Curriculum - Schools caught in crossfire of battle of East and West

17th January 2014 at 00:00
Australia needs greater focus on colonial `legacy', minister says

Australian schools should be less concerned with the country's aboriginal culture and Asian neighbours and instead focus more on its British colonial past, according to one of the people tasked with revising the national curriculum.

Last week, the government announced controversial plans to rework the curriculum and "celebrate Australia" by addressing concerns that education fails to recognise the nation's "legacy of Western civilisation".

The current curriculum, drawn up in 2009, has three overarching themes: indigenous culture, Asia and sustainability. But education minister Christopher Pyne has stressed the need to remove its "partisan bias", which critics argue has led to too much focus on "politically correct" subjects.

Mr Pyne has acknowledged that students should be taught "the truth about the way we've treated indigenous Australians", but said that this should be presented alongside "the truth about the benefits of Western civilisation".

He accused the present curriculum's authors of "not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve". In particular, Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand to commemorate those who lost their lives in the world wars and more recent conflicts, should be given more emphasis, the minister said.

The Australian coalition government is led by Tony Abbott, who became prime minister in September after a landslide election victory. Mr Abbott, who was born in England and returned to the country to attend the University of Oxford, has wasted little time in implementing a series of controversial policies welcomed by his supporters on the Right.

Mr Pyne said it was important for students to "know where we've come from as a nation", including "our beginnings as a colony and therefore our Western civilisation, which is why we are the kind of country we are today".

But Mr Pyne's choice of experts to rewrite the curriculum, which includes Kevin Donnelly, director of the Education Standards Institute thinktank and an outspoken conservative education commentator, has proved contentious.

Tasmania's education minister, Nick McKim, said the appointments had "all the hallmarks of a brainwashing and propaganda mission" to impose "extreme right-wing views" on students.

But Dr Donnelly told TES that although Australia had a "multicultural, multi-faith" society, "accepting diversity and difference is only possible when there is agreement about the values and beliefs that allow [them] to exist in the first place".

He added: "The concern is that every subject in the new curriculum, whether physics, chemistry, mathematics or science, has to be interpreted through indigenous, Asian and sustainability perspectives.

"While the three perspectives are worthwhile, equally as important is acknowledging that Australia is a Western, liberal democracy and that much of our history, as well as our political and legal institutions and culture in general, owe much to Western civilisation.

"The origins of Australia's Westminster form of government and our common- law legal system can be traced back to the fact that we were established as a British colony. Much of our literature, music, art and the language we speak can only be fully appreciated within the context of Western civilisation."

Tony Milner, professor of Asian history at the Australian National University, has claimed that focusing on the country's history as a British colony would help its Asian communities to "get a handle on what we are about".

But although Mr Pyne has insisted that the revised curriculum should be stripped of left-wing political bias, his opponents have warned that it now risks becoming ideologically skewed by the coalition government, which consists of the Liberal Party of Australia and its right-leaning political partners.

"We certainly don't want to see the politicisation of the national curriculum," said Angelo Gavrielatos, federal president of the Australian Education Union.

Meanwhile, the Labor Party's education spokeswoman, Kate Ellis, described the curriculum review as a "farce".

"What the [Tony] Abbott government has that they believe that there was bias in the curriculum that was devised by an independent body, so to address that they're going to appoint a former Liberal staffer [Dr Donnelly]," she said. "This is a joke."

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