Cuts to First Nations history planned in Victorian secondary schools curriculum

Elizabeth Muldoon and Gary Foley 12 November 2014

First Nations culture
(Koorie culture - Source: The Age)

The Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Study Design is the document that dictates what constitutes Australian history for more than a thousand Victorian senior secondary students each year.

With all VCE history courses under review this year, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) has indicated that Koorie history will be cut due to declining enrolments. This leaves the one-year Australian history course as the only way for Victorian students to study Australian indigenous history in their final two years of secondary school.

The authority is responsible for both the construction of the study design and assessing VCE students. Given that its assessment largely determines students' admission to university, teachers are under enormous pressure to adhere to the Study Design.

Thus, the content of the proposed VCE Australian History Study Design is extremely important to those who recognise that widespread ignorance of indigenous matters in mainstream Australia is an underlying cause of the acute disadvantage indigenous Australians face today.

An Aboriginal Rights referendum march in Melbourne 1967.
(National Museum : Fairfax photos )

When it comes to indigenous perspectives, the draft Australian History Study Design hardly differs from one it is intended to replace. It is similarly divided into four units of study based in four time periods, with indigenous people mentioned only in the first and last.

Indigenous perspectives are mandated in the first unit – an inquiry into the expansion of British "settlement" of Victoria from 1834 to 1860. In the last unit, however, "Aboriginal activism and land rights" from 1970 to 2000 is only one of four options.

Thus, according to the study design, a student may excel in Australian history without any demonstrated knowledge of the experiences or perspectives of Aboriginal people after 1860. Even those who study Aboriginal activism post-1970 will be left with a 110-year gap in their knowledge.

Furthermore, there are troubling ambiguities in the way the study design outlines the optional unit on Aboriginal activism that could lead to confusion about these 110 years. The study design claims that from 1970, indigenous communities "shifted from a struggle for civil and equal rights to indigenous rights, especially land rights". Yet, as historian Heather Goodall clearly elucidated in her 2008 book Invasion to Embassy, indigenous communities have fought tenaciously to assert their sovereign rights to their land since British invasion. They did not merely seek to be recognised as Australian citizens.

Other aspects of the study design that erase indigenous perspectives from Australian history include its timeframe. Although there is no shortage of historical scholarship and indigenous knowledge of pre-1788 Australia, it presents Australian history as beginning with British invasion.

Also concerning is its use of the euphemism "settlement" to stand for "colonisation" or "invasion". The term "settlement" has long been criticised for masking the violence indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of British "settlers". Moreover, equating Australian history post-1788 to "the history of settlement" implies indigenous peoples were not themselves "settled" on the land, which reinforces the historical fiction of terra nullius.

The systematic exclusion of indigenous perspectives from Australian history classrooms is a phenomenon that prominent academics, such as W. E. H. Stanner and Henry Reynolds, have recognised and sought to rectify since the 1960s. Their efforts have often focused on exposing the violence that triumphalist national histories sought to conceal. The conservative backlash to these efforts has received significant media attention over the past 20 years, frequently manifesting as white politicians and academics passionately defending the moral character of the colonial nation.

Nevertheless, the degree to which white Australians may feel shame over past acts of colonial violence is not the primary concern of indigenous advocates of a more inclusive Australian history curriculum.

One of the fundamental arguments for including indigenous perspectives is so that all Australians may learn from (and thus avoid repeating) the grave injustices of colonisation. For this reason, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, and the Final Report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation all recommended the inclusion of indigenous perspectives in school curricula.

Since the mid-1970s, Aboriginal Education Consultative Groups have also highlighted the need for an inclusive curriculum to combat the immense educational disadvantage of indigenous students. The link between an inclusive curriculum and indigenous student achievement is well supported by research.

Ultimately, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority needs to take responsibility for the much-needed revision of the study design. It is doubtful its brief month of consultation with select interest groups will result in significant changes. The decision is now in the hands of the review panel, comprised of six history teachers and three academics – Professor Kate Darian-Smith, Professor Richard Broome and Dr Rosalie Triolo.

With the exception of Professor Broome, none of these teachers or academics has recognised specific expertise in Aboriginal history. And given that Broome is not indigenous, there appears to have been no indigenous perspective on the review panel.

Broad consultation in the indigenous community and the participation of indigenous historians on the review panel is a basic condition for indigenous perspectives to be adequately represented.

It is sadly unsurprising that the review panel has provided a framework for teaching Australian history in which indigenous perspectives are only deemed essential for a brief period in the 19th century. We need participation of the indigenous community to ensure Victorian students are given a genuine opportunity to learn about our shared history.

Dr Gary Foley is a senior lecturer in history at Victoria University. Elizabeth Muldoon is studying for a master of teaching at University of Melbourne.