Beyond the culture war lies a bold set of proposals
Alan Tudge's speech has plenty to say on topics other than the history curriculum
Alan Tudge, a conservative Australian education minister, has started a culture war over the history curriculum. This distracts from his other proposals - proposals that some teachers may even support - and discourages potential allies who don’t want to be associated with a flag-waving reactionary. Such is the message I have received from Twitter since Tudge’s speech to the Centre for Independent Studies on Friday, and it is a message that I only partially agree with.
It is true that Tudge’s speech covered a number of proposals, some of which I would strongly support, and it is true that the spat over the history curriculum has barged these proposals out of the coverage. Is this Tudge’s fault? Perhaps, but maybe not for the reason you assume. Reductive arguments over whether Australia has a bad, ignoble history or a good, glorious one, appeal to journalists who are not education experts and who don’t understand the significance of Tudge’s other proposals. Since Rebecca Urban’s departure from The Australian, we have lost one highly knowledgeable reporter and as I understand it, Tudge is reluctant to deal with another, Jordan Baker of the Sydney Morning Herald. Maybe simplistic takes are the inevitable result.
If I were advising Tudge, I would suggest a change of strategy.
So yes, Tudge’s comments on the history curriculum have distracted from his other points, but before we examine those, let’s first look at what the history fuss is all about.
Tudge compared the draft Australian Curriculum, released in April, with a new revision that has not yet been published:
“The biggest problem, though, was in the draft history curriculum. It gave the impression that nothing bad happened before 1788 and almost nothing good has happened since.
It downplayed our Western heritage. It omitted significant figures in our history such as Menzies, Howard and Whitlam.”
For those who are unware, Gough Whitlam, as Labor Prime Minister, led a radically reforming progressive government in the 1970s.
“[The draft] almost erased Christianity from our past, despite it being the single most important influence on our modern development, according to our greatest living historian, Geoffrey Blainey. It introduced ridiculous concepts such as asking year 2 students – seven-year-olds - to ask whether statues could be deemed racist.”
Tudge goes on to note that some improvements have been made and to reiterate that:
“Our Western political institutions are not always perfect but think of what they have given us: democratic government, equality before the law, freedom of association and speech, universal education, strong human rights. These are very precious, and very rare institutions.”
Outrageous as these comments may be to hard-left academics, you have to be pretty far gone to not recognise them as representing mainstream, right-of-centre opinion. Moreover, these are exactly the kinds of opinions held by millions of suburban Australians. Whatever the implications for education policy, pundits and teachers, Tudge’s comments can only help the cause of the ruling Coalition in the upcoming general election. And he must know this.
However, we need to recognise that conservatives are not the ones starting culture wars. No, those are the folks who decide we need to teach Year 2 students about racist statues. Conservatives, almost by definition, react.
What if they did not? Well, as I have argued, the curriculum cannot be left to individual teachers to decide upon. It cannot even be left to ‘experts’ who will inevitably be drawn from left-of-centre education faculties. It needs to involve all members of society in a process that ultimately satisfies nobody. The school curriculum is part of a social contract and conservatives have a right to comment on it.
If not, we will drift ever more to one end of the spectrum. We can see what that looks like in America, where local school boards are battling with organised groups of parents over the issue of curriculum content. Is that what we want?
And when it comes to the maths curriculum, a less emotive but at least as important topic, Tudge seems to be wholly correct and in line with mainstream expert opinion, such as that expressed by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute.
So, what of Tudge’s other proposals? Hang on to your seats. If you’ve only been reading the headlines then this is where things become more radical.
Tudge thinks expert teachers should be paid more! What about that? Where would the money come from? How would we judge expertise? This is worth a few opinion columns on its own. Tudge backs the idea of a one-year route into teaching for career-changers (it currently requires a two-year masters) and a greater investment in apprenticeship models. Both of these are good ideas.
Tudge is also minded to inspect teacher education providers. This is something I called for back in July to solve the problem of providers writing positive comments about evidence-informed practice on the accreditation paperwork but then going on to discourage the use of explicit teaching when they have trainees in front of them.
Perhaps the least surprising of Tudge’s views is his support for phonics and explicit teaching more generally, even though the evidence-informed vanguard of the teaching profession would have been delighted with such comments from an education minister just a few years ago. This is a sign of how far the agenda has moved on.
And Tudge goes on to signal the need to tackle Australia’s school behaviour crisis, citing evidence from the OECD that has been largely dismissed or ignored by Australian educationalists:
“In 2009, in the OECD’s index of school disciplinary climate, Australia scored at the international average. In 2018, by that same metric, we ranked 70th of 77 nations.”
This is a huge issue for Australian schools. He goes on to recognise the impact on professionals:
“And violence has become commonplace. Eighty percent of teachers say they have been subject to harassment in the past year. One in three principals have been exposed to physical violence from students.
This kind of behaviour is completely unacceptable. Teachers and principals must be safe in their workplaces.”
The predominant narrative from Australian experts - who rarely teach in classrooms themselves - is that ‘all behaviour is communication’ and if we could only discover what needs disruptive children are trying to communicate, and provide for them, behaviour problems would melt away.
What this has led to in practice is lots of form-filling, in triplicate, where teachers have to express how they have ‘differentiated’ their lesson plan to meet all the specific needs of the students in their classes, whether these interventions are evidence-based or not, leading to an explosion of bureaucracy and little impact on actual behaviour problems.
Tudge seems to get it:
“The education establishment needs to recognise this and confront it. But sometimes it seems they are going in the opposite direction.
Just last year, we saw an attempt in one jurisdiction to weaken the school suspension policy.
Teachers, principals and parents were rightly outraged.”
Other than improved teacher training, it’s not clear exactly what the federal government can do to tackle behaviour, but Tudge’s call for greater ‘transparency’ brings to mind my own suggestion of a yearly behaviour survey of teachers, students and parents at each school. There has to be a point when sufficient evidence has accumulated that academics can no longer bat away the issue.
So yes, it is unfortunate that the history wars crowded out space for a discussion of these largely welcome proposals. From what I have seen on Twitter, I don’t think many academics are even aware of Tudge’s take on discipline, for instance.
The framing of Tudge’s speech has inevitably provoked a knee-jerk reaction from many of the left, with Julian Hill, a Labor MP, assuming the culture war requires him to come out against times-tables or something:
Ultimately, Tudge is going to be able to achieve few of his aims before the next election. Even if the Coalition win, he may not emerge as education minister. Yet these ideas need airing and it’s a pity that the public at large will likely be familiar with only one aspect of them.