Religion in Education - discussion paper (John Carr)

  (16 August 14)

Religion in Education: Children, Ethics, Faith and Meaning
- Discussion Paper -



by John Carr, for the 2015 Conference Planning Committee


The next SoFiA Conference will be held at Twin Towns Resort, Coolangatta, over the weekend 22 to 24 May 2015. The conference theme will be 'Religion in Education: Children, Ethics, Faith and Meaning’, once again a contentious issue in Australian politics that impinges on the daily life of most Australians.

In the 19th Century, when the colonies were belatedly catching up with the provision of elementary and advanced education for their scattered population, this was a major, quite divisive topic. The viewpoint that generally prevailed was that education should be ‘free, secular, universal’, though most Catholics disagreed with this and set up their own system of primary and secondary schools.

It was only in the 1960s that Catholic schools and the relatively few other non-state schools began to receive significant funding from State and Commonwealth governments. In the following 50 years, government funding for non-state schools has grown exponentially and it now seems impossible for any political party to return to a ‘no state aid’ policy.

One result of this policy has been a substantial increase in the proportion of children enrolled in non-state schools, especially religious schools (35% of full-time students in 2013). At the same time, there has been increasing access by religious organisations to children in state schools through religious instruction and ‘chaplaincy’ programs (another $245m was allocated for chaplaincy in the 2014 Federal Budget for the next 5 years).

Clearly, many Australians are voting with their feet in support of these developments or, at least, appear not to be concerned with them. On the other hand, there are some diverse groups who are very concerned. Three such groups are: supporters of state schools, who believe them to be seriously under-funded; people who believe that non-state schools, both sectarian and high fee-charging, are potentially socially divisive; and people who believe that state schools should be entirely secular, with no place for denominational religious instruction or ‘chaplaincy’.

In preparation for the Conference, the Planning Committee would welcome hearing views on a wide range of relevant issues. Here are a few broad topics to start the discussion. Please send your comments, brief or extended, to the Editor of the SoFiA Bulletin.


Some questions for discussion:

1.  Should there be compulsory courses in all primary and secondary schools about religion and religions, and on ethics and philosophy?

2.  Why are increasing numbers of parents sending their children to non-state schools, especially religious schools?

3.  Are non-state schools generally ‘better’ than state schools, as media reports assert and many parents think?

4.  Is the increasing emphasis by governments and popular media on assessment and the publication of ‘league tables’ deleterious to good education outcomes?

5.  Are state schools sufficiently well-funded?

6.  If your answer above is "no", where do you

think extra funds can be found?

7.  Are parents who choose religious schools for their children aware of how radical some are?

8.  Should religious schools be allowed to teach ‘creation science’ and other non-evidentiary content?

9.  Do school chaplains evangelise or proselytise? (This is strictly forbidden by the terms of their employment.)

10.  Should religious schools be exempt from discrimination laws?


Some recent news items on religion in education:

School chaplain sacked over Facebook post calling homosexuality 'not normal' (ABC News)
Aug 8 - A Hobart school chaplain has been sacked for re-posting a comment on Facebook that described homosexuality as "not normal".

Victoria bans religious groups from running prayer groups in state schools (ABC News)
July 31 - Victoria has banned religious organisations from running prayer groups, handing out Bibles and delivering other unauthorised information sessions in state schools during school hours.

Playing games with religion in schools (The Age, Melbourne)
Aug 3 – (Opinion: Editorial) The ancient book of Ecclesiastes teaches that there is a time and a place for everything.

Why religion deserves a place in our schools (Sydney Morning Herald) 
July 31 – (Opinion: Julie Szego) At a time when a style of bureaucratic non-speak prevails in our education system, the head of the federal government’s national curriculum review, Kevin Donnelly, is refreshingly plain-speaking.

Ethics classes rolled out to kindergarten students in New South Wales public schools (ABC News)
July 17 - Ethics classes are being introduced to kindergarten students in New South Wales public schools this week.

Jewish group fears new religious instruction rules threaten diversity in schools (Sydney Morning Herald) 
July 4 - The Jewish instruction provider for state schools is seeking legal advice to ensure its lessons remain available amid concerns new conditions will undermine cultural diversity.

Labor set to oppose school chaplaincy revival if religious links remain (The Guardian, Australia)
June 23 - Bill Shorten has signalled Labor will oppose the Abbott government’s efforts to revive the national school chaplaincy scheme if the Coalition insists on a condition the workers be affiliated with religious organisations.

Anglicans: No chaplains, scripture in public schools (Sydney Morning Herald) 
June 24 - NSW public schools should spend government funding on tackling obesity and promoting wellness and positive psychology rather than the untested chaplaincy program that are in hundreds of the state's schools, the head of Sydney's Anglican Education Commission has argued.

Commonwealth funding of school chaplaincy program struck down in High Court (ABC News)
June 19 - The High Court has upheld a challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program, ruling the law used to maintain Commonwealth funding for chaplains is unconstitutional.

Chaplaincy program has no place in state schools (Sydney Morning Herald) 
June 21 – (Opinion: Marion Maddox) If you are unhappy with an aspect of your child's public schooling, you can raise it with the teacher, or complain to the principal.

Public school exodus starts as early as year 2 (Sydney Morning Herald) 
June 14 - The stampede from public primary schools to private high schools when a child finishes year 6 is a tradition in parts of Sydney, but principals say the exodus now starts as early as year 2 as parents panic they will miss out on their school of choice.

Access Ministries uses taxpayer money to threaten parents over religious teaching (The Age, Melbourne)
May 31 - A powerful Christian organisation has threatened a small grassroots parent group with legal action for posting its religious curriculum book online.

Safe Schools program, chaplaincy scheme don't mix: experts (Sydney Morning Herald) 
June 8 - A national program to protect gay high school students from bullying and discrimination is being undermined by the Abbott government's chaplaincy scheme, according to campaigners who fear religious-based counselling puts gay pupils at risk.

Schools to lose secular welfare staff under Christian chaplaincy drive (Sydney Morning Herald) 
May 29 - The group that provides chaplains and Christian religious instruction to Victorian schools expects a surge in demand after the federal government revealed plans to remove the option for schools to hire a non-religious welfare worker.


My viewpoint is that state schools should offer courses in Comparative Religion, as well as History of Religions, by teachers trained for these purposes.

Posted by David Miller

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