Jane Wilkinson

Is there a need for multi-faith education in all Australian schools?

Australia’s diversity is frequently celebrated by politicians as a multicultural success story. Schools, particularly public schools, educating children with diverse cultural and social backgrounds, are seen as the lynchpin to such success. Yet schools and other education sites in Australia constantly confront tensions and difficulties in their efforts to be inclusive and to create a climate of social cohesion.

Our research looked at the potential and limitations of current approaches used by teachers and school leaders who work in a school community experiencing high levels of racialised, gendered and religious conflict, often fuelled by fear politics, mainly Islamophobia, in mainstream media.

What we found supports calls for critical multi-faith education courses to be taught in Australian public schools.  We believe this would be a welcome resource for teachers and schools.

Our research findings also point to the need for support and professional learning for teachers who face these complex social and religious tensions in their classrooms, schools and school communities every day.

Our research project

This research project was generated from a larger study (still to be published) that sought to examine school-level responses to social cohesion in Victorian schools. In this project we focused on one of the case studies, a small state primary school situated in an outer suburb, that we refer to as  ‘Starflower’ Primary School. It is recognised as exemplary in its efforts to support social cohesion especially in relation to fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance for students and parents of minority faiths.

Starflower Primary is located in a community (of low socio-economic status) that has experienced much change over the past thirty or so years. The cultural diversity has markedly increased from a largely white Anglo population in the 1980s to a vibrant mix of ethnic cultures where approximately 70% of students speak a language other than English. The majority of students identify as Muslim, followed by Christian and then a mix of other religions. The majority of teachers and administrators identify as Anglo-Australian. The school performs well on external and public measures of academic learning such as NAPLAN.

Although the teachers and leadership team who participated in the study generally saw the climate of Starflower Primary in a positive light, they did relay many stories of social conflict. This conflict occurred within and beyond the school community and was associated with racial, religious and gender discrimination.  For example the teachers spoke of one Muslim family who had been “chased” out of the community by an Anglo-Australian family who “used to go in and trash their house at night”. Children from both families were enrolled at the school.

They also told of gendered reactions and attitudes from “Middle Eastern” boys and men towards female staff members, including a father telling the female principal that he would not speak to her about an issue at school because she was a woman.

Our research included interviews with the school principal and leadership team, data collection and debriefing conversations with the principal. This study was largely interview-based.

Secular Christianity and Australian public education

Anxieties around terror and rising social unrest

The terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001 and those that followed have fuelled a demonizing of Muslims. As a result the Muslim community is bearing the brunt of increased levels of discrimination. Also the fear of terror has generated intense interest and resourcing (from the state) to the growing industry of countering terror and fostering social cohesion.

There has been a range of different responses to these anxieties and unrest within the context of public education in Australia

Public school policy reactions

Some of these responses have been driven by fears that schools are becoming breeding grounds for radicalisation, for example, the state-wide audit of prayer groups in all NSW public schools and the instating of training for educators to identify students who may be at risk of radicalisation.

Others are focused on security such as the Federal Government’s Schools Security Programme (2015-2018) that provides ‘at risk’ schools with funding for security infrastructure, such as CCTV.

There have also been responses that are more educative in their focus on countering religious racism, especially Islamophobia, through embedding the teaching of religious beliefs and spirituality across the curriculum.  A good example of this is the new Victorian curriculum for state schools (Foundation to Year 10) that includes Ethical Capability as a key learning area. The aim here is to broaden students’ understandings and appreciation of different religious perspectives. The content includes opportunities for critical thinking and reflection towards developing students’ capacities to apply these understandings to the investigation of ethical problems.

Teacher understandings of secularity

As outlined in the Victorian Government’s Education and Training Reform Act Australian public schools are governed by an overriding principle of secularity that does not permit the promotion of ‘any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’ but that provides for general religious education that ‘assist[s] students to understand the world around them and act with tolerance and respect towards people from all cultures’.

In our research, the first part of this definition of secularity provided justification for dismissing religion as a topic or area of discussion and learning as one teacher’s story suggests.

The teacher tells of interrupting an argument between two young Muslim girls about gender modesty and what it means to be a good Muslim. One was telling the other that she could not be a good Muslim and wear shorts to school. The teacher said her response was to tell them:-

‘…we don’t bring religion into school … Religion is personal. I don’t tell you about what religion I am. I don’t push that on you guys. And you guys should not be talking about religion here at all.’

This dismissal of religion was understood as consistent with the secular position of public schools in Australia – to not promote ‘any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’ (Victoria State Government 2017). Like fellow teachers at the school this teacher was particularly mindful of not offending the Muslim students and parents.

Another teacher from the same school commented:

I’ll be very honest, I think some [teachers] go, ‘Well, okay … we’ve accepted different cultures, but then you don’t want to respect ours’ … as one teacher said, ‘Well, it’s a state school … it’s secular’ … If you want your child brought up in the Catholic system, well, you can send them there. If you bring them to the state system, you’ve got to understand, be accepting of what goes on in that culture…

Secularity in this regard was associated with a rejection of religion – a common but narrow view based on avoiding the promotion of any particular religious practice, denomination or sect (consistent with the Education and Training Reform Act). In our research, we noted the potential for this exclusion to reinforce understandings of secularity as distinct from and oppositional to religion, within a binary where secularity is associated with rationality and objectivity and religion is associated with irrationality and subjectivity. These understandings and practices do not reflect a nuanced understanding of secularism, nor do they recognise the Christian privilege embedded within Australia’s public education system.

Christian privilege

Christian privilege plays out in Australian schools in explicit and implicit ways. Explicitly, it plays out through the National Chaplaincy Program (which provides funding for schools to employ a chaplain but is primarily serviced by Christian organisations) and the conducting of religious instruction classes during school hours, which is predominantly un-regulated and delivered by evangelical religious groups.

Implicitly, it plays out through the normalising of practices (sometimes masquerading as secular) such as timetabling around the Christian calendar which does not recognise non-Christian occasions and days of worship, curriculum choices that reflect Eurocentric (typically Christian) perspectives, standards and values, and dietary norms, which tend not to include Kosher or Halal foods. Such structures and practices reflect an infusing of Christian hegemony that reinforces the marginality and stereotyping of non-Christian religions.

Educating for religious inclusion and social cohesion

Teachers are not well equipped

Schools are confronted daily with new and increasingly complex forms of racial, religious and gender conflict. What our research indicates is that teachers are not well equipped to productively respond to and address some of the contentions arising from the cultural and religious diversity in our classrooms.

Teachers’ personal beliefs and perceptions about secularity and religion are significant in shaping their practice and relations with students. Engaging in ongoing self-critique is a crucial personal resource that is necessary for teachers to identify how their beliefs might impact on countering or contributing to racialised, gendered, religious-based or other oppressions.

Teachers require ongoing, regular and targeted support and professional learning to develop the personal resources and pedagogic skills to support their students’ critical understandings of religious and non-religious views

An interpretive, reflexive, critical and student-centred approach is needed

Such teaching requires a particular level of content knowledge about religious, secular, philosophical and ethical concepts that are important for facilitating informed and critical discussions that can broaden students’ understandings and appreciation of different perspectives on the world.

Important here is an interpretive, reflexive, critical and student-centred approach that

1) is inclusive of, and sensitive to, the views and beliefs of students from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds;

2) adopts an interpretive approach where there is the opportunity for productive discussion around multiple perspectives;

3) is conducted in a ‘safe space’ where students feel comfortable to express their views but where there are agreed ‘ground rules’ to moderate behaviour (such as respect for others, democratic process and due regard for accuracy);

 4) reflects a spirit of openness in which personal views or theoretical positions are not imposed upon students; and

5) encourages an attitude of critical enquiry

Such an approach reflects potential in teaching for religious inclusion and social cohesion. It can engender a sense of belonging and acceptance in relation to religious identities.

As professor of sociology at Monash University, Gary Bouma, argues

 ‘for Australia to continue to be a harmonious culturally and religiously diverse society, it is in our national interest to invest in multi-faith education as a strategy to promote social inclusion’.

Rolling out multi-faith education and support for such education across Australia would take commitment and dedicated funding from our governments. We believe it would be an invaluable investment in ensuring the continuation of Australia’s multicultural success story.

Amanda Keddie is a Research Professor at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). She leads the program Children, Young People and their Community within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities, teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-political trends. Amanda is on Twitter@amandaMkeddie

Jane Wilkinson is Associate Dean for Graduate Research, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia and Associate Professor Educational Leadership. Jane’s main research and teaching interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice and practice theory (feminist, Bourdieuian and practical philosophy). Jane has conducted extensive research with refugee students, schools and universities in regional and urban Australia. Her most recent study examines the role played by school and community leaders in building social cohesion. Jane’s new books include: Educational leadership as a culturally-constructed practice: New directions and possibilities (with Laurette Bristol, Routledge, 2018); and Navigating complex spaces: Refugee background students transitioning into higher education (with Loshini Naidoo, Misty Adoniou and Kip Langat, Singapore: Springer, 2018).Jane is lead editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the editorial boards, Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice; Journal of Gender Studies and International Journal of Leadership in Education.

Dr Lucas Walsh is Professor of Education Policy and Practice, Youth Studies, and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His work explores responses to the questions: what does the world beyond school look like for young people and what types of education and training do they need to navigate it? He is currently a chief investigator on The Q Project (Quality Use of Evidence Driving Quality Education) funded by The Paul Ramsay Foundation. Recent books include Educating Generation Next (Palgrave), and with Rosalyn Black, Rethinking Youth Citizenship after the Age of Entitlement (Bloomsbury) and Imagining Youth Futures: University Students in Post-Truth Times (Springer). He next book with Amanda Third, Philippa Collin, and Rosalyn Black is Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift (Palgrave Macmillan).

Dr Luke Howie is Senior Lecturer, Politics and International Relations, School of Social Sciences at Monash University and Deputy Director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC).

Read more about our research in our paper …we don’t bring religion into school’: issues of religious inclusion and social cohesion

What Finland wants to learn from Australian schools

Finnish schools do well in international rankings, but few Finnish teachers, parents and students really care about it very much. Finland cares much more about the wellbeing and happiness of their children. As I am a teacher from Finland, currently working with schools and universities in Australia, I have experienced this first hand. Generally, teachers in Finland care more about how their students are faring in the world rather than how the world feels about their students. Tom Stehlik explained this very well in a post on this blog as ‘pedagogical love’.

So you might wonder what Finland can learn from Australia when it comes to working with children. But it is what you do with refugee children specifically that drew me to Australia. I came to Australia from Finland to learn more about how you settle refugee students in schools in ways that makes them happy.

I knew Australian schools do something extraordinary with migrant students because Australia, together with Canada, lead the way in supporting the feeling of belonging and wellbeing of its migrant students. I also knew that Australia’s history in resettling large numbers of refugees is much longer than Finland’s. As Finland is now becoming a home to many more refugees due to the global refugee crisis, I thought that Finland could learn important lessons from Australia. I am not talking about Australia’s truly shameful treatment of the asylum seekers who have been detained on Manus Island and Nauru, but in its progressive ways of resettling refugees.

Despite the well-documented issues of settling refugee children into schools into Australia, there is another story. I wanted to find out what Australian schools did in the learning journeys of their refugee children that made them feel supported in their schooling and at the same time look at what Finnish schools were doing to help their refugee children. I do this in collaboration with Jane Wilkinson at Monash University, building on Jane’s previous work exploring refugee students’ success stories.

Asking the children about their learning journeys

We started exploring stories of refugee education by asking teachers in Australia and Finland to nominate ‘successful’ students with a refugee background. Teachers were asked to consider success in the broadest possible sense, including academic achievement, school wellbeing and a range of ‘flourishing’ that is difficult for a researcher to see but might be easy for an engaged teacher to identify.

We then asked the nominated 45 students (25 of whom were in Australia and 20 in Finland, between six and 17 years of age) to draw a picture of their school journey before and after their migration, marking moments when they had felt happy or successful in their learning, and to identify key people who had played a role in their learning journey.


After that, we interviewed the students based on their drawings. With our guiding questions (What happened here? Who helped you here? How did this make you feel?) the children talked about and around their moments of success, helping us understand what had made a difference in their educational journeys. This data was complemented by classroom observations and interviews with teachers and leaders in the schools.

Significant moments were not always at school

As we anticipated, children’s learning journeys were not limited to schools. Significant moments took place at detention camps, rainforests, reception centres, mosques or homes. First steps of the journeys were mostly painted in dark colours; dangerous sea crossings, dead family members, fear and abuse were common themes. However, all these educational journeys had taken an upward direction. Much of this was explained by what Tom Stehlik wants to see more of in Australian schools. To me it was various forms of pedagogical love: the different ways love appears to exist in schools.

Messages from the refugee children in Australia and their teachers

What we found at one Australian primary school in a disadvantaged neighbourhood is a good example of how pedagogical love is happening with refugee children in some Australian schools. The school does not shine in its NAPLAN results, which is not surprising considering that 90% of the students speak English as an additional language. Rather than teaching for the test and improving the results artificially, there was an explicit attempt not to do it. Instead, the school invested in caring relationships, safety and belonging, believing that they are prerequisites for learning.

One of the teachers told us about her approach in working with a young refugee student:

He needs mothering, he needs fathering, he needs socializing, he needs – so, it’s yeah, positive reinforcement, prizes and I’ll use the word love because I think that that’s what they need, ultimately.

This teacher showed her love by spraying magic mist over her sometimes-restless group. It was insignificant that there was just water in the spray bottle; the love effect was immediate.

Another teacher learned to do a Sikh boy’s hair so that he could go to a school camp, and a third teacher organised support for a mourning child who lost her beloved cat. All teachers showed their love by not only teaching the curriculum, but also being available for the whole child. The was not done at the expense of students’ academic growth. We work on prioritising the wellbeing of children without sacrificing high expectations of learners, as one of the educational leaders noted.

This did not go unnoticed by their students. One of the girls recalls her early experiences in the school:

My teacher was very nice, so like, “Whenever you need help, put your hands up.” And I was like, why? She was like, “Put your hand up and say ‘help’.” I was like, ‘help’, every day; I was just checking her that she would come or not.

Another special mention goes to a teacher who:

was also nice. She was kind. She made me calm down. When somebody bullies or fights, she made us calm down. Not with a ruler but because she was kind.

One boy summarises what many of the students communicated in different ways:

In this school, in this school they don’t actually hit, they actually help, so that’s what I wanted.

It is about pedagogical love

Paulo Freire wrote in his Letter to Those Who Dare to Teach:

It is impossible to teach without the courage to love, without the courage to try a thousand times before giving in. In short, it is impossible to teach without a forged, invented and well-thought-out capacity to love.

Almost a century earlier, a Finnish scholar Uno Cygnaeus noted that:

Every teacher has to blaze with the spirit of sacred love. Sacred love that does not seek its own, that does not look at the present but the future; love that can even punish when considered necessary. That kind of love towards pupils has to smolder in a teacher’s heart. That kind of teacher’s love affects the whole school in a protecting way.

I think teaching without love is possible, there are many examples of that, but as Finnish and Australian, as well as other international research, has shown time and again, teaching with love makes more sense. Pedagogical love (and common sense!) requires that teachers do not hit, that they are available, care, and that they show it. Successful teaching depends on relationships so concerns with relationships need to come before any concerns with performance, efficiency or “excellence”. It means that teachers and leaders engage in their work holistically, with their own whole persona, thinking what makes sense for each individual student at that moment.

As love-rhetoric sits awkwardly in the present day educational discourse, the word can be rephrased as warmth, engagement or positive school climate, all of which can be reduced to love; the quality of relationships between people in the school, or at least, to a niche where love can find root and grow.

NAPLAN cannot measure this essential part of schooling

Bringing love into Australian schools would require working against the grain of Australia’s current strict, performance-based guidelines. Standards and measurements overlook (if not kill) love. NAPLAN does not measure student or parent satisfaction, wellbeing or the quality of relationships. The MySchool website does not show how happy or engaged students are. Neither does PISA. No standardised test can really capture what goes on in schools, how students feel and how well teachers do their work.

I don’t know what is behind Finland’s PISA success, but trusting teachers’ interpretation (rather than tests) on what does and should happen in schools might be one reason. There is no shortage of excellent, caring and loving teachers in either Australia or Finland, but a system like Finland’s with less concern with standards, and so much less testing, leaves teachers with more time to do what they think matters for their students.

I am not suggesting there would be a single reason behind any refugee student’s educational success or wellbeing at school, but I believe pedagogical love plays a major part. I think Australia’s politicians and policy makers should be paying much more attention to the growing bank of research evidence in this field.


Mervi Kaukko and Jane Wilkinson from Monash University will be presenting today on their research ‘In this school they don’t actually hit, they actually teach’ at the 2017 AARE Conference in Canberra.

Dr Mervi Kaukko is a researcher, teacher and teacher educator from Finland. Mervi has been a visiting researcher at Monash University since July 2016. Her research, conducted in collaboration with Associate Professor Jane Wilkinson, explores educational practices which support refugee students in school. Mervi’s previous research focuses on global education, unaccompanied minors, children’s participation and children’s rights. Mervi starts as a lecturer at Monash University in 2018. Mervi is reporting on her research at the 2017 AARE conference today.


The theme of the 2017 AARE conference is ‘Education: What’s politics got to do with it?’ There will be over 600 presentations of current educational research and panel sessions at the conference which runs all this week in Canberra. Journalists who want to attend or arrange interviews please contact Anna Sullivan, Communications Manager of AARE, Anna.Sullivan@unisa.edu.au or our editor Maralyn Parker, maralyn@aare.edu.au

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