Students are not Citizens – Australia’s New Educational Policy

This article was originally published in February 2020 with slight editorial modifications in the Echo here.

Last December the Education Council of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) adopted a new educational policy – the Alice Springs Education Declaration – in which reference to climate change and the inclusion of sustainability as a cross-curriculum priority were removed, and students were reconceived, no longer as citizens, but as apolitical ‘members of the community’. To understand the significance of this new policy it’s necessary to describe the history of its predecessors.  

In the late 1980s with the effects of neoliberalism having begun shifting attention away from politics, the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training published a report entitled Education for Active Citizenship in Australian Schools and Youth Organisations. It found that young people were confused, apathetic, and ignorant of political processes at both local and national levels. Similar findings were made by the Civics Expert Group, created by the government in 1994, which warned: ‘Our system of government relies for its efficacy and legitimacy on an informed citizenry; without active, knowledgeable citizens the forms of democratic representation remain empty; without vigilant, informed citizens there is no check on potential tyranny’.  

Avoiding ‘potential tyranny’ and young people’s apathy toward everything political began three decades of education for active and informed citizenship, beginning with the Hobart Declaration on Schooling in1989. That was the first time that a national framework for schooling was set in Australia. It included ten Agreed National Goals for Schooling, one of which was ‘To develop knowledge, skills, attitudes and values which will enable students to participate as active and informed citizens in our democratic Australian society’.  

This was followed in 1999 by The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century, which continued the promotion of active and informed citizenship, stating in one of its goals that ‘when students leave school they should…be active and informed citizens with an understanding and appreciation of Australia’s system of government and civic life.’ As a separate goal the Adelaide Declaration also stated that students should ‘have an understanding of, and concern for, stewardship of the natural environment, and the knowledge and skills to contribute to ecologically sustainable development’. 

The following policy, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, was published in 2008, and took on, in its own words, ‘a broader frame’ to account for ‘major changes in the world that are placing new demands on Australian education.’ It went on to list some of these, one of which was ‘complex environmental, social and economic pressures such as climate change’. To help address these, it mandated that sustainability would be a cross-curriculum priority. It also pared back its goals to just two broad ones, the second of which was that ‘All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens’. It detailed what active and informed citizens do by stating that they ‘work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments’.  

Thus over time the trajectory of educational policy informing citizenship and sustainability had converged; first by mentioning them as parallel but separate goals and then by treating them as coincident ones. What it meant to be a good Australian citizen was to be active and informed and to ‘work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments’. Nowadays there aren’t many issues bigger than climate change, so if you were a student who understood the basics and were participating in the recent climate strikes, you would have been contributing to the fulfilment of Australia’s educational policy goals. 

With this history in view, the new Alice Springs Education Declaration has some gaping omissions. It has two broad goals which are virtually identical to those of the Melbourne Declaration, except that now students are to become ‘active and informed members of the community’, rather than the decades-long goal of ‘active and informed citizens.’ Also, any reference to climate change has been removed, despite otherwise identical language to that used in the Melbourne Declaration: the new policy refers to ‘complex environmental, social and economic challenges.’ Fullstop. And finally, there is no longer a commitment to including sustainability as a cross-curriculum priority. 

Questions of why these changes were made were put to the all nine state, territory, and federal Education Ministers. At the time of writing, only the ACT minister had replied. Responding on behalf of Yvette Berry, Minister for Education and Early Childhood Development, Megan Cursley stated that ‘The revised declaration expands upon the scope of active and informed citizenship to include and recognise the value and diversity of the local and broader community.’ But this is specious reasoning. Within the context of modern nation states citizenship is as expansive as communities get. Cursley also wrote that ‘The ACT Governments [sic] commitment to action on climate change, and educating future generations about sustainability and climate change, is independent to the national declaration.’ However, given that the COAG decision-making process is based on consensus, not majority, this is false, and avoids the question of why Berry agreed to remove reference to climate change and to exclude sustainability as a cross-curriculum priority. 

When the Education Council of COAG was contacted with the same questions, no answers could be given, but it was suggested that the omission of reference to climate change may have been moved by one particular member of the council. We can speculate as to which one. 

Perhaps the problem is that the recent student climate strikes were beginning to fulfil Australia’s educational policy in a way which no longer served its parliamentary authorities. Perhaps it’s no longer that ‘Our system of government relies for its efficacy and legitimacy on an informed citizenry,’ but an ignorant, apolitical one, and that ‘without active, knowledgeable citizens the forms of democratic representation remain empty’, which is what our elected mentors would prefer, and finally that ‘without vigilant, informed citizens there is no check on potential tyranny,’ which is slowly giving way to actual tyranny; for instance by sending the AFP to raid the ABC and create an atmosphere of fear and journalistic self-censorship. Whatever the reasons for Australia’s new educational policy, students have their work cut out for them.