forget about it. Either way, public v private school funding has vanished from the conversation. Job done!

  4. The Pav

    The phrase in the article “A non-controversial inquiry team with solid professional integrity ”

    Pick the word that does not apply to the Abbott Govt.

    That’s right “integrity”

    Re Ross @3………..I’m afraid you maybe right although there is an argument that he is not that clever and is that stupid ( appologies to Coca Cola for the line”

  5. cartoonmick

    Is it just me, or is everyone else getting sick of the political smoke and mirrors?

    Spin Spin Spin. Hey Mr Pyne (and other pollies), the average Aussie is not dumb and can see right through all the BS being offered up.

    We know the basic right wing agenda is to give generous funding to private schools at the expense of public schools.

    Getting very sick of Pollies taking us for granted. Not a clever thing for them to do.

    Cartoon on Pollies . . .



  6. Secondus Tertius

    A slightly smarter Minister might realise that the public service provides protection for those Ministers willing to listen.

    The public service has a long memory and often deep expertise and is well suited to screening out obvious problems.

  7. Luke Hellboy

    The irony of an Education minister not learning from history would be amusing, if he wasn’t our education minister. It seems he was chosen for this portfolio under the same criteria that Abbott was for Minister for Women’s Affairs: hubris and ignorance. Actually this seems to apply to most government ministers judging by their performances to date.

  8. david hare

    Including the fucking minister?


  9. Simon Sharwood

    Another comical aspect of the review is its recommendation to dilute the teaching of computational thinking in schools. Two days later, the Innovation Agenda >>recommended<< more computational thinking and funded a new program to help teachers learn the topic.

  10. klewso

    Isn’t The Credlin Minister for Women’s Affairs – Toady’s just her dummy?

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