Professional Voice 13.3.3

The politics of ‘back to basics’

Naomi Barnes

During 2020 NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian described the NSW curriculum review as a signal to go back to basics despite Professor Geoff Masters, who headed up the review, insisting it was more about decluttering the curriculum.  The phrase back to basics has signalled different education reforms over the years so chances are her use of the term was signalling yet another.

Since the 1950s and earlier, at every level of government, politicians have touted their versions of back to basics reforms in education as a way of showing their political leadership and to assure us of the stability of their governments. The catch-cry taps into widespread, ever present, cultural fears about literacy and numeracy standards. It signals that a simple and easy solution to educational problems is achieved by just ‘reforming’ the sector responsible for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

However, in 2020 when anxiety over education was particularly heightened, a back to basics move also appeals to nostalgia for a time before the pandemic, before a decade of constant reform, before precarity, before everything got so scary.

The trouble is we know from looking at our past experience of politicians talking about going back to basics, this phrase can refer to whatever ‘reforms’ they want to introduce.

What does the phrase back to basics actually mean?

The phrase is what linguists call an empty signifier, or what the D-Generation might call a “hollow” phrase. These phrases are the basis for policy writing jokes in Utopia and The Hollow Men and other comedies about political life. In other words, back to basics is clear enough to have passing meaning, but vague enough to mean nothing in particular or to have multiple meanings attached.

It can mean cuts to funding for public schools

The term emerged in the 1950s in the United States but has been used since the 1970s to signal Australian education reforms. In 1977, the Fraser government used back to basics to reform the vocational education sector. In 1988, Nick Greiner swept the Coalition to victory in NSW promising a back to basics approach to education, but this time the signal was for massive cuts to education including defunding the public system, raising class size and complexity by introducing composite classes, closing smaller schools and sacking 2,400 teachers and 800 support staff.

It can mean flagpoles and teaching ‘values’

Back to basics was base line rhetoric for the Howard government’s approach to education and shifted its use from simple system and curriculum reform to ideological reform. The phrase signalled moves to neutralise the ‘left-wing’ his government claimed had infiltrated the teaching profession. The National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools and the flagpole program in 2005 linked federal funding to the display of “traditional” Australian values. Howard’s government also opposed diversifying the curriculum by using sources other than white colonial history texts.

It can mean “removing the black armband of history” and always involves phonics and grammar

Conservative commentators were surprised at the Gillard government’s appropriation of their spin when the Australian Curriculum was finally released after over two decades of negotiations and drafting. Following the Howard government’s definition of basics referring to traditional values and combining it with solid literacy and numeracy practices, the Australian Curriculum removed “the black armband view of history”, which taught students the nature of British colonialism in Australia, specified the teaching of sound-letter phonics, and re-introduced grammar.

In 2010, back to basics was used to signal a return to the “golden age” of grammar. The phrase worked to signal both nostalgia and reassurance about basic reading and writing in the emerging era of social media. Professor Peter Freebody, who led the drafting of the Australian English Curriculum, explained that literacy levels in Australia had actually improved since grammar was removed. The hearkening back to days where children were remembered to be obedient and do their homework tapped into alluring, if false, white Australian cultural memories of the 1950s.

In 2008 it meant NAPLAN and in 2014 (another) curriculum review

Back to basics was also used by politicians to describe the introduction of NAPLAN in 2008 by Julia Gillard. This bipartisan agenda, which started when Brendan Nelson was federal Minister for Education, was a ‘transparency’ move to publish literacy and numeracy results and collect data about schools on the My School website. The review of the Australian Curriculum by Christopher Pyne in 2014 was also touted as back to basics.

It can mean a focus on PISA scores and the dismantling of education authorities

The present federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, insisted in December 2019 that Australian education needed to go back to basics because of our declining PISA scores. What Minister Tehan was really signalling was the introduction of learning progressions, the collapsing of two of Australia’s largest education authorities (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority) into one body, the development of an evidence institute, and the reform of teacher education.

Each time we have heard the back to basics catch-cry we have seen major political moves that seem to use education, in one way or another, as a political pawn. Each time this occurs, there has been a push back from literacy, numeracy, and assessment experts who argue that basics is never the point. They argue that the needs of our widely disparate education systems in Australia are complex and any problems that arise need complex solutions. If the history of the phrase is any indication, you can bet it is about more than just reading, writing and arithmetic.

Literacy and the ‘Reading Wars’

The use of the term back to basics by politicians has not developed in a vacuum. There have been specific political movements within the education industry that are caught up in how the term is defined. Regarding the literacy side of basics, the so-called Reading Wars are a key source of political information.

 While the debate over the best way to teach reading is more than a century old, it has not always been central to the political sphere. In Australia, literacy researchers Bill Green, John Hodgens and Allan Luke, who wrote the book Debating literacy in Australia : a documentary history, 1945 - 1994, trace the moment literacy became political to the enshrining of it as an object of policy at the federal level. In other words, reading and writing became literacy and literacy became something that accounted for the economic health of the nation.

Making literacy an object of policy allowed the Australian government to have a measurable item that could be used to link mass youth unemployment to failures in education.  Green and his colleagues argue that the media’s constant recycling of the Reading Wars reinforce that link in the public mind. This means that the continuous advancement of research into reading and into the complexity of unemployment gets reduced to a single NAPLAN or PISA score. This score can then be deployed to “reform” education using the common-sense phrase back to basics.

Why is the language we use important?

I asked a question of my followers on social media not so long ago. What words are used in education that are hollow? What words are policy words that have loads of meanings and at the same time have none? These are the words that were offered up:

  • Common-sense
  • Transparency
  • Innovation
  • Catch-up strategies
  • Data digging
  • Disruption
  • Authentic
  • Engagement
  • Drilling down
  • Data-driven or informed
  • Deep dive
  • Professional learning community
  • Creativity
  • Pivot

One of the marvellous things about the teaching profession is its ability to fully embrace a word like innovation but also open it up to interrogation.  What does it mean to be innovative? Does it mean using new technologies or adapting to a lack of resources? What does my school mean by innovation when we have staff meetings about pedagogy? Can the meaning be resisted? Redefined? Discarded and replaced?

This habit of critical engagement around the language of teaching is a good thing, even if it feels exhausting to be subjected to a new buzz word every year. It means that teachers are engaged with conversations around practice, are ensuring the new ideas that come into schools are rigorous and informed.  It means that they are quality teachers.

Using a word like ‘quality’

The difference between me using a word like quality as opposed to innovation is that I have used it to pass a judgement on teacher practices. I am not a teacher, rather a teacher educator and it is my job to train quality teachers. I have more than a passing interest in what the word quality means. The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) imposed it on me and now I am imposing it on teachers. You could ignore it, or you could do what teachers do well and interrogate it. And quality has been subjected to quite a lot of cross-examination since it popped up in the APST.

Words and phrases that are imposed on the teaching profession need to be questioned because they have rhetorical power. In other words, they are designed to elicit action. The action might be to automatically do what the term or phrase is asking, or to resist it through critique or rephrasing.

There are some terms though, that teachers have very little control over because they are imposed from outside of the industry. Back to basics is one of those. It is a political phrase, and while it might be a difficult one to resist, it still needs to be interrogated and made to show what it really is. By shining a light on back to basics teachers can be forewarned, because experience has shown that when politicians start using this phrase nothing very good for the profession follows on from it.


Dr Naomi Barnes is an education communications and policy analyst interested in the history of literacy education. She teaches English and History at Queensland University of Technology. Naomi was a teacher and curriculum leader for 13 years in government, Catholic and Independent secondary schools.

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.3 The new basics.