Ten Contemporary Assumptions Underlying Australian Education

Revisited in the hope that some testucator will challenge any of these assumption…… now that Australian parents are said to be refusing NAPLAN in their thousands; that states are reclaiming their right to take the decisions about NAPLAN’s continued existence; and are likely to take the advice that Butts offered 60 years ago [see postscript below], it is incumbent on us to think very, very seriously …..

Ten Contemporary Assumptions Underlying Australian Education


Freeman Butts wrote the original set of assumptions about Australian education. Since Australia has always followed  the British tradition of schooling with uncontested resolution, the ACER, which sponsored his six months’ survey, had invited him to comment.  Butts was a renowned American scholar, and the Head of ACER, Professor K.S. Cunningham, in defining the cultural differences, opened this definitive treatise with “ …British education starts from the universities downwards, while in America they start with the masses to be educated and work upwards.  The Americans have adopted the view that no stage of education is to be subordinated to the one above.” 

This feature of our schooling system needs to be noted.  Our test-based British/Australian system concentrates on branding primary school pupils’ intellectual prowess by about eleven years of age, so that the elite scholars may progress through a hierarchy of educational trials that find their destiny in the university tradition. The left-over kids don’t matter.  It was, and remains, a most peculiar method of school learning. The notion needed a check-up at the time. It needs a big check now.

“There has been no examination from the ground up of what Australian education is aiming at, where it is going, or whether it is providing an education really suited to, and adequate for the needs of , its future citizens,”  he said.  “Australian education somehow lacks vitality and adaption to its own environment.”

YES. Yes. Freeman

The purpose of the Butts-ACER  project was to sponsor self-examination by Australian educational institutions.  Nobody took any notice, even though the report was read by millions.

Butts made one serious recommendation : Australia needs a great education revival and awakening. It is moribund as it is.


He concluded with the challenge, “Dare Australia build a better school?”  and he encouraged Australians to take the bolder course. He suggested that our universities should stay in their own ivory towers and stick to their own goals of intellectual discipline; and eschew the life of social responsibility as far as schooling is concerned. ”I miss  a widespread  feeling of ferment or dissatisfaction or criticism. I do not see a bubbling up of ideas and experiments. I do not sense that strong professional organizations are constantly at work promoting discussion and exchange of ideas, criticizing practices and theories, and stimulating new procedures and new probings. “

Okay…. these days…. we have tried the Klein additions to the exam-based British system,  and are hell-bent on expanding its top-down British-based bang-crash-wallop principles. Nothing useful has been tried.  I’d suggest that Butts would recommend. these days, that we just drop the whole package asap and get about the business of working out what we want for our children. Start from the classroom up.

He certainly would agree that the contemporary assumptions listed below are being steadfastly maintained. What do you think? Has much changed for the better in the last 60 years? Really?

  1. What is taught and how it is taught in Australia, is decided by one person –  the politically appointed representative of the major party in the federal government.
  2. There is no legislated safeguard against maverick counter-cognitive, imported curriculum innovations [e.g. kleinism, DI].
  3. Historically, the only essential element of the general Australian curriculum is the maintenance of a Kleinlove fear  of failure at annual public examinations and periodic standardised tests of onlythe testable parts of the curriculum.
  4. The end goal of Australian education is to get good marks in the 3-yearly PISA contest for 15 Year-olds conducted by UNESCO of far-away Paris. Three years of mass anguish for results on one piddling test! [It was Julia G., who said, “We’ll must in the top 5 by 25” ?]
  5. Judgements as to the quality of teaching and of schooling itself are made on the outcomes of such mass testing!
  6.  The purpose of fear-based testing is to provide an ordered list of candidates for the selection of the better products by  employers and tertiary institutions. It is unrelated to learning prowess.
  7. There has never ever been any expressed desire by representatives of any major political party for an holistic, integrated curriculum that aims at developing the personal skills and cognitive abilities of all individuals at school.
  8. Simplistic numeracy and literacy skills have a higher priority than learnacy skills, especially of the kind that dispose the whole person towards high individual achievement.
  9. Schools are divided into private and public kinds because it is thought that private schools are better, but they aren’t. [See Cobbold S.O.S. Research]. Until the rigorous Scholarship primary school examination for Year 8s was abolished in the earl 1960s, most children attended church or private schools for secondary schooling.  As part of the British tradition, state secondary education was meagre. It’s efforts with real pupils in need of learnacy are now superior.
  10. The principles of neoconservatism, namely that the will of the big business unions [ like the  B.C.A. and N.F.F.], much more powerful than trade and professional unions, prevail in all major decisions made by every major political party,  affecting the Australian schooling landscape.

“I was thinking” Alice said, very politely,

“Which is the best way out of this wood.

It’s getting so dark. Would you help me, please?”

But the fat little men only looked at each other and grinned


POSTSCRIPT  Freeman Butts conducted his survey in 1954. ACER published it in 1955.  Now, sixty years on, another such  survey would demonstrate to him, that nothing much has changed. Right? At least as far as basic beliefs about the stratification of schooling, trust in didactic modes of teaching, examination-based assessment procedures, the maintenance of a fear of failure, state public schools regarded as low-performance units,  passivity of professionals in the work place and the disinterest of parents are concerned. He would see that we have continued and enlarged the duality of schooling in Australia that is deliberately used to perpetuate class, religious and economic divisions in society.

He would observe. if he was around today, that the dominance of  politics in educational decision-making has grown immensely, which itself, he had observed, contains the ‘seeds of a totalitarian society. He said that he heard little mention of ’democracy in education’ during his visit.

The ACER publication “Assumptions Underlying Australian Education.” was reprinted endless time between 1955 and 1967. For over a decade, it was prescribed reading in almost every education course in almost every university and CAE of the era. As students at the time, some of us got a bit sick of it. Who was this Yank daring to criticise what we did?  We knew that he knew what he was talking about, but we still didn’t like it. We were  grimly conditioned to the pass-fail Grammar School system! What was he on about?  He also carried on with that child-centred learnacy business that our testucating controllers abhor…..

  1.  “The educational programme must take account of the emotional, social, aesthetic and physical needs of learners as well as their intellectual development;
  2.  The curriculum should be responsive to the claims of the learners, of the society, and of the resources of organized knowledge;
  3.   Teaching methods should enlist the interest and active participation of the learners, should take account of their recognised stages of growth and development and should steer guidance and sympathetic understanding of the learner as well promote achievement towards  adult goals of knowledge.”  he said.

We didn’t take any notice……    _________________________________________________________________

Phil Cullen  41 Cominan Avenue Banora Point  Australia 2486   07 5524 6443


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