Joint statement First Nations history has a rightful place in schools

Reviews of the National Curriculum are always contentious. People of all political stripes like to have their say – particularly about the teaching of First Nations history, writes journalist Will Brodie.

It’s fortunate that Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) Chief Executive David de Carvalho and Chair Belinda Robinson welcomed “robust discussion” of their draft review of the National Curriculum. They got plenty.

“The Foundation to Year 10 Australian Curriculum outlines the core knowledge and skills to be taught to students, wherever they live in Australia,” ACARA said on its website in opening the review for public consultation in late April 2021.

“The Australian Curriculum Review looks to improve the curriculum by refining, realigning and decluttering the content so it focuses on the essential knowledge and skills students should learn and it is clearer for teachers on what they need to teach.”

The mission may sound simple enough. It’s anything but.

Media commentary

When the 10-week public consultation period on the proposed revisions ended on 8 July, the barrage of criticism included Graham Young, thundering in The Spectator magazine: “The national curriculum doesn’t just threaten our children. It’s a threat to the future of our nation.”

The politically conservative Institute of Public Affairs claimed a “tightknit gang of bureaucrats and academics” was attacking Western Civilisation and “cancelling the teaching of freedoms that underpin Australian democracy, including freedom of speech, association, and religion”.

News and current affairs website Crikey disagreed, saying politicians and interest groups were trying to frame the ACARA draft as “woke activists” teaching children to “hate Australia”.

Measured opinion

More moderate voices could also be heard. A group that included the Independent Education Union of Australia’s Acting Federal Secretary, Christine Cooper; the President of the Australian Education Union, Correna Haythorpe; and the Chief Executive of Reconciliation Australia, Karen Mundine, released a joint statement supporting the proposed revisions targeting reconciliation in education.

“We support the calls from First Nations peoples and educators for a stronger focus on the inclusion of First Nations’ histories and cultures, and for greater truth-telling in the Australian Curriculum,” the statement read.

It said strengthening the curriculum to support reconciliation in education would be “a step towards a reconciled nation”.

“Learning about the histories, cultures and contributions of Australia’s First Nations peoples is fundamental to learning about what it means to be Australian,” the statement said.

Gauging community views

The joint statement was informed by the Australian Reconciliation Barometer, a survey undertaken by Reconciliation Australia, the national body for reconciliation, established in 2001. Reconciliation Australia’s mission statement is to “promote and facilitate respect, trust, and positive relationships between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students”.

The Australian Reconciliation Barometer measures attitudes towards reconciliation, using the five dimensions of reconciliation – race relations, equality and equity, unity, institutional integrity, and historical acceptance – to inform data collection and analysis.

The 2020 Reconciliation Barometer found that more than 80 percent of the Australian community believe “it’s important for First Nations histories and cultures to be taught in schools”. The barometer also revealed that:

  • 91 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (89 percent in 2018) and 83 percent of the general community (79 percent in 2018) believe it’s important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures to be taught in schools
  • 90 percent of the general community (86 percent in 2018) feel it is important for all Australians to learn about past issues, compared with 93 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (91 percent in 2018).
We support the calls from FirstNations peoples and educators for a stronger focus on First Nations’ histories and cultures, and for greater truth-telling in the AustralianCurriculum.”

Votes of confidence

Professor Sue Bennett, head of the University of Wollongong’s School of Education said she was confident in the proposed curriculum changes because of the “really extensive consultation process” they’ve undergone.

“Part of the process is that we need a curriculum that is keeping pace with changes in knowledge, keeping pace with changes in society and able to be reviewed and changed, rather than just kind of stagnating and not really reflecting our society,” Professor Bennett said.

“I think, on balance, it does do those things that it set out to do. It has clarified a lot of things. It has reduced duplication and it has built better connections between different areas of the syllabus.”

Dr David Hastie, Associate Dean of Education Development at Alphacrucis College, told ABC News that ACARA had “overreached” in its “noble effort to give voice to the hitherto voiceless” in the draft History and Civics Consultation Curriculums. (Alphacrucis College is a Christian institution, describing itself as “the official training college of Australian Christian Churches, the Assemblies of God in Australia”. Its main campus is in Parramatta NSW.)

Hastie was concerned that the volume of the suggested First Nations curriculum and subtraction of Christianity jeopardised reconciliation by “providing a platform of complaint for more unsavoury voices in the public forum”.

At the same time, he applauded the “excellent” First Nations content and said the ACARA revisions were “remarkable educational drafts”.

“The Consultation Curriculum contains brilliant material – exactly the kind of fascinating detail that has been absent in conventional teacher training, and definitely lacking in schools.

“As an historian, I applaud, and can confirm, the rigour with which the Consultation Curriculum seeks to increase First Nations history. As an Australian of Anglo-Protestant early settler and convict descent, I repudiate any sentiment that First Nations content should be downplayed in school curricula because it is not significant enough. A celebration of Indigenous Australia should be at the core of our positive national identity.”

Next steps

The 10-week public consultation period on proposed revisions ended on 8 July 2021. All feedback will be reviewed and considered in finalising proposed changes to the Australian Curriculum.

The Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland is undertaking an independent analysis of the data collected through the online surveys and email submissions and will prepare consultation reports to assist ACARA in completing the revisions.

Final revisions to the Australian Curriculum will be provided to education ministers for their consideration and endorsement before the end of 2021.

The updated version of the Foundation to Year 10 Australian Curriculum, once approved by ministers, will be made available on a newly designed Australian Curriculum website for the start of 2022.