July.27.2020

What does ‘back to basics’ really mean? What ‘reforms’ are being signalled this time?

By Naomi Barnes

Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been describing the NSW curriculum review as a signal to go “back to basics” despite Professor Geoff Masters, who headed up the review, insisting it is more about decluttering the curriculum.  To educators like me the phrase “back to basics” has signalled different education reforms over the years, which begs the question, what is Premier Berejiklian signalling?

Since the 1950s and earlier, at every level of government, politicians have touted their versions of “back to basics’” reforms in education as a way to show their political leadership and to assure us of the stability of their governments. The catch-cry taps into widespread, ever present, cultural fears about literacy and numeracy standards. It signals that a simple and easy solution to educational problems is available by just ‘reforming’ the sector responsible for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

However, in 2020 when anxiety over education is particularly heightened, a “back to basics” move also appeals to nostalgia for a time before the pandemic, before a decade of constant reform, before precarity, before everything got so scary.

The trouble is we know from looking at our past experiences of politicians talking about going “back to basics”, the actual ‘reforms’ they have given us under the “back to basics” banner have been very different.

What does the phrase “back to basics” actually mean?

The phrase is what linguists call an empty signifier, or what the D-Generation might call a “hollow” phrase. This and similar phrases are the basis for policy writing jokes in Utopia and The Hollow Men and other comedies about political life. In other words, “back to basics” is clear enough to have passing meaning, but vague enough to mean nothing in particular or to have multiple meanings attached.

It can mean cuts to funding for public schools

The term emerged in the 1950s in the United States but has been used since the 1970s to signal Australian education reforms. In 1977, the Fraser government used “back to basics” to reform the vocational education sector. In 1988, Nick Greiner swept the Coalition to victory in NSW promising a “back to basics” approach to education, but this time the signal was for massive cuts to education including defunding the public system, raising class size and complexity by introducing composite classes, closing smaller schools and sacking 2400 teachers and 800 support staff.

It can mean flagpoles and teaching ‘values’

“Back to basics” was base line rhetoric for the Howard government’s approach to education and shifted its use from simple system and curriculum reform to ideological reform. The phrase signalled moves to neutralise the ‘left-wing’ his government claimed had infiltrated the teaching profession. The National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools and the flagpole program in 2005 linked federal funding to the display of “traditional” Australian values. Howard’s government opposed diversifying the curriculum from white colonial history texts.

It can mean “removing the black armband of history” and always involves phonics and grammar

Conservative commentators were surprised at the Gillard government’s appropriation of their spin when the Australian Curriculum was finally released after over two decades of negotiations and drafting. Following the Howard government’s definition of basics referring to traditional values and combining it with solid literacy and numeracy practices, the Australian Curriculum removed “the black armband view of history”, which taught students the nature of British colonialism in Australia, specified the teaching of sound-letter phonics, and re-introduced grammar.

In 2010, “back to basics” was used to signal a return to the “golden age” of grammar. The phrase worked to signal both nostalgia and reassurance about basic reading and writing in the emerging era of social media. Though Professor Peter Freebody, who led the drafting of the Australian English Curriculum, explained that the literacy levels in Australia had improved since grammar was removed. The hearkening back to days where children were remembered to be obedient and do their homework tapped into alluring, if false, white Australian cultural memories of the 1950s.

In 2008 it meant NAPLAN and in 2014 (another) curriculum review

“Back to basics” was also used by politicians to describe the introduction of NAPLAN in 2008 by Julia Gillard. This bipartisan agenda which started under Brendan Neilson’s Federal ministry, was a ‘transparency’ move to publish literacy and numeracy results and other government collected data about schools on the My School website. The review of the Australian Curriculum by Christopher Pyne in 2014 was also touted as “back to basics”.

It can mean a focus on PISA scores and the dismantling of education authorities

Current Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan insisted just last year in December, that Australian education needs to go “back to basics” because of our declining PISA scores. What Minister Tehan was really signalling was the introduction of learning progressions, the collapsing of two of Australia’s largest education authorities (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority) into one body, the development of an evidence institute, and the reform of teacher education.

I could go on much more about how each time we have been taken “back to basics” we have seen major political moves that mostly seem to use education as a political pawn in one way or another. What you should know is that each time there has been a push back from literacy, numeracy, and assessment experts who argue that “basics” is never the point. They argue that the needs of our widely disparate education systems in Australia are complex and any problems that arise need complex solutions.

 Which comes back to my question, what does Premier Berejiklian mean when she dubs the NSW curriculum review as “back to basics” reform?

If the history of the phrase is any indication, you can bet it is about more than just reading, writing and arithmetic.

Dr Naomi Barnes is a researcher in education communication at Queensland University of Technology

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

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