No place for religion in public schools?

Bryan Cowling

For over 120 years public education in NSW was known for its inclusiveness. Adherents of all religions, as well as those who adhered to none, were equally welcome.

This goes back to an agreement reached in 1880 between the Protestant churches and the NSW Government. Students were assured of a General Religious Education taught by their class teacher and for those whose parents requested it, access was granted to the churches to provide denominational instruction in Special Religious Education (known for many years as scripture).

This was a smart compromise. The Government acquired hundreds of former Anglican and other church schools. The churches retained access to the children in their flocks.

Up until about three decades ago, this arrangement seemed to be working.

Multiculturalism in Australian society brought increasing religious diversity, and more religious groups were approved to provide SRE.

In some schools, religious diversity was welcomed and the distinctive identity of each religious persuasion was subsumed in multi-faith activities. In some schools religious practices were de-Christianised. In others, religious diversity was seen as a problem best addressed by eliminating the existing religious provisions altogether.

The new political correctness regards religion as a private matter not for inclusion within the school setting. Within many schools, teachers and students feel discouraged from revealing their beliefs, especially if Christian.

Faced with these challenges, some Christian providers are hanging on to what little turf is left. Others have decided it is too hard and have opted out. Some have combined forces to employ qualified SRE teachers to work in some secondary schools on their behalf. Some are putting all their eggs in the transitory basket of the Australian Government's partially funded chaplaincy (or social welfare) program.

I Believe there is a strong case for all students in all schools to acquire, over many grades, a good understanding of all the religions and belief systems represented within the Australian community.

They should also be taught how we know anything at all and how to critique the truth claims of all religions and belief systems. There is, in fact, scope for this to occur through existing syllabuses, but lack of training and knowledge on the part of most teachers means these opportunities are rarely taken.
Religious faith is too valuable to be left at the classroom door. It is a nonsense to suggest this is possible. In a pluralist society, no set of beliefs should be immune from scrutiny. Indeed, personal growth and a respectful attitude to cultural diversity are impossible without it.

It's time for a new, contemporary, rebadged General Religious Education program to be created. Sure, a massive number of teachers would have to be retrained and new curriculum materials produced. This would be costly and take some time to implement, but the cost to millions of young people and society as a whole of doing nothing will, in the long term, be far more serious.

For our public schools to reclaim their diminishing inclusiveness, they need to re-enter the business of including the exploration of religious faith within the curriculum entitlement of every student as well as retaining an opportunity for specialised quality education in the family's preferred religion.
Dr Bryan Cowling is Executive Director of the Anglican Education Commission. He is also a former Director of Curriculum and Education Programs in the NSW Department of Education.