The topic of whether religion should be taught in public schools has been an ongoing cause of rancour since the late 19th century when the first classes were held. In recent years it has become a clearly defined battleground for opposing religious and secular interests.
In this blog post I want to have a closer look at how this battle has panned out in New South Wales and Victoria, our two most populous Australian states, and the implications this has, more widely, for how we deal with vested interests in schooling in Australia.
The New South Wales pathway
New South Wales public education has allowed religious education since the late 1800’s. About a century later the state included the provision of Special Religious Education (SRE) in the Education Act (1990) which explained thatIn every government school, time is to be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion.
Children whose parents did not identify a religion were effectively marooned by this provision. While the SRE classes took place these children were not allowed to undertake meaningful learning activities. Instead they were told to do their homework, read a book or play board games.
A direct backlash to the way non-religious students were not allowed to undertake learning activities was The Education Amendment (Ethics Classes Repeal) Bill in 2011. This gave parents the option of having their child attend Special Education in Ethics (SEE) classes instead.
The act goes into detail: it states that there should be between 30 minutes and 1 hour of class time provided for either SRE or SEE each week, and parents should receive information about the classes, who will deliver it, and how it will be organised.
The ethics classes emphasise the idea of a Socratic dialogue. Students are encouraged to enter into a community of inquiry and discussion. According to Primary Ethics (who devise the curriculum):
Most of the topics in the curriculum provide students with the opportunity to develop increasingly sophisticated knowledge and skills in moral reasoning. Children in the younger primary years examine topics such as being left out, sharing and bullying, while older children reflect on issues such as homelessness and child labour to help them consider the feelings and interests of others – one important aspect of moral reasoning.
The ethics classes have been very popular. In 2013, 8,500 students attended ethics classes in New South Wales. By 2014, more than 20, 000 students were enrolled. Alyssa Kelly, the manager of Primary Ethics (who provide the curriculum) said, ‘What we aim to do is provide children who are sitting in non-scripture with something productive to do with their time.’
Not surprisingly, faith-based groups who have traditionally taught the SRE classes have strongly opposed the new SEE classes. In fact, there have been accusations that NSW Premier Mike Baird has recently done a deal with Christian Democratic Party leader, Fred Nile, to have the SEE class option removed from the NSW Public School Enrolment form.
This appears to be true – a cursory examination of the enrolment form shows that there is a box for parents to write their child’s religion in, which will mean that child will be automatically enrolled into the appropriate SRE class if available. However, if a parent wants to enrol their child into SEE, then the parent is required to contact the school for further information. This is a change to an older version of the form, which had a box available for parents to tick to indicate that they wanted their child to attend SEE classes.
The Victorian pathway
In contrast, Victoria has recently taken the unprecedented move of scrapping all Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes from instructional time in state schools starting in 2016, stating that extra curricular activities such as SRI should not take place during instructional time. This means that SRI is still available in Victorian public schools, but only during lunch times or before or after school. The time previously devoted to SRI will now be focused on world histories, cultures and ethics.
Again, this move has outraged proponents of SRI, who feel that the Andrews government has broken a pre-election promise to support SRI in Victorian public schools. This comes after the state government changed the way parents enrol in SRI classes: whereas previously it was opt-out, it is now opt-in to SRI classes, which as seen enrolments plunge 42% over two years.
Public schools as the battleground for vested interests
I see the Religious Education and Ethics battles as examples of the way vested interests seek to use the public school system to further their own ends. Public school teachers and students are caught up in these particular power struggles.
It’s not just about religion and ethics. In the last couple of years, students and teachers around Australia have been asked to address a whole host of different issues that are add-ons to the main curriculum – from identifying potential terrorists, to educating about domestic violence, to addressing drug and alcohol issues. There are many other examples of schools being required to address social issues. It is a process that is known as educationalisation.
Some of these proposals are accepted with a minimum of conflict, while others, like Ethics and Religious Education as discussed above are far more controversial and have led to specific legislation being imposed on public schooling.
What is missing is evidence that these programs are effective
What has been largely absent from such discussions are the efficacy of these kinds of programs; that is, does teaching students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol make them less likely to abuse these substances? In terms of the discussion above, what effect does the teaching of either ethics or religion have upon students, the school or the wider community, and how might such effect be measured? For example, does teaching students about ethics make them more likely to be ethical? Does teaching religion encourage students to be more caring and less immoral or ‘sinful’? Is there any effect upon the behaviours of adults? Do these classes lead to lower crime rates or more harmonious societies?
Fortunately, there has been research into the effects of educationalisation as a whole. This research suggests that there is little effect from such programs, and, indeed, they might even be counter-productive. Stanford University professor, David Labaree, has written about this issue in the American context. For him, the conclusion is clear:
Yet education has been remarkably unsuccessful at carrying out these missions. It has done very little to promote equality of race, class, and gender; to enhance public health, economic productivity, and good citizenship; or to reduce teenage sex, traffic deaths, obesity, and environmental destruction. In fact, in many ways it has had a negative effect on these problems by draining money and energy away from social reforms that might have had a more substantial impact.
Labaree goes on to explain why these programs are failures. In short, he argues that they fail because we put these ideas into the education system to be seen to be taking action rather than actually addressing the social ills:
We assign formal responsibility to education for solving our most pressing social problems in light of our highest social ideals, with the tacit understanding that by educationalizing these problem-solving efforts we are seeking a solution that is more formal than substantive. We are saying that we are willing to accept what education can produce — new programs, new curricula, new institutions, new degrees, new educational opportunities — in place of solutions that might make real changes in the ways in which we distribute social power, wealth, and honor.
In other words, we are seeking the appearance of a solution to these problems rather than an actual solution. In this way, we make education a ‘whipping boy’ that is often blamed for the failures of society.
Labaree doesn’t specifically mention ethics or religious instruction but I imagine that he would be as equally contemptuous of their role in schools. Surely, then, it is time to not just question whether religious instruction or ethics classes have a role in schools, but what that role might actually be – and how well these classes are fulfilling that role.
For example, if there is an argument to be made that religious classes help children, through the lens of faith deal with major issues ‘including self-esteem, loss, caring for the environment, and coping with change’ (Whysre, 2016) then it would be appropriate to ask how effectively the classes do this. If, as Labaree suggests, they are not effective, then it is important to question whether such classes still have a role in public schooling.
The same argument can be made about ethics classes although their relatively recent arrival does make it harder to argue that they have addressed any social ills. Ethics Classes claims that children will be taught “to consider other people’s points of view and to be sincere, reasonable and respectful in dealing with their differences and disagreements” (Primary Ethics: Our Curriculum, 2016). As taxpayers, we have a right to question if these lessons are successful – and if there are no obvious results, then it is equally within our remit to question if they are of any benefit to public school children.
Perhaps, we are now in a position where studying the effects of religious and ethics instruction in schools might be possible, at least when comparing students from New South Wales and Victoria. As outlined above, the changes that are taking place in both public education systems might well provide us with some evidence in the future.
At the very least, this could be a starting point for a wider debate about educationalisation in Australian public schooling.
Keith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney.