The history of curricular control: literary education in Western Australia, 1912-2012

Patricia Catherine Dowsett

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The development of English in Western Australia is a history of conflict and contestation that has shaped the subject’s strength, content and intelligibility. Since the establishment of the state’s first university in 1912, the control of English by various groups and individuals has positioned English at the centre of recurrent political debates about literacy, literature and language according to the priorities and agendas pursued by policy-makers of the day. A ‘core’ learning area that is compulsory for secondary certification and tertiary entrance, English stands as a subject in which many internal and external stakeholders vie for power and influence. Chronologically, this thesis examines how English in Western Australia has been formed as a negotiated product of these networks and exchanges, an amalgam that has sometimes been weakened but often strengthened by the links between institutions, educational bureaucrats and teachers.

The story of English in Western Australia provides insights into why and how English has developed in one state context. Historically, it is characterised by a composite of cultural heritage, functional literacy skills, critical and cultural literacies, and personal growth models of English which articulate collaborative or dictatorial control systems operating at the state, national and international levels of education. With a national curriculum presently framing secondary English, state-based subject histories play an important role in helping to understand how curricula, teaching and examination practices came to be authorised for the enhancement of student experiences of English in secondary schools.

A substantial amount has been written about the history of education in Western Australia, but until now not specifically about the control and subsequent development of subject English in the State. Including an archival study of letters, minutes, syllabuses, examination papers and other historical documents, this thesis reveals that the first two Professors of English at the University of Western Australia played significant roles in establishing and determining the form of secondary English. Notable for their differing propagation of Imperial values, Professors Walter Murdoch and Allan Edwards were reluctant examiners of secondary English. They believed that real education was about independent thinking, not rote-learning and rehearsing examination responses. Their questionably innovative but indisputably formative emphases stemmed from alternative traditions. Murdoch’s Oxford English and Writing orientation preceded Edwards’s Cambridge English and Reading orientation.

By analysing professional journals, Government Reports such as those by Dettman (1969), Martin (1980), Beazley (1984), McGaw (1984) and Andrich (1995), and socio-cultural histories by Fred Alexander, Leigh Dale, John La Nauze, Marnie O’Neill, Bill Green and Robin Peel, Annette Patterson and Jeanne Gerlach, this thesis demonstrates how the bureaucratisation of English in Western Australia since the 1960s, marked a significant transition from an autocracy controlled by the University and the Professor of English. It distinguishes the Western Australian story of secondary English within Australian education, by considering the particular effects of the ‘London School’, the Petch Report (1964), the teacher-writer figure, and the specialised study of Media. These historical aspects of subject English in Western Australia still influence English teachers today as they engage with a ‘national’ English curriculum, exemplifying that it is not the existence of conflict and contestation within the subject that alone is destabilising, but rather, how power is wielded within the conflict of enacting curriculum change.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
  • Mead, Philip, Supervisor
  • Hughes-D'Aeth, Tony, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


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