Kathy Marks: Review set to stoke culture fire

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Goal to correct education 'left-wing bias' looks to critics like political exercise.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Coalition did promise a funding review during the campaign.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Coalition did promise a funding review during the campaign.

Low levels of literacy and numeracy among Australian school-leavers - complained of by employers, and illustrated by remedial maths and English classes held by universities - are undoubtedly concerning, as is the nation's slide down the international education rankings.

More questionable is whether a review of the new national curriculum, announced last week by federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, will do much to improve standards.

Pyne, who has adopted a pair of rather bookish-looking spectacles, believes the curriculum is tainted by left-wing bias and - as far as the teaching of Australian history is concerned - lays too much emphasis on the indigenous perspective. He wants students to learn more about "the benefits of Western civilisation", and to "celebrate Australia".

The two men he has appointed to conduct the review are, however, hardly independent, impartial experts. They are among the harshest critics of what is the country's first national curriculum, initiated by John Howard but completed under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Conservative commentators, their views are close to Pyne's. Kevin Donnelly, a former teacher and Liberal Party staffer who has set up his own education research institute, has lambasted the curriculum for "uncritically promoting diversity" and undervaluing "the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life". He has also written at length about a "cultural left bias" in the education establishment.

Ken Wiltshire, a professor of public administration at the University of Queensland business school, has already branded the curriculum - completed only in 2010 - "a failure". Although he says he does not belong to any political party, he wrote an article after the 2010 federal election arguing that the independents should support the Coalition.

The appointments have led, perhaps predictably, to claims that Pyne is deliberately stoking the "culture wars". He has also been accused of trying to distract attention from what many consider the more pressing issue of education funding reform.

It was not so long ago that Pyne performed two swift U-turns on the question of whether he would honour the previous Government's funding commitment (and the Coalition's election campaign pledge to that effect).

In fairness, Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Coalition did promise a review during the campaign. But with the curriculum not yet fully implemented, much less properly evaluated, Pyne's announcement seems premature, and his timetable impossibly hurried.

Donnelly and Wiltshire have been given just six months to review a curriculum which took leading education experts more than five years to draw up. The panel's carefully drafted programme was approved by every state and territory government, on both sides of politics, as well as by private schools.

Some of Pyne's stated rationale appears reasonable - who could argue with his wish for the curriculum to be "balanced", "robust" and "useful"? Yet it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the exercise is ideologically driven, aimed at stamping the Abbott Government's world view on the classroom - precisely what Pyne has accused Labor of doing.

That suspicion is reinforced by the fact that some of his specific criticisms do not stand up to scrutiny. He claimed last week, for instance, that history teachers are failing to give due prominence to events such as Anzac Day. However, the University of Melbourne's Professor Stuart Macintyre, who was lead author of the new history curriculum, told Crikey that it contains "a great slab on Anzac already - too much in my view".

No one is suggesting that the curriculum should be sacrosanct, nor that it might not benefit from fresh eyes. However, the outcome of the review seems predetermined by Pyne's public statements and his choice of experts. Its conclusions are unlikely to produce better educated young adults with the necessary skills and civic values for a modern, globalised society.

- NZ Herald

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