Controversial University of Sydney Professor Barry Spurr was paid $8,250 to act as a special consultant to the Department of Education’s review of the national school curriculum.
A Senate Estimates hearing today saw Greens Senator Penny Wright push representatives from the Department of Education to provide further details on Spurr’s role in the review, after it was revealed he had made derogatory comments about people of colour and women in a series of emails published by New Matilda last week.
Members of the Department repeatedly told Wright that Education Minister Christopher Pyne had no contact with Spurr and that all consultants had been chosen by the joint heads of the review, Professor Ken Wiltshire and Dr Kevin Donnelly.
The evidence contradicts a statement made by Spurr in one of the emails obtained by New Matilda.
“The Californian high school English curriculum has arrived (as Pyne wants me to compare ours with other countries). Another 300 pages of reading,” Spurr wrote.
When Wright noted the email, Department Secretary Lisa Paul reiterated her advice was that no communication had taken place between Spurr and the Minister’s office during the course of his involvement in the review.
“The Minister and his office were careful to stay distant from the review and let the reviewers do their thing,” Paul said.
Spurr was one of the two consultants tasked with examining the English curriculum, and the only one asked to examine the full syllabus, including the year 11 and 12 courses.
But in response to questions from Senator Wright, members of the Department downplayed his impact on the review.
Paul said the review had been “robust”.
“We could certainly say that this professor was not the only one who was contributing, I’m advised, to [the English component]of the review. There were others,” she said.
A series of questions about the timing of Spurr’s hiring and which reviewer had suggested him were put on notice.
Wright said Pyne should reconsider the review’s English recommendations in light of the Spurr emails.
“Minister Pyne has been at pains to suggest that his curriculum review, with his hand-picked reviewers, has not been an ideological exercise – but he cannot substantiate this any longer,” Wright said.
“This rushed and premature curriculum review was Minister Pyne’s idea from start to finish. He cannot distance himself now.”
In his report, Spurr advised the government that the cross curriculum focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Asian region, and sustainability were “a distraction from the core work of the curriculum”.
He also wrote that, “the impact of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on literature in English in Australia has been minimal and is vastly outweighed by the impact of global literature in English, and especially that from Britain, on our literary culture.”
In email correspondence Spurr went further, saying that “Abo literature” did not exist and was of no value to Australian students..
Those sentiments, and Spurr’s role in the review, have angered First Nations leaders, academics, and authors.
The Estimates committee also heard the total cost of the review to date was just short of the $300,000 budgeted by the Department, with other reviewers paid the same rate as Spurr.
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