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Schools neglect Pacific cultures

For many of us studying geography may be just a distant memory of pouring over maps of ''mountains and rivers''. Of course, today our geography curriculum is a key part of preparing students for the increasingly globalised world of the 21st century.

It's why the draft Australian Geography curriculum from the Australian Curriculum Assessment Reporting Authority (ACARA) is so important. It was released in October last year and consultation closes this month. It is scheduled to be introduced into schools next year. While the draft curriculum is to be commended for having a global focus, there are some rather glaring omissions. The new draft geography curriculum fails to include any study of our own Pacific region.

Despite our important trade, aid, migration, sporting, military and tourism links with countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, the region is never explicitly mentioned.

Australian school students and families with a national or cultural background in the Pacific may justifiably feel ignored and overlooked.

The Pacific has often looked like Asia's poor cousin in the Australian education system. Critics have argued there is a failure to teach about Pacific cultures in our schools and nothing to give us hope that Australia may move beyond the ''us and them'' mentality in thinking about Pacific policy.

Unfortunately, the new draft geography curriculum may do little to change this.

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At a recent Social Educators Conference in Melbourne, when asked why the Pacific was omitted, Peter Hill, the chief executive of ACARA, suggested that the Pacific was in fact part of Asia. How can Australia be a good international neighbour if we are not teaching our young people about the issues facing our own neighbourhood? Yet there are other concerning omissions in this latest draft. While every state curriculum, including the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008), affirms the role of education in building social justice or ''an equitable and just society'', this document has pointedly dropped the goal.

References to social justice are relegated to the general capabilities heading ''ethical behaviour''. Surely we want our young Australians to be informed and active citizens who can contribute to the development of a socially just and sustainable world. This is an essential part of the contemporary issues our world is facing in the study of geography. The draft curriculum also fails to include specific language around human rights. Australia has played a leading role in the development of international human rights standards, and is party to six major United Nations human rights treaties.

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Australian Government is obliged to make the Convention known ''by appropriate and active means'' to children. The study of human geography is the natural place for this to take place but again the language of human rights is never made explicit in the curriculum's content descriptors or elaborations. Instead, like ''social justice'', the language of ''human rights'' is tucked away in the general capabilities section. In learning about human rights, we learn about ideas of respect, fairness, justice and equality. In our globalised world, young Australians need to be able to identify and protect human rights - both here and overseas. The study of human rights is not just a study of history.

No other learning area in the school curriculum draws on both the natural sciences and social sciences in the way of geography. Geography is the one subject that addresses the contemporary local, national and global issues of the 21st century. As head of Australia's largest overseas aid organisation, every day I witness the compassion and generosity of Australians to give to those beyond our borders that are in dire need. In fact, about 400,000 Australians sponsor children through World Vision, giving life and hope to children in some of the world's poorest communities. Yet I also see an emerging isolationism, in which people would prefer Australia turned its back on helping those around us. I believe helping our students to understand the global connectedness of our world today and their role as global citizens is a critical element of our education system. While the new draft geography curriculum has some very strong content, these omissions are baffling. It can only be hoped they will be addressed when the final write-up of the curriculum is undertaken before it is introduced into our schools next year.

Tim Costello is chief executive officer of World Vision Australia and patron of the Australian Geography Teachers' Association.