History curriculum uncertainty: Honest History factsheet

Education ministers (Commonwealth, state and territory) met over the telephone early last month as the Education Council. The outcome was somewhat opaque. It appeared in a media release from Commonwealth Minister Pyne, where the only reference to history as a subject was in one of a number of points directed at addressing ‘the overcrowding and rebalancing of the Australian Curriculum’. (The Australian reported the meeting.)

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) will have further work done by August aimed at ‘combining history, geography, civics and citizenship and economics and business into a single combined humanities and social sciences subject for primary schools’. This wording will be taken by many history teachers as a return to the days of SOSE in primary schools; it will be interesting to see the final outcome but let’s call this ‘the SOSE work’ for short.

The Minister’s media release referred to ‘unanimous support’ from ministers for the ‘key recommendations’ of the Commonwealth’s initial response to the Donnelly-Wiltshire report. (The ‘initial response’ actually contains a series of individual responses to Donnelly-Wiltshire recommendations rather than itself containing recommendations but leave that aside.) The part of the Commonwealth’s initial response that is most relevant to history as a subject is as follows:

In addition to the 30 key recommendations, the Review’s Final Report has also listed recommendations for changes in the content for each subject area – these are covered in Chapter 7 of the Final Report and cover English, mathematics, history, science, geography, civics and citizenship, technologies, economics and business and lastly, health and physical education …

Recommendation 9: The Ministerial Council oversee ACARA’s development of a comprehensive framework for the Australian Curriculum that includes the notional time allocation and core content for each learning area and subject that is practically implementable, especially in the primary years.

Recommendation 14: ACARA rebalance the core content in each learning area and subject in line with the findings of this Review outlined in Chapters Six and Seven, particularly in relation to the deficiencies in each subject.

(emphasis added)

To which the Commonwealth responded:

The Australian Government agrees with recommendations that rebalance the Australian Curriculum. We support changes that ensure there is a balanced curriculum in all learning areas. We can only consider the Australian Curriculum world class, and hence appropriate for Australian students, when we get the balance right.

(There was more but it need not concern us here.)

There seems to be a line of descent from Recommendation 9, through the Commonwealth’s response to it, to the SOSE work now proposed that would affect primary school history. The question, though, is what happened to the recommendations in Donnelly-Wiltshire that related to secondary history? They were:

Australian Curriculum: History should be revised in order to properly recognise the impact and significance of Western civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage, values and beliefs.

Attention should also be given to developing an overall conceptual narrative that underpins what otherwise are disconnected, episodic historical developments, movements, epochs and events.

A revision of the choice available throughout this curriculum should be conducted to ensure that students are covering all the key periods of Australian history, especially that of the 19th century.

The curriculum needs to better acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses and the positives and negatives of both Western and Indigenous cultures and histories. Especially during the primary years of schooling, the emphasis should be on imparting historical knowledge and understanding central to the discipline instead of expecting children to be historiographers. (p. 181 of the Final Report of the Donnelly-Wiltshire Review)

Our earlier analysis discussed these recommendations (let’s call them the page 181 recommendations), how they related to the evidence in the Supplementary Material and the submissions (essentially, they didn’t) and other issues. We don’t know what happened to the recommendations between the Commonwealth’s initial response and the Education Ministers meeting.

The Institute of Public Affairs seemed to think the game was still afoot after the Donnelly-Wiltshire report hit the deck. Ministerial media releases between the Commonwealth’s initial Response in October and the Education Council meeting do not shed much light (though note this one in October just after the report came out). Honest History asked ACARA for a copy of the recommendations that went to the Council but, not surprisingly, our request was denied on Council-in-Confidence grounds.

So we don’t know for certain whether the page 181 recommendations were wheeled up to the Council; we do know that they don’t seem to have come out the other end. Given the Minister’s initial ambit claims in relation to the history curriculum, what is coming out the end of the process seems pretty small beer.

7 April 2015

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