By Tanya Kovac

By Tanja Kovac. This article is part of our July focus on the rights of children and youth. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

Tanja Kovac, the National Coordinator of the Human Rights are Aussie Rules Program (HRAR), writes about the development of a National Civics and Citizenship Curriculum that is currently underway for Australian schools. The Civics and Citizenship Curriculum aims to introduce a human rights-based education to Australian students but according to Kovac, there is room for it to be improved.

When the Rudd Government was elected in 2007, the ALP promised to oversee an “Education Revolution”. This ambitious plan has encompassed a number of legislative changes and infrastructure investments, but it has also included the development of a national curriculum covering educational priorities from kindergarten to Year 12.

The lack of human rights education in Australia was determined to be a national emergency … in 2008.

While MySchool, Building the Education Revolution and the Gonski Review attract all the heat, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) goes about the busy work of transforming the education of Australian young people. So far, national curriculum plans have been written for English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, Languages and the Arts. National curriculum development is now in its third phase, focusing attention on Civics and Citizenship.

For advocates of human rights protection and education in Australia, the development of a Civics and Citizenship curriculum is a significant opportunity to shape debate about human rights now and into the future. The lack of human rights education in Australia was determined to be a national emergency by Father Frank Brennan’s National Human Rights Consultation in 2008. As recently as last month, the United Nations continued to criticise Australia for the absence of a national strategy for educating children and young people about human rights.

The perception that Australians are “Drunk, Dumb and Racist” from some of our closest trading partners has transformed human rights education from an altruistic plan for social cohesion into a pragmatic economic necessity.

Human rights advocates have a rare opportunity to be part of shaping human rights education in Australia.

Proposed shape of the Civics and Citizenship Curriculum

The draft shape of the Civics and Citizenship Curriculum (DCCC) is now available for public comment online, with subject matter experts and curriculum writers being recruited at the same time. The DCCC implements Goal Two of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which aims for “all young Australians to be successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active, informed citizens”.

It envisages mandatory Civics and Citizenship education from Year Three until Year 10, with a notional time allocation of 20 hours per year. The foundational years of primary schooling are deliberately excluded from the draft, although there is acknowledgement that children in their early years of development must learn the need for “rules” within a classroom setting.

The draft Civics and Citizenship Curriculum is an exciting document, with the promise that rights-based dialogue will be embedded into the lives of Australians from an early age.

From Years Three to Six, when students are aged between eight and 12, the DCCC focuses on concepts such as fairness, human dignity, justice and fair play. The first direct mention of human rights in the curriculum is not envisaged until Years Five and Six, when the learning shifts from an Australian specific outlook to include international perspectives. At this point, students will also practically engage in Civics and Citizenship activities for the first time through student elections and site visits to Parliament and Law Courts.

From Years Seven to Eight, the DCCC expects young people to develop critical thinking and an awareness of community, while deepening their understanding of the rule of law and the human rights concepts of Freedom, Respect, Equality and Dignity. By Years Nine and 10, students should be exploring complexity and conflict within everyday issues in Australian society. The areas of conflict suggested by the DCCC – recognition of Indigenous cultures and history, the importance of sustainable populations and environments, and Australia’s engagement with Asia – are all long-term challenges for Australian citizens. Encouraging human rights-centred approaches to each of these issues from an early age has an element of the revolutionary about it.

For anyone who believes in the power of young people to make change, and in the value of student leadership and empowerment, human rights education is fundamental.

The draft Civics and Citizenship Curriculum is an exciting document, with the promise that rights-based dialogue will be embedded into the lives of Australians from an early age, albeit in a subject specific, rather than curriculum wide, approach. It offers hope to advocates in the human rights education arena who may have despaired about the deficiency of human rights education in schools.

But the document is not perfect and could be improved in the following ways, by including:

1. A more explicit statement about the importance of human rights education to the development of an active, informed citizenry and rights-centred approach to education.

While peppered throughout with references to human rights, there is little sense of the benefits of human rights education for more general aspects of learning and education. Examining and referencing the evaluation of UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools Programme in the United Kingdom would be a good start in promoting the benefits of human rights education to improved educational outcomes, bullying and truancy recidivism, and encouraging student leadership.

2. An expanded time allocation for the teaching of Civics and Citizenship to young people.

Twenty hours of Civics and Citizenship learning equates to less than a whole day out of the year. Given Australia demands compulsory voting from its citizenry, 20 hours seems grossly insufficient. Civics and Citizenship will require students to learn about the Australian Constitution, the doctrine of the separation of powers, the role of the police and the army, and the role of the media as “the fourth estate”. With less than 20 hours a year allocated to the task, human rights principles are at risk of being marginalised.

Some form of daily engagement with Civics and Citizenship – either in theory or practice – should be a minimum.

3. Civics and Citizenship in the foundational years of learning.

Children begin learning about the importance of rules – in the classroom and in the playground – from the moment that the bell rings on their first day of school. The Human Rights are Aussie Rules Project (HRAR) has proven that through game play and theatre, human rights principles can be conveyed and introduced to children as young as five and six years of age.

4. A four step framework for human rights education in Australia

The HRAR program, an educational program which uses sport to educate young people about human rights, has filled a gap in the national curriculum and inspired young people, their families and schools to take a rights-centred approach to education.

The HRAR program adopts a four-stage model for human rights education, translated from the work of the Human Rights Education Associates, especially Emeritus Professor Richard Pierre Claude’s paper, Popular Education for Human Rights: 24 Participatory Exercises for Facilitators and Teachers.

The pedagogic framework that underpins the HRAR program could be easily adapted to assist in the development of a life-long learning approach to human rights education.

HRAR provides tailored education modules for primary and secondary students, opportunities for tertiary students to test our newly learnt tools for seeking justice and opportunities for adults to engage in work that remedies wrongs.

For anyone who believes in the power of young people to make change, and in the value of student leadership and empowerment, human rights education is fundamental to creating active and informed citizens who are kind, loving and caring.

5. The use of sport for Civics and Citizenship

In the HRAR program, human rights education is experienced as a journey in student empowerment, where young people are encouraged to explore their own creativity, ingenuity and leadership from an early age. Sport provides a safe and universally understood medium with which to inspire children on that journey. The parallel between fair play on the sports field and fair play in life taps into values about good sportsmanship, and aims to embed a commitment to human rights across the life journey – to be remembered whenever Australia takes to the sports ground to win.

Lord Sebastian Coe, opening the London 2012 Olympic Games, cited Great Britain as the creator of codified rules of fair play and good sportsmanship. It was the first nation to make physical education mandatory in schooling. Australia never likes to lose to England in anything. Maybe that’s the incentive governments and educators need to create a revolutionary learning space where respect for human rights is taught in a holistic and playful way for the benefit of humanity. That’s Gold Medal or Star stuff.

Tanja Kovac is the National Coordinator of the Human Rights are Aussie Rules Program, a human rights education established by the Eastern Community Legal Centre with offices in Darwin and Perth.