Schools Should Be Free To Teach What They Want

Most people seem to have missed the point about the national curriculum.
The opposition certainly has. If the national curriculum is as bad as Nationals senator Ron Boswell says – it “reads like a Marxist learner…to prepare our young for the anti-capitalist class struggle” – in a way, that’s the (decidedly not Marxist) Howard government’s fault.
Taking control of the curriculum out of the hands of the states and into the loving arms of the federal government didn’t begin when Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election.
In a speech in 2006, Julie Bishop, the then education minister, argued Canberra needed to grab the school curriculum “out of the hands of ideologues in the state and territory education bureaucracies and give it to, say, a national board of studies”.
But last week, after having seen the national curriculum in its proposed glory, Christopher Pyne, the coalition’s education spokesman, claimed it imposed “a particular black armband view of our history”. Obviously Bishop’s plan didn’t work.
There’s a lesson here. Whether we get an Abbott government after this election, a Turnbull government in 2013, or a Joyce-Tuckey government in 2016, that government will need to realise any new powers they grant themselves won’t be theirs forever.
Nevertheless, Boswell and Pyne are wrong. The proposed curriculum is hardly the vanguard of the international socialist movement. But it does have its peculiarities.
The science curriculum’s insistence that science should be taught as a cultural endeavour – with Asian and Aboriginal perspectives such as the Dreamtime – seems more like cultural studies. Worthy in their own right perhaps, but teaching myths in science class is a bit odd.
And its emphasis on “the human responsibility to contribute to sustainability” seems just a touch ideologically loaded.
The history curriculum in year 10 investigates “struggles for freedom and rights”, which is great. But it starts its investigation with the United Nations, as if the concept of human rights just popped up in 1945.
And perhaps having kids learn about “Sorry Day” is laudable. But it seems a bit much for the apology – which is a distinctly political achievement of the Rudd government – to be given curriculum status so soon.
Nevertheless, it’s probably not an awful curriculum. Unfortunately, “not awful” is the best we’re going to get from a curriculum designed to be imposed across the country. It is supposed to equally serve the needs of students attending both Camberwell South Primary School, with 496 relatively well-off students, to Gochin Jiny Jirra School, a remote school in the NT with just 25.
The professed reason for the national curriculum is that there are 80,000 students who move interstate each year. But there are 3 million students all up. So the curriculum is being imposed for the convenience of just 2.3 per cent of the student population.
Still, if we know anything about our Kevin Rudd, we know he loves to be in charge of stuff. A national curriculum is right up his alley, even without John Howard’s beat-back-the-leftie-historians agenda.
The federal government seems to believe a national curriculum will be inherently better than state curriculums. But “national” is not a synonym for “awesome”.
If we really wanted a revolution in education, we’d give schools flexibility to tailor the curriculum to the needs and profile of their student body.
At the very least, the study of history, which can be subject to many more interpretations than mathematics, could be left to the discretion of schools. After all, most of the bitterness over the history wars was about ideological control over the curriculum.
If some parents wanted their children to be taught that capitalism has brought misery and oppression and darkness, they could choose that. If other parents wanted their children to understand how market relationships lead to mutual gain, and free trade alleviates poverty, they could choose that too.
Until the government gives control of the curriculum back to schools, parents and students will always be somewhat unsatisfied with what Australian children are taught.