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Citizenship Education in WA

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 In Western Australia, the revelations of the 1992 WA Inc. Royal Commission made the public aware of the need to enhance political education. The Commissioners recognised that: knowledge of our constitutional and administrative arrangements is a prerequisite for effective action within our democracy (cited by Phillips, 1998, 303). They called for the Parliament itself to play a role in the education process.

Consequently, in The Report of the Western Australian Constitutional Committee, Phillips (1998, 304-305) recommended that:

·         The State Government support the establishment of a Constitutional Centre, incorporating a museum with community education functions, ideally to be situated near Parliament House.

·         Priority be given by the Education Department to the updating of existing curriculum material in the area of parliamentary and civic education.

·         With the introduction of four-year teacher training…each trainee teacher complete at least one unit of study in the area of civic and parliamentary education.

·         In the course of any long-term restructuring of the Year 11 and Year 12 school syllabuses and the Tertiary Entrance Examinations requirements, provision be made for the inclusion of some measure of civic and parliamentary education in the program for all students.

·         To enable the effective implementation of the above recommendations, funding be made available for the development of resource materials at appropriate levels relating to the Western Australian parliamentary and constitutional system.

·         Any citizenship courses for migrants should cover the federal nature of Australia’s federal system, since many migrants have no prior experience of living in a federation.

·         The State Constitution Acts be consolidated in a single Act in a manner that facilitates teaching about its key features.

In addition, he drew attention to the creation of enhanced roles given to the Electoral Education Centre and Francis Burt Law Centre. Following this, the State Government established a The Constitutional Centre of Western Australia which was opened in October 1997 by the Governor with its aims to:

·         Promote public awareness of Australia’s federal system of government, with a particular emphasis on its constitutional basis;

·         Encourage balanced debate about the development of the system of government; and

·         Educate the public of Western Australia about the electoral and parliamentary system (Phillips, 1998, 305).

Thus, in addition to these State initiatives, the present focus on citizenship is the product of two developments. The identification of the shared core values of Australian society includes a civics and citizenship stream but this is not given as primary an emphasis as that given to individualism. However, the third development, coming initially from the Senate and then from the then Prime Minister Paul Keating, was associated with the promotion of a raft of social expectations almost resembling a millenarian cult – constitutional changes, a republic, a new flag, the Sydney Olympics, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the centenary of Federation or nationhood. It was felt that the understanding of Australian people was deficit in the area of constitutional history and the practice of government especially at the federal level. The government therefore was prepared to promote the teaching of civics and citizenship education in the nation’s schools by the provision of special grants to facilitate resource production and the employment of professional developers. This development received bipartisan support when the 1996 Federal election led to a change of government and the new government continued with its financial support for what became known as the Discovering Democracy project.

 The Federal Government’s initiative is linked to the State Curriculum Councils and the schooling sectors through a cross-sectoral committee which oversees the project at its various levels. Firstly, the Commonwealth Curriculum Corporation based in Melbourne is responsible for developing teaching resources which are reviewed by State representatives. Then the Project Committee in each State employs trainers to visit schools to provide professional development for teachers to promote the project’s materials and give exemplars on teaching practice. In addition, a second group is employed to visit schools with the aim of assisting in a whole school approach to active citizenship within the school and involving the students.

Print (Print et al, 2001) reported on a 1998 national survey to identify and gauge the extent and nature of civics and citizenship education as it was practised at that time. He noted (2001, 18) that a lack of teacher preparation was identified in all States and territories. Moroz ( Print et al, 2001, 128) reviewed the Western Australian situation and he also noted the teachers’ lack of background knowledge and the shortage of resources covering State and local government activities.

 To gauge the effectiveness of the introduction of the Discovering Democracy project there was a second survey conducted in 1999-2000. Print (Print et al, 2001, 147) notes that the teachers using Discovering Democracy materials were highly supportive of them but that there were still large numbers of less enthusiastic teachers.

Ditchburn (Print et al, 2001, 198-201) notes the enthusiasm of a small group of teachers but also draws attention to the lack of administrative support for a broadly based whole school approach, the problem of motivating the students, and the competing demands of the curriculum.

 There is criticism about the Discovering Democracy materials which reflects the modernist and postmodernist perspectives on knowledge and the nature of school curricula. The title change from ‘Teaching Civics’ to ‘Discovering Democracy’ was meant to emphasise a constructivist approach to learning. However, Robison and Parkin (1997, 18) comment on:

·         the over emphasis on an historical approach;

·         the heavy emphasis on content and lack of awareness of differing perspectives;

·         a pedagogical approach which does not engage students in meaningful participation;

·         an approach which sees students as being prepared for citizenship and thus ignoring the dynamic aspects of citizenship.

The last two comments support the claim that the voluntary associations of a civil society are the context for active citizenship and that these should be encouraged in schools by teachers and community leaders. Governments, parents and other stakeholders need to be more active through curricular committees and school councils to ensure that schooling is not left entirely to the teachers and their university mentors. Public schooling in a civil society demands participation in the design and evaluation of curricula by a wide range of stakeholders.

Having now sketched the governmental initiatives, both State and federal, we need to review the present understandings held by the student generation. The maxim for the good teacher is to pretest always to find out what the students know and understand, that is, to do a professional diagnosis.