What is happening in the schools? According to Justine Ferrari, The Australian’s education writer, the nation’s school students are ignorant of our history. A report disclosed in The Australian published on 27 November, 2006, concludes that more than three-quarters of Australian teenagers do not know that Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet and the beginning of British settlement. The report was apparently commissioned by federal, state and territory education ministers. It reveals that an “overwhelming majority” of schoolchildren are also ignorant of the reason for Anzac Day, or for the inclusion of the Union Jack on the Australian flag. Ms Ferrari writes that 77 per cent of Year 10 students and 93 per cent of Year 6 students across the nation cannot nominate the official responsibilities of the governor-general. That “the great majority do not know the Queen is Australia’s head of state,” is not surprising, given that the use of the term Head of State is governed by international and not constitutional law. The report, which was leaked “reveals surprisingly high levels of ignorance about basic historical facts and Australia’s system of government, and questions the effectiveness of the teaching of civics and citizenship”.
"The widespread ignorance of key information about national events and nationally representative symbols, which, it had generally been assumed, had been taught to death in Australian schools, was a surprise," the report says. "More targeted teaching is required if students are to learn about these things. Formal, consistent instruction has not been the experience of Australian students in civics and citizenship."
Apparently, only high-performing students "demonstrated any precision in describing the symbolism of the Union Jack in the Australian flag… students are not being taught about the role of the governor-general.”
This is notwithstanding the Discovering Democracy program introduced in 1997, which produced curriculum materials on civics and citizenship for all primary and secondary schools in 1998.
In August 2006, the nation’s education ministers approved national Statements of Learning for Civics and Citizenship, setting out common knowledge all students should possess in years 3, 5, 7 and 9, ahead of national assessment tests from 2008.
According to The Australian, the report says half of Year 6 students achieved a proficient standard in the test, while 39 per cent of Year 10 students reached the proficient standard. The report identifies two main concepts with which students struggle the most: "iconic knowledge" of Australia’s heritage and the idea of the common good.
“Ignorance of such fundamental information indicates a lack of knowledge of the history of our democratic tradition, and this ignorance will permeate and restrict the capacity of students to make sense of many other aspects of Australian democratic forms and processes….Without the basic understandings, they will be unable to engage in a meaningful way in many other levels of action or discourse."
There is a body dedicated to overcoming this. It is the Constiutional Education Fund-Australia which brings together people, whatever their position on constitutional change, who believe that education in our system of government is essential for all, young, new and old. (I am but one of a number of trustees.)
This report confirms an appalling failure to ensure our young people know something about our heritage and how we are governed. How else will they appreciate the fact that this country is one of the world’s oldest continuing and most successful democracies? Correcting this is urgent, and should not be left to our many governments -that has not worked. Community involvement is essential.