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Education Last Updated: Jan 14, 2020 - 12:07:47 PM

Teachers, Schools in Firing Line as Conservatives Rail Against 'leftist agenda'
By Patrick Wood
Nov 21, 2019 - 8:23:49 PM

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A student sits with his back turned to the camera facing the front of a classroom with other students in the background.

PHOTO: Are you satisfied with schools in Australia? (AAP: Paul Miller)

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One Nation voters are turning on the mainstream education system as conservatives across the country express a deep mistrust of what they say is a "leftist agenda" taking over the classroom.

Key points:

  • New data shows One Nation supporters are notably less satisfied with education, teachers than other voters
  • Conservatives warn "the tide is turning" and parents will look for alternatives
  • A teachers' union has dismissed accusation of left bias and says the "three Rs" approach is no longer enough

Supporters of the minor party are also significantly less satisfied with the job teachers are doing than Australians of any other political leaning.

The root of the frustration can be traced to a wider dissatisfaction with the political landscape, and is expressed in new data from the Australia Talks National Survey.

The survey found 55 per cent of voters for Pauline Hanson's One Nation were dissatisfied with the education system - well ahead of the major parties, the Greens and other minor political groups.

EMBED: Education satisfaction chart

It also found 41 per cent of One Nation voters were dissatisfied with teachers, compared to just 11 per cent among Labor supporters and 21 per cent of Liberal National Party supporters.

EMBED: Teacher satisfaction chart

The anger at a perceived left-leaning bias in education can be found everywhere from Facebook groups to conservative curriculum experts and One Nation candidates, who have a warning for the political establishment and educators: "The tide is turning."

'Politics has entered the classroom'

Sharon Lohse knows the education system in Australia intimately.

The mother of three taught her kids using distance education material for most of their schooling, with stints in mainstream and boarding schools also called on at times.

Ms Lohse also ran as the One Nation candidate in the Queensland seat of Flynn at the May election, attracting 17,000 first-preference votes - the second-highest count among the party's Lower House candidates.

A woman wearing a hat stands in front of a power station in Central Queensland

PHOTO: Third-generation grazier Sharon Lohse taught her three kids. (ABC Wide Bay: Nicole Hegarty)

"Our life has been so dramatically changed because of politically driven agendas and it has hit our schoolroom," Ms Lohse said.

"We've lost our sense of education in Australia and I believe we're losing our academics and we're losing our enquiring minds."

Ms Lohse said when she first started teaching her eldest daughter by distance education in 1998 there was still a strong focus on basic textbook material and the "three Rs" - writing, reading and arithmetic.

Sharon Lohse daughter in classroom.

PHOTO: Ms Lohse's eldest daughter in their home classroom. (Supplied)

Yet she says she watched in dismay as the curriculum shifted, and by the time her youngest child reached high school, Ms Lohse was convinced a creeping bias had become entrenched.

She cites climate change as one example, saying her family "doesn't believe it" but her son was asked to do assignments on the issue based on it being established fact.

The science of climate change is based on well-understood principles showing a link between greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures, backed up by evidence showing the world has warmed almost 1 degree Celsius in the past century.

"Now that's condition. That's complying. That's not education," she said.

"Teach them the basic education to read, write and do arithmetic.

"Not all this LGB-whatever, getting kids to confront or open their enquiring minds to all this other stuff. Let kids be kids. Keep all that out of the schools."

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson declined to comment for this article, but her supporters are actively expressing their scepticism towards the education system online.

In One Nation supporter groups on Facebook, people share memes suggesting teachers indoctrinate students in a socialist agenda.

The meme has been shared in public One Nation support groups online.

INFOGRAPHIC: This meme has been shared in public One Nation support groups online. (Supplied)

They garner likes and comments from other members like "yep, that sums up the public school system", and "got it in one".

This dissatisfaction among One Nation voters is not limited to the education system, although it is particularly pronounced there.

The Australia Talks National Survey also found One Nation voters were:

  • More dissatisfied with how things are going overall in Australia today - 70 per cent vs 57 per cent overall
  • Less satisfied with their lives in general - 70 per cent satisfied vs 82 per cent overall
  • More pessimistic about the future of Australia - 63 per cent vs 48 per cent overall
  • More likely to think Australia's economy will be worse off in the next few years - 56 per cent vs 48 per cent overall

Ms Lohse has a simple explanation: One Nation attracts voters who are frustrated with the direction the country is heading and have lost faith in the major parties to address it.

"People are simply seeing the whole horizon and the nature of where we're going and are unhappy and wish to effect change or get back our old values," she said.

"And they're going 'OK, where's a party that will voice my opinions or give me some answers of what I can do?'.

"But I believe the tide is turning. It has turned."

Pauline Hanson addresses the Senate

PHOTO: Pauline Hanson's supporters are railing against progressive politics. (ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

Accusations of left bias 'nonsensical'

The battle over bias in education is not a new one.

While critics denounce a "leftist" thinking, teacher unions dismiss it as a throwaway line not backed by evidence.

Conservative education expert and commentator Kevin Donnelly has long argued there is a "march of the left through the institutions".

Dr Kevin Donnelly.

PHOTO: Kevin Donnelly says political correctness has crept into schools. (ABC News: Patrick Wood)

"What I'm referring to is the way the cultural left has infiltrated and dominated the institutions within Western society to really impose its agenda," he said.

"Now, whether it's multiculturalism or a critique of capitalism or whatever it might be, the left has been very successful in influencing what happens, in particular in schools and universities."

Dr Donnelly is a former high school English teacher who has held positions on numerous state and national curriculum bodies and co-chaired the Federal Government's National Curriculum Review in 2014.

Last year he released a new book, How Political Correctness Is Destroying Australia - Enemies Within and Without, which was officially launched by former prime minister Tony Abbott and broadcaster Alan Jones.

It includes chapters like "Thought police screening schoolbooks" and "Culture wars: the left's university loonies".

How do you compare?

How do you compare?

We asked 54,000 people about their lives. See what they told us - and how you compare.

When describing how he'd like the education system to shift to the political right, Dr Donnelly uses the analogy of an oil tanker: it can be turned around, but it will take time.

Yet these sort of concerns have been swiftly dismissed by Queensland Teachers Union president Kevin Bates.

"I think that unfortunately what's happened in terms of the commentariat is these throwaway lines about the left being dominant in education etcetera - it's nonsensical," he said.

"The national curriculum is determined as a collective effort from education ministers, from all the states and territories and the Federal Government."

Man standing in front of city background.

PHOTO: Kevin Bates says teaching methods have evolved. (Supplied)

Mr Bates also questioned the call to "return to the basics", saying there was no consensus on what that actually was.

"The 19th-century model of education, which is fundamental literacy and numeracy, is no longer enough for our young people to be successful in a modern community," he said.

"At a 'three Rs' basic level, the intent is that you sit kids down in rows and that they are force-fed facts.

"Those days are long gone, and hallelujah from an educator's perspective."

Still, Ms Lohse warns something needs to be done to address the concerns of conservative parents, citing a spike in Queenslanders enrolling in distance education.

"Mainstream must have failed these kids and families for them to be looking for an alternative," she said.

"You can't jam these kids into boxes and condition them and have no fallout."

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