The Fourth R? Religion in Schools

[This is an edited extract from an address given at St John’s Camberwell, Tuesday 19 July 2011.]

One of my clearest memories of primary school comes from early December 1980, when I was in grade 2. It was one of the few times I was in trouble at school. Usually known as the clever kid who was always well-behaved, I was in trouble because I had disrupted my weekly Religious Instruction class. Miss H., a well-meaning volunteer who, at the time, I imagined must have been at least 80, was trying to shepherd a few unruly Protestant children at one of Melbourne’s most multi-cultural schools into performing a nativity play. Unreasonably, I wanted to know why. There was no-one to see the play except ourselves, and I had heard the Christmas story a thousand times before. I misbehaved and disrupted the class, because I was bored. RI, ‘AARGH AYE’ was boring, even more boring than the mundane attempts at religious education we did in a cold, damp vestry that went under the name of Sunday School. I still owe Miss H. an apology: I know you were doing your best, and that it was intimidating to try to instruct a child who insisted to his theologically educated parents that instead of using a lectionary for family prayers, we read the Bible from start to finish. (For those who are wondering, we read a chapter a day, beginning with Genesis 1 in 1978, and finishing somewhere in Proverbs in 1982.)

By the time I got to grade 5, things had improved. The RI teacher was the local Anglican priest, and the lessons were a lot more interesting and far more skilfully delivered. There was less focus on saccharine pictures of a blond, smooth skinned Jesus from the 1930s, and more on moral and ethical questions about life. But our regular classroom teacher looked bored and ill at ease with this interloper who came into our class for only half an hour a week then disappeared.

At high school there was no religious instruction at all. Well, there was some, but it came in the form of trying to work out why all the Greek kids got an extra day off a week or two after what I thought was Easter, and why the Turkish, Lebanese and Palestinian kids weren’t at school on some days and turned up with coloured hands or empty tummies on others. I did receive some religious education outside school through various youth ministry groups run by Anglican agencies, for which I am grateful – although my brother and I always seemed to be the only children from a state school. I still can’t work out the politics and symbolism of the Anglican grammar schools.

I now work as a professional educator, in the field of theological education at university level, and with experience as a lecturer and researcher in history. As an educator, an Anglican, and a citizen of Victoria I care deeply about the religious education of our primary and secondary school children. It distresses me that religious education is seen by most children as a marginal topic taught by strangers, a topic that disappears entirely in state secondary schools. While there are two units accredited for VCE in the area of religion – ‘Texts and Traditions’, and the increasingly popular ‘Religion and Society’ – only one state school is offering one of these subjects this year.

Based on the current controversy about ACCESS Ministries, it is clear that many others in this state are equally passionate about religious education.

I make a few observations from the long history of religious education. Victorians still proclaim the cardinal values of ‘free, secular and compulsory’ education enshrined in the 1872 Education Act, though we are still debating whether ‘secular’ means ‘no religion’ or ‘no sectarianism’. Meanwhile, we are rapidly heading into older territory. The increased funding provided by both state and federal governments to non-government schools and changing patterns of parental aspirations have seen the re-emergence of a dual system of government schools and church schools not unlike that which existed in the 1860s. Although Special Religious Instruction continues to be offered in the form of Christian Religious Education in ways that are continuous with the practice of the past century, community expectations have changed in our multicultural society. To speak as ACCESS Ministries does of how ‘CRE teachers are sharing God’s love with over 130,000 young Victorians’ is interpreted in 2011 with a level of community hostility that would not have been seen in 1961. Alongside all of this is the complete death of the Sunday School movement that for over 150 years provided a further, church-based opportunity for the formal schooling of children in Christianity.

The fundamental question is whether education in religion is at all necessary to the health of contemporary Australian society. If it is, we must then ask, who should provide it – the school, the parent, or the church?

In Victoria we have four options in relation to the religious education of our children:

  1. Abandon all religious education in state schools.
  2. Abandon any interest in state school education and press for the creation of low fee church primary schools that can teach religious education.
  3. Defend the present system of special religious instruction, taught by volunteers for 30 minutes per week on a non-compulsory basis, and seek to expand the program so that all schools – even independent schools – are covered.
  4. Press for the Minister of Education, the churches, and the Australian Education Union to agree to the implementation of a general religious education curriculum across primary and secondary school, as part of the National Curriculum if possible.

My preferred option is the final one. As a citizen and as an Anglican, I support the ideal of a general religious education, in the context of social and historical studies, an ideal that can best be achieved at school under the guidance of professional, fully trained teachers. Religious education will never be without controversy, for religion is concerned with our deepest beliefs, some of our most inexplicable behaviours, and our sense of communal and individual identity. Yet I have every faith in our school teachers at primary and secondary level, in the government, Catholic and independent sectors, to do the job well. Frankly, if teachers, whatever their personal views, can teach Australian history, the subject of culture wars and intense division in relation to the colonisation of the continent and the character of our nation, they can teach religion.

I believe we can take the negative energy of the current debate about ACCESS Ministries, and turn it to a positive end. Few in our schools, churches and community realise that in the last five years an unprecedented opportunity has emerged. For the first time since the rancorous debates of the 1860s and 1870s over the very introduction of compulsory education, in fact, for the first time in the history of this state, there is a growing community consensus for the provision of non-sectarian, multi-faith religious education in Victorian schools. I am broad-minded enough to hope such a curriculum might actually include the study of secularism, athiesm and the rejection of religious belief as a significant part of our history and society.

Even the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union, which has historically been in favour of preserving the secular character of state schools, now advocates a program general religious education. At a resolution passed in May this year asking the Minister of Education to remove ACCESS Ministries from state schools, the AEU branch council nevertheless affirmed that:

Victoria is a multicultural society, which is reflected in the student population in our government schools. It is important, as part of a comprehensive curriculum, that students gain an understanding and knowledge of the role religion has played throughout our history and its influence on human society. As such, the AEU does support teaching about religions from a cultural and historical perspective, by qualified teachers, as part of an accredited curriculum program approved by the VCAA.

Most significantly, the most recent revision of the Education Act created a legislative framework for the provision of general religious education by professional teachers at section, a provision which did not previously exist. No longer do Anglicans need to pass motions in synod, nor must we press for a Royal Commission or a referendum or even a simple amendment to the Act. The legislative provision sought by Anglicans in this state ever since the 1860s now exists. This is what Lynne Kosky, the then Minister of Education, told Parliament in relation to this provision when introducing the present Act into Parliament in February 2006:

In a democratic and diverse society such as Australia, there is a widely held view that schools should enable their students to understand the religious perspectives, beliefs and cultural understandings of the people who constitute the society in which they live. This will inevitably involve an exploration of various religious beliefs. This does not mean that teachers can promote a particular religious view, but that they can discuss and explore different religious perspectives as part of delivering the Victorian curriculum.

The barriers have all been removed, and all that remains is for the churches to advocate for reform, in the institutions like ACCESS that we ourselves created, and in partnership with government and teachers.

It is time, at last, to seize this opportunity and implement the recommendations the Russell Committee handed down in 1974, allowing school teachers to teach an agreed program of religious education. Special Religious Instruction has served us for over a century as best as such a system ever could, whether in regular school hours or outside them, and we should be grateful to the Council for Christian Education in Schools, now ACCESS Ministries, for the herculean, ecumenical efforts that have ensured at least some religious content found its way into state schools. It may prove that RI continues to have a role alongside general religious education.

But let us not hang on to the past and the ways which have become ingrained, and in so doing, fail to grasp the extraordinary opportunity we now have. Yes, Christianity and the Christian scriptures’ view of God would be set alongside those of many other faiths, but I have every confidence in the capacity of my God and my church to stand up to scrutiny and comparison, and confidence in the value of a robust and diverse education to shape inquiring, discerning minds.

Let us instead imagine a world in which religion was seen as a mainstream, legitimate topic, not something that belonged on the margins, in which beliefs and spiritualities were taken seriously by teachers and students and were not an optional extra, a world in which faith was no longer relegated to thirty minutes a week.


1 Comment

Filed under Anglican Church, education, religion

One response to “The Fourth R? Religion in Schools

  1. Hear, hear!
    My husband is a Professor of Theology and I used to be a Teacher of Religious Education in the UK. I am virtually unemployable here and my husband is having to go right back to basics with people who will, in a year or so, be working in churches. Religious Education here is seen as fairy stories at best, aggressive brain-washing at worst, but doesn’t seem to actually educate. A thorough grounding in Christianity and other World Religions is not only important in the 21st century, but should be informative, interesting, exciting and life-enriching whether or not you are from any religious background.

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