The public’s mind is focused upon politics in the final week of a bruising election campaign. The language of politics is drilled into for nuance and gaffes. But there are some keywords and concepts that are not mentioned in the main body of the Civics and Citizenship curriculum issued by ACARA this week and signed off by Federal and State education ministers.
This formal document conveys the official view of how young people are to be prepared by schools and teachers for participation as Australian citizens and the following words are all missing: social justice, human rights, care, empathy, truth, political literacy, discrimination, racism, mutual understanding, social change, climate change and advocacy.
The words ‘compassion’ and ‘civility’ are in the current curriculum but are now excised.
Year 9 students will no longer explore ‘How citizens’ political choices are shaped at election time, including the influence of the media (ACHCK076)’.
This will surely limit young people’s understanding of democratic debate? When reviewing a curriculum we need to look not only for sins of omission but also for sins of commission. But here there are plenty of examples of sins of commission too.
Citizenship education globally has been criticised for being more likely to focus unhealthily upon national contexts, but Australia as a nation has a proud history of demonstrating outward-looking and generous global involvement. Now, the Civics and Citizenship curriculum rationale states that ‘the curriculum strongly focuses on the Australian context’. It follows through on this statement by effectively omitting global education from primary schools. The Year 6 statement that students explore “The obligations citizens may consider they have beyond their own national borders as active and informed global citizens (ACHASSK148)”, which was also an important element of that age group’s achievement standard, is excised. Also removed from the Year 6 curriculum is the invitation to find out more about ‘The world’s cultural diversity, including that of its indigenous peoples (ACHASSK140)’.
Also missing? The Year 9 content descriptor ‘How ideas about and experiences of Australian identity are influenced by global connectedness and mobility (ACHCK081)’. True citizenship education can contribute to building bridges between different groups of people around the world and create educational spaces to develop young people’s capacity to contribute to positive global social change .
The revisions to the Australian Curriculum signal that this is no longer a priority.
The new curriculum valorises knowledge over skills, values and dispositions. For example, the curriculum rationale states that ‘a deep understanding of Australia’s federal system of government and the liberal democratic values that underpin it is essential’; ‘Emphasis is placed on the federal system of government, derived from the Westminster and Washington systems’. The curriculum aims to foster ‘responsible participation in Australia’s democracy’. The curriculum language leans towards viewing young people as passive recipients of knowledge more than active learners. In a self-congratulatory spirit, students are to imbibe how ‘the system safeguards democracy’ and ‘how laws and the legal system protect people’s rights’. Student responsibilities are referenced three times in the curriculum rationale. Ten year olds are potentially stuffed with knowledge that they will not be putting into practice for another eight years including within elaborations which reference the secret ballot, compulsory voting, preferential voting and the role of the Australian Electoral Commission as key features of Australia’s democracy.
Some fundamental skills and concepts fall by the wayside.
- From year 3:
‘The importance of making decisions democratically (ACHASSK070)’. Why? – seven and eight year olds can start to understand why fairness matters.
- From year 4: the descriptor ‘Interact with others with respect to share points of view (ACHASSI059) – a fundamental attribute to value and nurture in nine year olds in developing their empathy and broader emotional literacy
- From years Year 9 and 10: Students are no longer required to ‘Recognise and consider multiple perspectives and ambiguities and use strategies to negotiate and resolve contentious issues (ACHCS086) (ACHCS099)’ or to ‘Reflect on their role as a citizen in Australian, regional and global contexts (ACHCS089) (ACHCS102)’.
- The curriculum language supporting active citizenship – already cautious (Hoepper, 2014) – is further diluted.
- Year 6 students will no longer “Work in groups to generate responses to issues and challenges (ACHASS130)”.
- The requirement that both Year 7 and Year 8 students ‘Use democratic processes to reach consensus on a course of action relating to a civics or citizenship issue and plan for that action (ACHCS058) (ACHCS072)’ is removed.
- The Year 8 statement that students appreciate ‘How citizens can participate in Australia’s democracy, including use of the electoral system, contact with their elected representatives, use of lobby groups, and direct action (ACHCK062)’ has become vaguer and more passive ‘how Australians are informed about and participate in democracy (AC9HC8K01)’.
- A curriculum aim for the early years of secondary education that currently enjoins students to explore “The freedoms that enable active participation in Australia’s democracy within the bounds of law, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, religion and movement (ACHCK061) is altered to the more anodyne ‘the characteristics of Australia’s democracy, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, religion and movement (AC9HC7K02).
The political influence in this area is stark.
Scott Morrison observed in parliament of students attending Strike4ClimateChange rallies in Australia that, ‘We do not support our schools being turned into parliaments…..What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools’ (AAP, 2018).
And acting federal Education Minister Stuart Robert insisted on the omission of a brief reference in an optional curriculum elaboration to the youth environmentalist Greta Thunberg (Baker & Carey, 2022).
The progressive notion of educating young people for active and informed citizenship is qualified – rather schools and teachers are ‘building their capacity to be active and informed citizens’. The message to young people is clear – you are citizens in waiting not citizens yet. We expect you to be compliant and to keep your opinions to yourself,
It may be possible for committed and confident teachers to re-form policy through active interpretation as opposed to narrowly conforming to the letter of curriculum content descriptors (Jerome, 2018; Sim, 2008). The rationale for the Year 7-10 Civics and Citizenship curriculum still includes the claim that through:
‘The study of Civics and Citizenship, students develop inquiry skills, values and dispositions that enable them to be active and informed citizens who question, understand and contribute to the world they live in. The curriculum offers opportunities for students to develop a wide range of skills by investigating contemporary civics and citizenship issues and fostering civic participation and engagement.’
Unfortunately, revised content descriptors (which will be what most teachers look to first in their curriculum design) do not generally align with this vision. Values, skills and dispositions tend to go missing. Moreover, previously highlighted links (via the use of icons) to General Capabilities such as ‘Personal and Social competence’, ‘Intercultural understanding’ and ‘Ethical understanding’ also no longer exist.
ACARA’s interpretation of what was represented as a decluttering administrative exercise might be seen as another person’s neutering and application of an ideological lens. It just became a whole lot harder for teachers to nurture a fuller achievement of democratic citizenship and human rights nationally and globally and more difficult not to promote a conservative political interpretation of civics and citizenship education in what is already a ‘Cinderella’ learning area lacking presence and status in many schools.
Peter Brett is an experienced History and Civics and Citizenship teacher educator and was involved in a variety of ways with the launch of citizenship education in England from 2002. He is a recent President of the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia [SCEAA] and a co-editor of Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences (Cengage, 2020). He is a senior lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania.
Image of Greta Thunberg in header: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP
4 thoughts on “The insidious way the new curriculum undermines democracy”
Great article, Peter, and thank you for this examination of the changes. I share your grave concerns regarding the excision of words like compassion, the increased parochiality and the limited emphasis on active citizenship. Citizenship is a doing word, after all!
If we are to live in and build a stronger democracy then we must practise it in schools from the outset. Otherwise our culture and society will continue to be hierarchical and exploitative. Given past practices that may be like turning an ocean liner around yet if we do not start now autocracy and plutocracy will win and we will be waged slaves.
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