2014 National History Challenge presentation

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

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I am here today to acknowledge some outstanding work and present the 2014 National History Challenge Awards on behalf of the Government.

I want to start by congratulating the winners.

The breadth of topics addressed and the quality of research undertaken was certainly impressive.

I appreciate the care you have taken to consider the historical literature, and to make your own historical judgments. All entrants, but particularly the winners, should be very proud of your efforts, as should your teachers and parents, and other supporters.

Using this year’s theme, Changing Perspectives, students have considered a wide range of topics from relations between European settlers and Indigenous Australians; Australian military history; to the Chinese Revolution and slavery in the United States.

Perspectives on historical events evolve over time but facts don’t. Yet we see history differently to the way our grandparents do, and our children will see it differently to us.

In that respect, history teaches us a little humility. The way we see things now will not be the way they are seen in the future.

When thinking about the history curriculum, we expect a balanced treatment of key topics and an emphasis on the events and individuals that have shaped our heritage and our knowledge.

The Australian Government’s Students First policy places an emphasis on a robust curriculum alongside other proven approaches that support better student learning, such as quality teaching, principal autonomy and parental engagement.

Our commitment to a robust curriculum includes support for competitions, such as the National History Challenge, which strengthen history learning in the classroom.

In this context, I am pleased to announce that the Government is delivering funding of $365 000 over the next three years for the National History Challenge.

The Government will also provide $606 000 for the Simpson Prize, which provides students with the opportunity to explore the ANZAC tradition.

Earlier this year, the Minister Pyne appointed Professor Ken Wiltshire and Dr Kevin Donnelly to evaluate the robustness, independence and balance of the Australian Curriculum. The Government released the final report of the review and its own initial response to these recommendations in October.

The reviewers found some concerns about the academic rigour of the Australian Curriculum for history and the way in which it is structured. The degree of choice between electives, for example, could mean some students miss out on key historical knowledge.

The reviewers recommended greater recognition of the historical impact and significance of Western civilisation, heritage and values and beliefs.

But they also saw a need for an overall conceptual narrative to underpin otherwise disconnected times and events.

A point, I note, that has also been made regarding the British history curriculum by historian Simon Schama.

Studying particular times and events is central to historical endeavour. The structure of the National History Challenge, particularly the range of special categories, means various historical events and episodes can be given detailed treatment. I would like to thank all the organisations that sponsored these special categories.

I would now like to take this opportunity to announce a new sponsor for the 2015 Challenge: the Menzies Foundation.

The Menzies Foundation was established in 1979 to perpetuate the ideals of Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister. I would particularly like to thank Menzies Foundation CEO Sarah Hardy for her role in securing this sponsorship.

The theme for the 2015 Challenge is Leadership and Legacy and I’d like to say a few words about leadership and legacy in the context of Sir Robert Menzies.

Towards the end of his career, Robert Menzies said: “My life has devoted itself for years to the development of education in this country”.

Menzies considered his higher education reforms to be his finest domestic policy achievement.

When he first became Prime Minister in 1939, Australia had six universities and less than 15,000 higher education students.

By the time he retired in 1966, there were 16 universities and more than 91,000 students.

While in Opposition, Robert Menzies initiated the first major debate on education ever in the federal Parliament. He emphasised the need to expand Australia’s education system and the need for an increased Commonwealth role.

In 1956, he established the Murray Committee to investigate how universities might best serve Australia. In 1957, he accepted its recommendations. And thus began what he called 'a new and brighter chapter' for Australian universities, and the dramatic expansion of higher education opportunities. 

Menzies recognised the need for reform in school education as well. He decisively changed the role of the Commonwealth in school education by funding science facilities in both government and non-government secondary schools in 1964.

This was not only the first time Australian Catholic and independent schools were to receive government funding, but it helped to end the scourge of sectarianism that had tarred Australian politics for decades.

This important decision shaped one of the unique aspects of Australia’s education landscape: the recognition by governments that parents must be supported in their right to choose the most appropriate school for their children.

Menzies’ appreciation of the value of education came from his own life experience. His own schooling began at a little wooden government school in Jeparit in rural Victoria with about 30 other students. At least a dozen of them walked three or four miles in from their parents' farms.

He later won a scholarship to Grenville College, also in Ballarat, and finished his secondary schooling with a scholarship to Wesley College in Melbourne.

Out of this experience came his strong belief in the great value of education and the value of diversity within it. For Menzies, there was “no greater superstition in the world than the idea that all education has to be uniform and uniformly conducted”.

He had great respect for teachers. In his view, teaching was a task which, if well performed, could do more to produce good citizens than all the acts of Parliament ever passed.

This is just a taste of the leadership, legacy and contribution of Sir Robert Menzies to our education landscape: plenty for next year’s National History Challenge entrants to consider.

Federation in 1901 is another topic students may wish to explore next year. To coincide with the Government’s White Paper on Reform of the Federation, a new special category will feature in next year’s National History Challenge.

A White Paper is a document in which a government outlines its preferred views on a topic for public consideration and among the Terms of Reference for the Federation White Paper is a commitment to ensure that our federal system is better understood and valued.

The Department of Education will be supporting a special Federation category for 2015 so that young Australians can learn more about the beginnings of this inspiring chapter in Australia’s history.

The focus on Federation is timely as 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry Parkes, who is considered by some as the father of Federation.

In thinking about leadership and legacy, National History Challenge entrants in 2015 might also like to consider looking back 800 years to Robert FitzWalton and his fellow barons in England, who insisted that King John share power and respect his subjects’ rights. To this end, on 15 June 1215, the King agreed to the Magna Carta:

No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his equals and by the law of the land.

In the words of Winston Churchill, the Magna Carta is “the foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dreamed”.

Its principles provide the basis for the liberal democracy right around the world today.

On that lofty note, it is now my pleasure to announce the overall winner of the 2014 National History Challenge.

The Young Historian of the Year for 2014 is Angus Christie, from The Hutchins School in Tasmania.

Angus, a Year 5 student, made a film looking at changing perspectives on Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War. As the judges noted, an impressive effort from a talented young student.

Now, I’ll now ask Angus to say a few words.

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