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 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