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Troublesome political interventions in curriculum

Dr Brad Gobby, School of Education, Curtin University

[The following is adapted from Politics, education and researcher ‘response-ability’, a Keynote delivered at the 2018 Annual WAIER Research Forum.]

While the field of education is inherently political, recent direct political intervention involving submitting curriculum experiences to the wills and logics of political agents raises questions about the relationship between education and politics, and the role of schooling. Take the Safe Schools controversy.

In 2016, the Australian Federal Government-funded toolkit of learning resources for teaching about diverse gender and sexual identities became the object of a political and media furore. The Safe Schools program was designed to support the creation of inclusive school environments and address the ignorance and prejudice that same-sex attracted, transgendered, and gender diverse students experience in school (Jones, 2012).

While many educators and school communities viewed the program as worthwhile, others perceived it as corrupting young minds. The conservative media and politicians promulgated this position. Using inflammatory rhetoric that interweaved facts, misinformation and opinion, conservative media and politicians portrayed the program as “an enemy of public decency” (Law, 2017, 73). They claimed schools were indoctrinating students in progressive ideas, fads and ‘weird’ gender theory. It’s not the first time the strategies of hyperbole and moral panic have been used to discredit gender and sexual inclusivity (Taylor, 2007).

The media and political storm resulted in the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, ordering an independent review of the program. This was conducted by respected Professor Bill Louden, whose report was handed down on March 11, 2016. The Review found that, while a few resources were not entirely appropriate for some children, the program was appropriate, especially given that schools would decide how to implement the resources in response to their local contexts.

The Review did not placate the Government’s waspish backbenchers who relentlessly pressed the Prime Minister to do more. On March 18, the Prime Minister intervened again by announcing the program would be dramatically changed beyond the recommendations of Louden’s Review. Ironically, this announcement came on the sixth Annual National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence.

At the time, the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, said that “parents should have confidence in what is taught… especially about potentially contentious issues…” (Government reveals changes to controversial Safe Schools program, 2016). But who decides what a ‘contentious issue’ is?

The responses to Safe Schools show that what is controversial and contentious to some is common-sense to others. The program had no shortage of supporters, who believed the political and media attacks ignored the actual experiences of many young people in schools, were devoid of the most basic understandings of human sexuality, and were blatantly homophobic and bigoted in their portrayal of sexual and gender diversity as deviant. For a fuller account of the Safe Schools controversy, I recommend reading Benjamin Law’s Quadrant article (Law, 2017).

There are many lessons to be learnt from this affair, especially from the point of view of the relationship between education and politics. Formal education is an inherently political institution, but that the Safe Schools controversy was combatively and overtly played out in the media, and by our most senior political figures, is worrying. In this instance, direct political interference was one weapon used by political agents to contest school curriculum. This strategy resonates with the recent Australian National University-Ramsay Centre controversy over the Centre’s Western Civilisation degree.

Looking to the Safe Schools affair, the exercise of direct political intervention carried with it the following troubling political reasoning: that politicians are guardians and defenders of goodness, on the side of ‘the people’; that education institutions should be directly submitted to the will of politicians of the day; and that politicians have the sole right to control curriculum to the exclusion of others. There is good reason, therefore, to question these political logics.

Positioning themselves as guardians and protectors serves to legitimise the sidelining of key stakeholders in educational decision-making, especially those who experience the effects of that decision-making, such as students, teachers and school communities. The direct and top-down imposition of curriculum, knowledge and practices undermines both teachers’ situated professional knowledge, practical wisdom and experience, and schools’ ability to respond to the needs and interests of the local school context. Indeed, it is the lives, aspirations and curiosities of learners that need better representation in learning experiences, and not that of politicians far removed from classrooms, who believe they know what is best and what is right for children.

At stake in rendering schools into direct instruments of political objectives is also the erosion of the democratic role of education. Public institutions, like education systems, have and continue to act as bulwarks against narrow political objectives and the excesses of political power. The professional bureaucracy (i.e. Departments of Education), the teaching profession, and consultative processes around education policy have ensured multiple perspectives enter into educational discussions and decision-making. By contrast, direct political interference that submits teaching and learning to political logics and party values undermines the institution’s ability to protect citizens from the free, partisan and dangerous exercise of political power.

All members of society, and especially those working in the field of education, must remain vigilant about politicians who construe themselves as shepherding the flock from danger, and who seek to unilaterally impose their views of goodness on institutions indifferent to established institutional and political norms and processes. If we believe that the education of people is an enterprise far greater than the narrow priorities of any politician, political party or government, then refusing political interference and reclaiming the power of stakeholders to influence education decision-making is crucial.

References

Government reveals changes to controversial Safe Schools program. (March, 2016). The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/government-reveals-changes-to-controversial-safe-schools-program-20160318-gnlyhj.html

Jones, T. (2012). Discrimination and bullying on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Western Australian Education. Perth: WA Commissioner for Equal Opportunity.

Law, B. (2017). Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. The Quarterly, 67, 1-80.

Taylor, A. (2007). Innocent children, dangerous families and homophobic panic. In S. Poynting (Ed.), Outrageous!: Moral panics in Australia (pp. 210-222). Hobart, Tasmania: ACYS Publishing.