With Australian children returning to school for 2015 over the last couple of weeks, the issue of religious education in public state schools has reared yet again. An online poll was set up by the ABC’s Vote Compass where approximately 69 000 people expressed their opinion on whether religious education should be part of the Australian State school curriculum. Results for the different states were contrasting, however the media chose to focus on the result from Queensland where it was indicated that 46% of participants believe it should remain. While these polls may assist with understanding public attitudes and trends, they cannot be relied upon as an integral or truthful representation. I was not even aware of the poll until I heard the results over the radio.
I feel quite strongly about this issue and so do many parents and educators and a serious discussion needs to happen, not just a yearly random poll and a whole lot of to-ing and fro-ing with letters to the editor and comments on news blogs. Having two children currently attending a secular state primary school in Queensland, I believe that this issue could not only be less problematic, but fairer for all, and a true reflection of democracy, if all Australian state secular schools ousted Religious Education taught by church volunteers and left it up to the parents and faith communities to provide religious instruction.
Doctor Catharine Byrne is currently working on her post-doctoral research at Macquarie University, Sydney and her thesis focuses on Religious Education in Australian schools. She states that international studies “show that children with some education about religions and ethics are more tolerant than those without such instruction” (2013). It depends however, she adds, on how the children are taught and to date, the majority of state schools in Australia are following outdated models of religious education.
Currently all states in Australia have a legal provision for Religious Education in government schools (Rossiter, 2013, p.2). It is generally divided into single faith instruction (RI) and comparative education (RE). The lessons are delivered using right-of-entry system, which is where voluntary church representatives are employed to provide 30 minutes of Religious Education per week. Professor Graham Rossiter, Head of Religious Education at the Australian Catholic University Sydney, reports that this kind of “denominational Religious Education is often ineffective, unpopular with students and state teachers, but there has been a hesitancy to oppose for fear of offending the churches” (2013, p. 3).
According to David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Religious Instruction in Australia’s school system is not only outdated, it is a “flawed model of segregated and unprofessional religious education, catering to the interests of religious organisations” (2013, p. 2). Dr. Byrne states that single-faith instruction “increases inter-religious intolerance because it provides no bridge to understanding other beliefs” (2013). There are many other concerns including options for students. Currently, the children of parents who fail to notify the school if they wish to opt out will be automatically enrolled, and those students who have been opted out are often stopped from completing any meaningful learning and ‘othered’ because they are not participating. Zyngier believes that separation of students according to religious belief contributes to stereotyping and promotes exclusivism (2013, p. 2). Concerns are also raised that the nature of such classes exacerbates prejudice, racism and religious vilification (2013, p. 2). Further he adds, “it does not honour the central tenet of Australia’s democracy – the separation of church and state” (p. 2).
The church defends its firm grip on entry to public schools by stating that religious instruction is essential for maintaining a good ethical and moral grounding. Yet, ethical and moral concerns have been seen all too often as a matter of religion. Moyser states that despite all the changes in religion and its relationship to politics in the modern period, “religion still continues to be a prescriptive arbiter of public morality” (p. 450). Are morals and ethics purely the domain of religion though? This is certainly a case to be argued. While religion does concern itself with such issues, it is not only the religious realm that can lay claim to teachings on such matters. One can be an atheist and still be a person of good moral and ethical standing. One can also be a Christian and lack moral standing, we have been witness too this far too often.
Religious instruction in all Australian state public schools should be ousted and replaced with modernized general classes in ethics, morals, values, life skills and general education about religion, approached phenomenologically; taught by the class teacher, not a church volunteer and done so to promote diversity and acceptance. I endeavor for my children to be knowledgeable about religion and its history, and to be aware of all the diverse faiths, and to be respectful and accepting. Above all, I wish for them to make their own decisions about what faith or spiritual path, if any, they choose to seek. My daughter chose to stay in her religion (RE) class last year as her friends were doing it and she did not want to be left out. I was fine with this, however one day I prompted her to ask her teacher about the Goddess and while you are there what about Buddha? She did, and was told “we do not speak of those things”.
With enough public pressure I hope schools in Queensland follow suit and start introducing alternative lessons like state schools in other states such as NSW and Victoria where some schools have introduced lessons in Primary Ethics and World Religions. Other school are introducing practices such as meditation, and nature based activities, where evidence clearly tells us of its’ effectiveness. No child in a state primary school that is supposed to be secularized should be segregated or compartmentalized based on religious beliefs. Religious instruction should be left up to the parents and the faith community that they are part of. Zyngier attests that “families are in the best position to provide specific religious education”. I believe that families can be entrusted with looking after the faith education of their own children. It should not be left up to public education, in doing so “we forfeit a lot, including the secular nature of public education” (p. 3), and further it is at odds with Australian state and federal governments commitment to encourage a socially inclusive society. I am certain this contentious issue will remain significant in Australian society until positive changes are made.
Byrne, C. 2013. ‘Religion in Public Education Australia’, Post-Doctoral Research in Progress, Macquarie University, p.1.
Moyser, G. in Hinnells, J. ed. 2010, The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, 2nd ed. Ch. 26, pp. 445-460
Rossiter, G. ‘Religious Education in Government Schools in Australia’, pp.1-6.
Wallace, M. 2005, ‘Is There a Separation of Church and State in Australia and New Zealand?’, Australian Humanist, No. 77, pp. 1-7.
Zyngier, D. 2013, ‘Religion Should be Taught in the Home, not at School’, The Conversation, February 18th,
Jassy Watson, who lives on the sub-tropical coast of Queensland Australia, is a Mother of four, passionate organic gardener, Visionary Artist, Teacher, Intentional Creativity Coach and a student of ancient history and religion at Macquarie University, Sydney. She is the Creatress of Goddesses Garden, Studio & Gallery; a school for the Sacred Creative Arts. Jassy teaches regular painting workshops based around themes that explore the feminine. Regular creative events and presentations are also held that have included visits from international scholars, artists and musicians. Jassy is passionate about helping women awaken to their creative potential and building community through creativity. You can see more of her work, sign up to her Museletter at www.goddessesgardenandstudio.com