Why is Peter Dutton trying to start another political battle over the school curriculum?

Mick Tsikas/AAP

In a decision that surprised political observers, Liberal Leader Peter Dutton said the curriculum and education reform would be some of his top priorities in opposition.

Although the Morrison government approved the latest version of the program just before the election, Dutton argues that “wider discussion” is needed.

As he told The Australian earlier this month, “there are a lot of non-essential programs that are being run by unions and other campaigners that parents are worried about”.

Liberal New South Wales Senator Hollie Hughes also blamed her party’s electoral defeat on “Marxist” teachers who were filling students’ heads with “left-wing rubbish”.

It might seem like a strange question to prioritize after an election defeat, with issues like climate change and the cost of living on the minds of many voters. But there is a long tradition of ‘curriculum wars’ in Australia, dating back decades.

Parents concerned about this debate and what their children may be “catching” in the classroom should also understand this story.

Curriculum and conservative culture wars

Dutton’s attempt to revive the culture wars dates back to former Prime Minister John Howard, who railed against a “black armband” view of history, “political correctness” and “sham and divisive debate over the national identity”. Howard argued:

The time has also come for a fundamental overhaul of the teaching of Australian history in our schools. […] he succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective track record of success is questioned or repudiated.

In the aftermath, as Leader of the Opposition in 2013, Tony Abbott claimed the national curriculum had become politicized by leftist teachers, with history undervaluing the contributions and legacy of Western civilisation. He said there was a

Lack of references to our heritage, other than Aboriginal heritage, too much focus on issues that are the predominant concern of one side of the policy.

Once in government, Abbott ordered a review of the national curriculum in 2014, saying schools needed to get back “to basics”.

Abbott’s hand-picked critics argued for greater emphasis on Western literature and Judeo-Christian heritage. The revised program (version 8.0) was released in 2015 and was in place until recently.

The American Connection

Australia’s curriculum wars can also be linked to education debates in the United States.

For example, critical race theory has become a key battleground for conservative culture wars against public schooling, teacher autonomy, and curriculum. These debates are designed to create moral panic among parents, who fear sending their children to school to learn the facts, but are instead indoctrinated by Cultural Marxists disguised as teachers.

The rise of homeschooling and school choice in Australia and the United States is largely driven by concerns about the school curriculum.

Who chooses the program in Australia?

It is important for parents to know that the curriculum – what is taught in our schools – is not developed by unions or activists.

Although teachers have a say in how their lessons are delivered, the curriculum is developed and controlled by state and territory education authorities.

Read more: The Senate has voted to reject critical race theory from the national agenda. What is it, and why is it important?

After their election in 2007, Labor promised an “education revolution”. This was the beginning of greater federal involvement in curriculum development and evaluation.

The newly created Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority published the first version of the Australian curriculum in 2010. It is the body that is also responsible for the implementation of the MySchool website and the National Assessment Program tests – Literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN).

Public schools are required to follow curriculum guidelines imposed by the state and territory, while Catholic, independent, and other non-governmental schools have greater curriculum flexibility. This includes offering alternative study program options such as the Steiner, Montessori or International Baccalaureate programs.

The last program

The latest revision of the program (Version 9.0) was undertaken with the aim of “refining, realigning and decluttering” the content of the program within its existing structure.

There was an extensive consultation period in 2020-21, with over 6,000 surveys, 900 emails and 360 teachers and curriculum specialists involved in the review.

Former Prime Minister John Howard pictured with new Liberal leader Peter Dutton at a book launch in June 2022. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Former Prime Minister John Howard pictured with new Liberal leader Peter Dutton at a book launch in June 2022. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Even so, Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert wrote to the chairman of the Australian Curriculum Authority in February asking for further changes to present a “more balanced view of Australian history”. . In particular, he wanted to make sure

that key aspects of Australian history, namely 1750-1914 and Australia’s migrant history after World War II, are appropriately prioritized.

As a result, 55% of the history curriculum content between years 7 and 10 was removed.

Version 9.0 of the Australian curriculum was then approved by federal and state education ministers in April, shortly before the federal election was called.

Where to go from here?

New education minister Jason Clare was quick to reject Dutton’s attempts to start a curriculum war, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “I’m not interested in starting fights.”

So as the updated curriculum begins to roll out to Australian schools from 2023, it will be interesting to see just how much momentum Dutton generates.

Certainly, a proposal to move to continuous updates of the program instead of every five or six years will potentially facilitate political interference in the program.

But it is important to remember that it is the education authorities who determine the curriculum – not the unions, not the activists and ideally not the minister of the day.

Read more: Australia is just one front in the history curricula war

This article is republished from The Conversation, the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Stewart Riddle, University of Southern Queensland.

Read more:

Stewart Riddle received funding from the Australian Research Council (LP210100098 Constructing a Rich Curriculum for All: ‘Insights into Practice’).

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