History back in schools

Imre Salusinszky

5th July 2006

STUDENTS will again be taught traditional Australian history in classrooms across the nation under a plan from federal Education Minister Julie Bishop.

Ms Bishop will press the states and territories to follow the lead of NSW under former premier Bob Carr and reinstate Australian history so every student "knows why Captain James Cook sailed along the east coast".

If they refuse, The Australian understands the Government will consider making the teaching of Australian history a condition in its next schools funding agreement with the states.

However, Ms Bishop yesterday stressed a co-operative approach. "I want to work with the states on this," she said. "I want them to come along with me in a renaissance in the teaching of Australian history."

To encourage a "narrative" approach to the subject, based on dates and facts, the commonwealth will offer to help the states develop online course materials to furnish the new programs. This will contrast with the current approach in most states, which is based on "themes" or "organisers" that critics have argued are often a filter for Marxist, feminist or Green interpretations of history.

And in what is already a boost to the commonwealth's cause, The Australian understands Mr Carr will play a positive role in the initiative.

"I'm happy to talk about it anywhere," Mr Carr said yesterday. "I support any initiative to have history rescued and taught as a distinct discipline and to relegate cultural studies."

The Government is particularly concerned at what Ms Bishop called the "swallowing" of history by other subjects under rubrics such as studies of society and its environment.

For example, in Western Australia history is part of a Time, Continuity and Change learning outcome, designed to help students "understand their cultural, geographic and historical contexts and have the knowledge, skills and values necessary for active participation in life in Australia". Until Year 11, South Australian students can only take history as part of Society and Environment.

The commonwealth move follows John Howard's controversial call on Australia Day for a "coalition of the willing" to undertake a "root-and-branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in our schools, both in terms of the numbers learning and the way it is taught".

Ms Bishop said yesterday Mr Howard's speech had "articulated what we're essentially doing" and that the new plan was designed to "take those sentiments forward".

She has commissioned two papers from leading historians that will map the current status of Australian history in schools. These will form the basis of a "gathering of minds" - a summit involving historians, teachers, commentators and community representatives.

"Australian history has fallen victim to a crowded curriculum that has squashed it together with other social and environmental studies," Ms Bishop said. "I intend to consider ways the federal Government can encourage state education authorities to make teaching of Australian history a critical part of the syllabus."

If encouragement failed, the commonwealth could stipulate the stand-alone teaching of Australian history as part of its next four-year, $40billion agreement with the states. This would follow the model of the current agreement, which has a range of conditions, including report cards that grade students from A to E, benchmark testing of primary school students and flagpoles in school grounds.

A second part of the commonwealth push will be to ensure that, once stand-alone history subjects are up and running, they avoid the trap described by Mr Howard on Australia Day, when he said the subject was too often taught "without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of 'themes' and 'issues"'.

"There's both a quantitative and a qualitative problem with the teaching of Australian history in schools," Ms Bishop said. "There are not enough students learning for a start.

"And there is too much politics in it, too much indoctrination and not enough pivotal facts and dates.

"Every school child should know when and why Captain James Cook sailed along the east coast of Australia, who was our first prime minister, why we were involved in two world wars and how federation came about."

She said an office poll of her own junior staff members had revealed their knowledge of Australian history was "wanting, to say the least".

Nick Ewbank, head of the History Teachers Association, said in most states history had been "subsumed" by other subjects and that his organisation "would certainly support the commonwealth in raising the profile of history".


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