The Anglican Vice-Chancellor of Victoria’s University of Divinity, Peter Sherlock describes religion or faith in an external power as “[…] nothing more and nothing less than a body of beliefs, behaviours, and identities, through which we attempt to answer, or even just live with, our deepest questions.”

Non-believers reject religion or faith as an ideological framework.

The inclusion of religion in government schools is the focus of this article. The issue of religion in schools is sensitive and difficult to resolve because it relates to personal ideologies and identities.

A State Concern:  SRE/SRI, the National School Chaplaincy Program, and General Religious Education

Education is delivered as specified in each state or territory’s Education Act. Individual states and territories have exclusive control over the degree to which religion is present in their public school system.  Hence the provision and delivery of SRE, the National School Chaplaincy Program, and General Religious Education varies between states.

Religion in State Schools takes the form of specific religious instruction, known as Special Religious Education (SRE) or Special Religious Instruction (SRI), the NSCSWP (National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program), and General Religious Education (GRE).

Currently, provision is made for non-religious students to study Special Education in Ethics (SEE) in all states and territories, where practical. This is a secular alternative to SRE, which the NSW Department of Education describes as “[…] a program in ethical decision-making, action and reflection within a secular framework.”

The National School Chaplaincy Program was first introduced in 2007 under the Howard government. The scheme provides state funding for chaplaincy services in both government and non-government schools.

GRE is the broad study of major religions taught by a qualified teacher, and forms part of a student’s general knowledge of the world. GRE is considered part of a student’s secular education, while SRE and the Chaplaincy program are not.

The Character of Australian Secularism

Prior to examining concerns relating to SRE programs and the changes made to them in recent years, we must consider three interrelated realities. These are the nature of Australian secularism, the birth of the nation’s secular state or public school system, and the lasting influence of Christianity on the Australian education system as a whole.

Australia embraces a different type of secularism from France, for example, which is well-known for advocating a strict separation of church and state and completely excluding religion from the public sphere. Instead, Australia embraces a secularism where religious belief is only one option among many, including non-belief. Religion is not excluded from the public or political sphere, which means that groups or individuals (including politicians) with particular religious beliefs can potentially influence government policy.

This brand of secularism holds that a government may interact with religious groups, as long as it remains neutral and doesn’t subscribe to a particular perspective to the exclusion of others.

Although Australia is constitutionally secular, 60% of Australians identify as being affiliated with a religion, while 30% (or a third of all Australians) ticked the “no religion” box) according to 2016 ABS census statistics.

The most common religion reported in the 2016 Census was Christianity at 52%, followed by Islam at 2.6%, and Buddhism at 2.4%. Like many other Western nations however, Australia is experiencing detraditionalisation, which is characterised by “a loss of institutional attachment to previously dominant religious groups”. Greater numbers of people identifying with “no religion” and the increasing pluralisation of religion.

The Secular Origins of Australia’s Public Education System

Religion and education are often intertwined in countries with a Western Judaeo-Christian heritage like Australia. Schools have been often established by members of Christian denominations. The first Australian schools were established by the Anglican Church in the 1800s. Charity schools run by other denominations were founded in later years.

The alliance between religion and education is thriving in Australia, a country with one of the highest proportions of religious schools compared to other OECD countries such as Sweden (2% of all schools are religious) or the US, where 10% of schools are religious. By contrast, about 30% of Australian schools are affiliated with a religion, and 94% of these schools are non-government schools.

Between 1850 and 1908, all states and territories established public schools which were free, compulsory, and secular. At this time however, the influence of Christianity and Christian institutions dominated many aspects of society. Consequently, Christian philosophies and elements of common Christianity have underpinned moral instruction offered in public schools and public school curriculums into the 20th century. Increased religious and cultural pluralism, the growth of secularism and nonbelief are comparatively recent developments.

Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory explicitly characterise public school education as secular. The Victorian Education Act states that “Government schools must not promote any particular religious practice, denomination, or sect, and must be open to adherents of any philosophy, religion, or faith.” Legislation in the aforementioned states outlines similar stipulations.

Whilst Queensland, Northern Territory, and South Australian legislation doesn’t explicitly stipulate that public education is secular in nature, these education systems are secular in practice.

A feature inconsistent with a secular education system, is the stipulation that some states (the ACT, New South Wales, Queensland, and South Australia) “must” provide SRI – State Schools with this wording in their Education Acts are legally obliged to provide SRI classes. This is not the case in the Northern Territory, Tasmania, Victoria, or Western Australia, although their legislation states that SRI “may be given in a government school.”

Changes to SRE Teaching: Resolving Issues

Over the last few years, secular groups such as the Australian Secular Lobby (ASL) and the NSW Teachers Federation have voiced concerns about the operation of SRI programs. In some cases, recent changes have been made in response to them.

  • Most SRI and National Chaplaincy programs formerly operated on an opt-out basis. This meant that students were automatically placed in SRI classes. In response to lobbying and complaints about the biased opt-out system, many states have adopted opt-in arrangements. Currently, only WA requires parents to opt out of SRE. All states and territories provide SRE classes during school hours except for Victoria, which runs them at lunchtime.
  • Some states have access to a wide range of providers to suit the diverse religious needs of students, while others have a limited choice. For example, in 2017, Western Australia had only three providers: YouthCare, WA Ba’hai Centre of Learning, and a Catholic SRE program.

Compare this with NSW’s 110 registered SRE providers. Although most NSW providers are Christian, the state offers gave a more culturally diverse range of options, including Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu programs. Although ethics or SEE programs are meant to be offered as a secular alternative, in 2017 only 30% of public schools provided them.

  • The content of SRI programs and secular or meaningful alternatives hasn’t always clearly explained. Now most SRE policies require providers to make SRE content transparent and accessible to parents and school staff. Descriptions of SRE program content are often available on school websites.
  • Many SRE facilitators are volunteers, not qualified teachers. At times, concerns have been raised over the appropriateness of curriculum content or comments made by SRE instructors. In response, principals are involved in regular reviews of SRE program.
  • Finally, some people call for the elimination of SRE altogether as curriculums are overcrowded, particularly in high school. This remains a point of contention.

The Value of Faith Schools in Secular Societies

Although secularism in government schools is desirable, independent faith schools play a valuable role in secular society. Students and parents who share strong religious beliefs may feel alienated by secular values. Religious schools satisfy spiritual needs that the secular public school system isn’t able to cater for. Faith schools make freedom of choice a reality for all.

The existence of religious schools avoids the conflict that would occur if secular education was the only type of education on offer. Many of these schools, such as those in the Catholic education system, charge moderate fees. This makes them a realistic option for parents.

Finally, Independent Faith Schools help support the public school system in another practical way. In the 1960s funding to independent schools (many of which were religious) was reintroduced. This reduced the strain placed on the public school system by the growing student population needing access to education, brought about by post-World War II migration and the baby boom. The non-government solution ensures that the secular public school system doesn’t struggle to accommodate students beyond its capacity level.

Access to government funding makes faith schools accountable for their curriculum, admissions policy, and how they operate in general.

Conclusion

It is questionable whether it is appropriate to deliver SRE in a public school context which is committed to secularism. Moreover it is impractical to provide equality of access to SRE for students of all religious faiths.  Recent changes to the delivery and operation of SRE classes in public schools are a step in the right direction. Independent faith schools and non-religious public schools both have a part to play in supporting the nation’s education system and offering freedom of choice.

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About the Author

PhD in European Languages and Cultures

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