This article contains a number of updates on previously published articles. These updates are best read in the context of the original articles. In each case the web address of the original article is given to assist members.
- The never ending story (History curriculum wars)
- Public schools fight back?
- Religious schools and LGBT discrimination
- Suspension: A failure of discipline
1. The never ending story (History curriculum wars)
In his article *We have some yawning gaps in balancing the history we teach *(SMH16/11/21) Dr David Hastie, Associate Dean, Education Development at Alphacrucis College believes we need a balanced curriculum and that imbalance is at the base of minister Trudge’s comments. This curriculum balance is between three ideologies – skills (economic usefulness), cultural heritage (passing the “best” on through generations), and emancipation (questioning and opposing oppressive power structures). Hastie argues that all three are important and questions if emancipation has been overdone at the expense of cultural heritage reminding readers that emancipation without an understanding of cultural heritage is like a literary critic that hasn’t read anything.
These three ideologies are helpful for refining the debate, but should they have equal importance in defining a balanced curriculum. Is balance between the three appropriate? Currently, the argument is that emancipation should dominate and that the skills students gain to interrogate our history are important for our future. Some see this as an imbalance.
In Western history boosted in overhaul (SMH 4/2/22) changes to the national curriculum were announced as being agree to by states and territories although a few contentious matters remain outstanding to do with mathematics and the amount of content in history. Basically, the main contentious points have been addressed with Western and Christian heritage being elevated together with First Nations Australian histories and cultures. Students will study Indigenous history and overseas ancient history in Year 7, medieval Europe in Year 8, World War 1 in Year 9 and World War II and ‘modern campaigns’ for rights and freedoms in Year 10.
The implementation of the national curriculum will take time, especially in NSW and Victoria, which have their own curriculum. The changes will need to be embedded into existing syllabuses. In relation to the elevation of Western and Christian heritage, the devil may be in the detail. First, what actual changes have been made? Are they token or substantial? Will they address any of the concerns of those protesting the original drafts? These matters are yet to be determined. In either case, the place of general religious education will also need to be addressed if Christians are to be satisfied by these changes.
Christian perspectives Christians want to participate in the debate and honour God. Because they live in a liberal democracy that has deep Christian and western roots, they seek involvement in public discussion and debate. This witness makes God known in the wider community and answers the call to be the light and salt of society. However, Christians will still have a variety of views about the draft history curriculum and how history is currently taught in schools. But not participating in this debate will both weaken the focus on how Christianity has influenced our history and leave it to secularists to continue to mould a distorted history that fails to recognise the Christian values, people and beliefs that have helped to make Australia. Have the latest changes made a difference?
While these debates seem never ending, Christians know that they will end, and that this perspective is also of great importance.
2. Public schools fight back?
The current dilemma As reported through the media, before 2022, after plateauing, the percentage of students in public schools rose marginally, including in secondary schools. Some of the reasons for this change could be, inter alia:
- Improved perceptions of public school results from NAPLAN and HSC reporting
- A tighter economic situation restricting consumer spending on education
- A questioning of value for money for non-government school enrolment
- Improved funding for public schools. In February 2022, a reported fall in the percentage of students in public schools of 0.2% realised an increase in private schools of 0.8% The Australian Bureau of Statistics highlighted lower migration and number of refugees during the Covid 19 years as a major factor, but this should not downplay the increased numbers into private schools.
The central issue is - where to now for public schools? Is it more of the same with improved funding leading to improved teaching and learning or is a radical change needed to improve equity?
Recent figures indicate that in sector share, public schools were fighting back. But this might be putting too much emphasis on the figures. An accurate interpretation is that the sector share has plateaued, and the next change is unpredictable. Lower migration has reduced enrolments into public schools and an improved economy after COVID 19 may well see a move towards non-government schools with improved consumer spending. While an ideological shift, in which public schools increase places in selective schools for local area students, may result in greater equity, a reversal of the sector share to favour non-government schools is more likely as the parents of the brightest students seek other alternatives. Such a result would negate the very advantages sought by dispersing the students from selective schools.
I am unconvinced that public schools as a sector are “fighting back”. They are just holding on and the future is uncertain. I am also not convinced that governments are prepared to tackle the teaching and learning issues as well as funding issues to address inequity in schooling in Australia. As seen most recently when attempting the implementation of the full Gonski funding with only a small number of private schools initially adversely affected, a sweetheart deal between the Catholic sector and the Commonwealth government bought their support and so with other associated decisions public schools again missed out. Inequality and privilege remain entrenched.
As Christians, we live in an imperfect world, but are called to be its light and salt as followers of Jesus. Care for the poor features strongly throughout the scriptures, including in the life of Jesus. How can Christians best support equity in education so that privilege is not enshrined for the wealthy and disadvantage embedded for the poor?
3. Religious schools and LGBT discrimination
(In this update there is additional discussion about the Christian values of the school as a statement, under the existing Act related to the precepts of the school that would allow schools to discriminate in employment and enrolment and the attempt by the Australian Government to have the Religious Discrimination Bill and an Amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act passed by parliament.)
Just how the Christian values of the school could be used in a negative way to discriminate was highlighted by the Citipointe Christian College in Queensland which sent an enrolment contract to all parents indicating, inter alia, that they must agree that students identify their birth gender, that gender identity is “gifted” by God at birth and accept the condemning of homosexuality as a sin. These statements involved both gender and gender identity thus widening the issues.
In response, a group of Christian parents at this school stated that they could not, as Christians, sign the enrolment form because of their belief that God loves all people. As a result of this belief and their acceptance of the Apostle’s Creed as a statement of common Christian beliefs, their children faced exclusion. The media had a field day, and the outcome was the principal standing down and the enrolment contracts being withdrawn. The controversy showed to the wider community just how the Christian values of the school statements could be used to legally discriminate against both teachers and students using broad or extremely narrow statements.
This situation seriously challenged the government’s plans to put the Religious Discrimination Bill before parliament without addressing the Sex Discrimination Act provisions. It quickly guaranteed that gay students would not be discriminated against in enrolment by proposing an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act. But there was no such guarantee for transgender students proposed and when the legislation reached parliament, the Religious Discrimination Bill was passed in the lower house. But then, five government members crossed the floor to vote for an Opposition sponsored amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to prevent discrimination against both gay and transgender students.
With the Bill and the new amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act passed by the lower house, one government senator then said he would also support the now amended change to the Sex Discrimination Act. As a result, rather than be defeated in the upper house, the government shelved the Religious Discrimination Bill and referred the Sex Discrimination Act amendment to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review.
The outcome to this process is that people of faith have no increased protection against discrimination and both gay and transgender students and teachers have no protection against exclusion.
4. Suspension: A failure of discipline
A new student behaviour strategy, NSW Department of Education The “new” strategy (2022) is like the draft and allows for most of the features that have been discussed in the original article but it is hard to find something new other than promises to do it better. Increased services to support schools, improved teacher professional learning and better liaison with communities and other government departments have been strategies for many years. What is new, is the concrete changes to suspension policy. Unfortunately, many teachers and school administrators will see these changes as an erosion of existing power and fewer options to deal with difficult student behaviour problems. Unless the Department (NSW government) can make good its plan for increased services and professional learning for staff, then it is difficult to see how schools can devote their limited resources to making the improvements outlined.
A separate area of concern remains that of the draft being based on a commissioned evidence review of what works to address student behaviours by the Telethon Kids Institute, a medical centre incorporating medical professionals, but there is no evidence on their website of any educational expertise. The results of their engagement appear to provide nothing new to the policy except some changes to suspension practice. Looking at their report, it would be of interest to assess where the department is looking to head with new approaches.
At a time when the state government is under financial pressure from the loss of income and other priorities during the Covid crises, it is difficult to see how any new money can be allocated to this strategy when all existing areas and programs are under pressure to economise, meaning that any reallocation of funds is unlikely. This means that the strategy is a nice sounding document to appease stakeholders, in particular some groups of parents, without the specifics of anything being done other than a change to suspension rules. It’s all a bit too political and bureaucratic to suggest any significant change but teachers’ work has suddenly become harder.