Queensland (and Australia), 1970s-1990s

The argument for social studies in the school curriculum rested on the idea that subjects such as history and geography were too bound to academic disciplines. Children and youth, especially under the circumstances of compulsory attendance, required subjects that met their individual, social and labour-force entry needs. This was not straight-forward of course, compulsory education was an opportunity for the more pervasive moralisation of children, turning them into acceptable citizen-subjects. A precursor of social studies was civics. It had a longer, rather more conservative, history. In New South Wales for example, a subject “Civics and morals” entered the primary school syllabus in 1904.

In Australia it was mainly from the 1920s that education progressives worked on ideas about how school curricula should respond to the mounting challenges of the twentieth century. Subjects such as social studies were invented for use in Australian schools. Subjects in the social studies domain would take their content from history, geography, the study of government and democracy (including civics), and eventually the study of society, adapting material from anthropology and its later off-shoot, sociology.

One of the contributors to Education for Complete Living (1938), F. C. Happold from the United Kingdom had made the argument: ‘Social studies is not a new subject added to an already overcrowded curriculum, but a fresh orientation and grouping of existing subjects'(p. 344). There was an argument that young people should be active learners in this developing curriculum area. They should learn to act as citizens in democratic societies, to develop and debate ideas and to subject beliefs and values to examination. Social studies:

should be designed not merely to give essential knowledge, but also to train the pupil in written and oral expression, in the collection and arrangement of facts and ideas, in the use of books and in flexible thinking. Unadulterated class teaching cannot accomplish these objects’ (p. 345).

It was to a fair degree inevitable that some formulations of social studies would inspire a broad range of reactions, approval through to hostility. Development of social studies and related school subjects made gains in the 1960s without much controversy, but that did not last.

In the 1970s two new social studies curriculum packages became available to Australian schools. MACOS, Man: A Course of Study, was developed in the United States. SEMP, Social Education Materials Project, was developed in Australia. Unlike MACOS, and as its name suggests, SEMP provided curriculum resources for a number of different uses in schools. It was not conceived as a unified curriculum package for use in a single subject of study. Both MACOS and SEMP were banned from use in Queensland’s government schools in 1978.

This banning was significant for several reasons outlined below, but one of the more important was the precedent that it set for political interference in school curricula. There had been interference before, but this was very public, and suggestive of the culture wars to come later in the century. Curricula would retreat further from being managed by educators through the exercise of their expertise. Instead school curricula would be more open to influence by organised pressure groups, arguably part of a more democratic or populist gaze. Various state and school jurisdictions in the United States had long experience of such interventions. A well-known early example of this was the attempt to ban the teaching of evolutionary biology in the state-funded high schools of Tennessee (Scopes Monkey Trial). The banning of MACOS and SEMP in Queensland in the 1970s constitutes a parallel case in Australia.

The origins and character of MACOS

The book by Bruner that provided a foundation for MACOS

The book by Bruner that provided a foundation for MACOS

The American psychologist, Jerome Bruner, was a significant figure for education studies from the 1950s. It was in major part from his theories about the significance of social and cultural factors in children’s learning and the cognitive potential of quite young children that MACOS was developed in the United States.

MACOS was a sophisticated curriculum package that included the best audio-visual aids available in the early 1960s. It was meant for the middle and upper grades of primary schools, an affirmation that children at this age could engage with complex ideas about how societies had, did and should operate. The most important educational principle behind Bruner’s ideas and MACOS  was the necessity of carefully scaffolded, spirally organised, inquiry-based teaching and learning; the idea that you can teach anything to any child at any age as long as it is structured appropriately.

MACOS not only modelled an application of contemporary educational psychology, but the latest in curriculum design and production. MACOS had organising questions: ‘What makes man human?’, ‘How did he get that way?’ and ‘How can he be more so?’. This is not the place to expand on how MACOS was then organised in terms of content and pedagogy, but from these organising questions alone, it is possible to see that communities, organisations and individuals, conservative or liberal, religious or secular, from one cultural tradition or another, could easily imagine the leading of young people to ideas and values that might challenge their own. At the same time, the inquiry-based approach insisted that teachers were not there to provide answers; they were there to support children in coming to their own conclusions.

Image of an Inuit group used in MACOS materials

Image of an Inuit group used in MACOS materials

Probably the most well-known of the curriculum units told the story of Old Kigtak who had become an impossible burden to her nomadic Netsilik Inuit family group. The struggle for survival in the far north of Canada allowed small tolerance for those members of the group who could no longer contribute to the group. Old Kigtak was left behind, indeed knowing she would be left behind, where she would die in the cold. No doubt the discussion of such a story would lead to comparisons of how students’ families and communities operated, especially in relation to the status and care of those who were very old. This was but one of the units for study. The work that children did on this story of the Inuit was preceded by three case study units on the salmon, herring gull and baboons. It was carefully structured as part of the spiralling curriculum approach.

There were more than 60 lessons covering a great range of topics. Plays, songs and films as well as more conventional print resources were provided. The stimulus of these was expected to encourage discussion and writing, group and class work. Ideas such as the life cycle, human reproduction, ‘adaptation, learning, aggression, organisation of groups, technology, communication and language, world view and values’ were introduced to students who were encouraged to use provided and newly gathered primary sources to assist their study (Marsh & Stafford, 1988). Students might be encouraged to observe examples of aggression, status and power in the interractions of birds such as seagulls, and perhaps animals such as baboons in the zoo. MACOS film resouces also provided examples.

Though produced in the United States, many Australian educators admired MACOS, and many schools across Australia adopted it for use, no doubt adapted when necessary for local circumstances.

The origins and character of SEMP

The Social Education Materials Project (SEMP) was developed by a federal agency of the Australian government, the Curriculum Development Centre. Use of the term ‘social education’ was deliberate. By the 1970s, ‘social studies’ was often perceived as an inferior and low status school subject. The aims of this new  social education curriculum project were similar to those of MACOS: to develop an understanding of contemporary society and the forces that shaped peoples’ lives. Major differences were that SEMP was for secondary, not primary school students, and the production of curriculum materials was decentralised, across the different Australian states. This led to disparities in the quality of the materials and their coherence. Among the many units of study developed were community, urbanism, families and conflict. There were delays in the production of units.  ‘The consumer in society’ was one whose completion and publication was very late.

Unlike MACOS, SEMP was not conceived as an independent subject of study, but as providing materials for a range of existing and future curricula. Following the development of the materials, David Smith from the University of Sydney was involved in their dissemination and the education of teachers for their use:

We produced at least two videos for every one of the units – one showing the resources included in each unit and a second that included excerpts of teachers using the resources in different lessons. The lessons included English, history, social science, geography and even some science. … SEMP was designed to produce resources that could be used in a number of different subjects – and the resources reflected this – there were poems and story excerpts and biographical stories, bits of drama and role plays, photographs, maps, statistical data, vignettes, scenarios, ethical dilemmas – there were also proposed some hands-on materials but these [were] knocked out in the final editing because of cost and difficulty of mass production and transporting. (David Smith to author, 4 March 2018.)

The degree to which the materials were actually used in schools is difficult to track. They could turn up in English or home economics classrooms as well as in social studies. Schools in the states of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales appear to have used the materials more frequently than elsewhere, but they were used in other states also. Overall, dissemination of SEMP was flawed. The different state education departments had responsibility for this. Sets of the material would be sent to schools, but often they were left unpacked.

The campaign against MACOS and SEMP

For MACOS there was a reasonable case to be made that some of the ideas raised by the curriculum were not always obviously appropriate for primary school children. Nevertheless, MACOS was widely adopted in the United States from 1968, but opposition led to rejections in a number of states from 1975. Federal funding for the dissemination of MACOS was withdrawn in the United States in 1976. In the jurisdictions that banned MACOS, program evaluations on educational and developmental psychology grounds had much less influence than the campaigns around moral and religious issues. There were a number of studies in the 1970s and 1980s on the curriculum and its reception. According to Colin Marsh (1983) at least one of them found no evidence of harm, though not much effectiveness in the social studies education of children either.

In Australia the most effective opponents of MACOS and then SEMP organised in the state of Queensland. Why opposition organised as well as it did in that state is the subject of considerable speculation. Factors usually include Queensland’s less cosmopolitan, more regional character, but the main reason was the conjunction of powerful pressure groups and the receptivity of a powerful politician, a socially conservative, occasionally reactionary, premier of Queensland.

The SEMP unit that seemed to attract the most criticism was that concerning the family. Some argued that divorce for example was treated too cavalierly. There was also the introduction of the idea of ‘alternative’ families, the possibity that families might be headed by single adults or parents of the same sex. The idea of ‘blended families’ was also introduced. The unit on consumerism could lead to criticism of the less desirable features of capitalism, and that was not always welcomed.

The banning

Rona Joyner was an activist at the centre of two fundamentalist religious pressure groups in Queensland in the 1970s: STOP (Society to Outlaw Pornography) and CARE (Campaign Against Regressive Education). There were several more like-minded groups in Queensland, but these were the most effective. There were links between these groups and similar in the United States. Campaigns in the United States influenced the campaigns that the Queensland groups waged against MACOS and then SEMP. The teaching of evolutionary science was similarly regarded as anti-Christian. The idea that cultural and moral values might evolve historically and in response to different cultural circumstances (‘relativism’) was regarded as contradicting the stories in the bible concerning creation, and other stories, interpreted as providing moral certainties.

Newspaper clippings of Rona Joyner's activity in Queensland

Newspaper clippings of Rona Joyner’s activity in Queensland

From 1977, members of STOP and CARE lobbied for the withdrawal of MACOS from public schools. The campaign was not particularly effective at the grass roots, among parents and teachers in the schools themselves. Nor did it impress the state organisation of public school parents, or the main teacher union and the Queensland Department of Education. More traction was gained in rural communities and among members of parliament and government ministers. Joyner’s arguments were many, including for example that there were anti-Christian, anti-family, socialist-humanist ‘cells’ active within the Education Department. The language employed, of ‘good versus evil’, was the familiar language of anti-communism during the Cold War. Teachers were accused of manipulating children’s minds. The opponents of Joyner, including the Queensland Teachers’ Union and many university academics, though not all, were not particularly effective as a moral panic grew in the state of Queensland.

The Queensland government had previously intervened in school affairs by banning the accessibility of certain literary texts for study and on shelves in school libraries, and withdrawing a booklet apparently questioning uranium mining. The Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, leader of the Country Party (later re-named the National Party) dominated the government, a coalition with the Liberal party. Though the Minister of Education banned MACOS on 19 January 1978, there was little doubt that it was Bjelke-Petersen’s decision. Several days later, the premier threatened the sacking of teachers who continued to use MACOS. A little later, in February of the same year, SEMP materials were banned in public schools.

The banning could only be enforced in government schools. Perhaps surprising the government, Catholic education leaders and others in the non-government sector found little fault either with MACOS or SEMP. The same was not true of the increasing number of small fundamentalist ‘Christian’ schools that multiplied in Australia from the 1970s.

Significance of the MACOS and SEMP banning

The significances of this episode in Australian curriculum history are multiple:

(1)          In other states of Australia, MACOS and SEMP were not banned. Nevertheless, the developers and introducers of new curriculum in all parts of Australia were sensitised to the potential politics that might surround school curriculum. In early March 1979, on behalf of the Queensland government, the Ahern Committee reviewed the decisions. MACOS remained banned, but some of the SEMP units were authorised for use in Queensland.

(2)          The banning highlighted the potential for conflict between governments and the education bureaucracies. While early victories might be had by governments over such matters, the government departments usually outlasted ministers. In Queensland for example there is evidence that the Department of Education ameliorated some of the decisions of government.

(3)          The campaigns of STOP and CARE were only one part of a developing resistance to progressive education that built influence through the 1980s. The Australian Council of Educational Standards (ACES) was one organisation that led in the criticism of teachers and schools that apparently neglected the ‘basics’ in education—literacy and numeracy, and the traditional literary canon for example in secondary education. By the 1990s neo-conservative approaches to curriculum and schooling often appeared to be in the ascendency, especially with the anxieties that arose with increasing youth unemployment.

(4)          The campaign against MACOS and SEMP was a precursor to the related culture and history wars from the 1990s and the argument that children and youth were losing the certainties of narratives such as Australia as a successful nation, when the stories of Aboriginal dispossession, the ‘black armband’ view of history, seemed to be overtaking the curriculum. In the English curriculum, the decline in teaching traditional English grammar was often considered a marker of the harm done to young people by progressive schooling.

(5)          It can be argued that the episode contributed to the continued foundations of government-funded but often fundamentalist ‘Christian’ schools. For the communities that supported such schools, there was suspicion that government schools and many of their teachers were not supporting their values and beliefs.

(6)          The Queensland Teachers Union found itself defending MACOS and SEMP, and the right of school communities including teachers to exert some control over curriculum decisions. From the 1970s, teacher unions, typically concentrating on industrial matters (wages and conditions), found themselves increasingly engaged in curriculum policy matters.

(7)          Professional educators, university academics and school teachers and parents began to organise as a result of events such as those that occurred in Queensland. There were other reasons as well. Curriculum development and its study was increasingly professionalised in Australia from the 1970s. The Social Education Association of Australia (SEAA) was founded in 1982. A year later in 1983, there followed the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA). It aimed to be a

broadly based educational association supporting the professional interests of educators in curriculum work from all levels and sectors within and beyond Australia. ACSA works to support educators so that all students have access to a meaningful, relevant and engaging curriculum. ACSA provides national advocacy and leadership in curriculum. It is committed to curriculum reform informed by the principles of social justice and equity and respect for the democratic rights of all (ACSA web-site, accessed 19 February 2018).

(8)          The social education/social studies curriculum area continued to be developed but became more circumspect about the pace and nature of curriculum change. The descriptions of the subject area changed reasonably frequently: Studies of society and environment, human society and its environment, social science, the new social studies, teaching about society, the study of society, citizenship education and civics, and so on. The area continues to host the old controversies: those who see it as a cover for teaching discipline-based subjects such as history and geography while others are committed to its integrated character. It remains difficult to secure agreement on content and teaching method. As a consequence, curriculum statements are often vague. Potential political difficulties do not recede. Should civics education for example concentrate on learning about the constitution and formal democratic process, or encourage social and community activism—or both? One of the difficulties that SEMP ran into was its adoption of multiculturalism as an organising concept for its curriculum materials. How cultural and religious diversity might affect the social studies curriculum and the values it sought to encourage remains a contemporary issue for curriculum developers, schools and teachers—and their critics.

(9)     It became more common for community and other pressure groups to campaign for and against various school curricula.


The Curriculum Development Centre was an independent statutory body that was formed in 1975 to develop school curricula and educational materials. It was absorbed into the Commonwealth Department of Education in 1981.


The author of this entry thanks Dr David Smith, formerly of the University of Sydney, for advice on this entry. Dr Smith used the MACOS curriculum in his teacher education courses and was appointed by the Curriculum Development Corporation to develop teacher preparation and dissemination materials for SEMP.

Bibliography and References

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Happold, F. C. 1938. “Social Studies.” In K. S. Cunningham ed., Education for complete living: The challenge of to-day (pp. 344-347). Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Marsh, C. J. 1983. “Teachers’ use of the Social Education Materials Project (SEMP).” Australian Journal of Education, vol. 27 (3): 249-259.

Marsh, C. J. and K. Stafford. 1988. Curriculum practices and issues. Sydney: McGraw-Hill.

O’Donnell, D. 1982. “The churches and SEMP”. In A. Barcan ed. The quality of the curriculum: What happened to the curriculum in Australian schools (pp. 50-56). Newcastle (NSW): Australian Council for Educational Standards.

Openshaw, R. 2001. “Diverting the flak: The response of the New Zealand Department of Education to curriculum controversy.” Change: Transformations in education, vol 4 (1): 33-47.

Power, C. 1979. “Banning MACOS in Queensland: A case study of politics and the curriculum.” Pivot, vol. 6 (3): 62-63.

Reynolds, P. L. 2002. Lock, stock and barrel: A political biography of Mike Ahern. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.

Rodwell, G. 2018. Moral panics and school educational policy. Oxford: Routledge.

Smith, R. A. and J. Knight. 1978. “MACOS in Queensland: The politics of educational knowledge.” Australian Journal of Education, vol. 22 (3): 225-248.

Citation of this entry

Campbell, C. 2018. MACOS and SEMP. Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ), 6 March. Available:

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