Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Religion in the state school curriculum


Anglo-Catholic dictionary definition page

The recent Victorian government decision to remove Religious Instruction classes from the formal school curriculum, and to only allow schools to carry out classes before or after school or at lunchtime, has reignited debates about the place of religion in state controlled schools.

On one hand The Age editorial supports the change when it states: 'Some 143 years after Victoria's Education Act made clear that education must be free, secular and compulsory, the Andrews government has committed to abolishing special religious instruction classes during school hours. That is as it should be'.

Rob Ward from Access Ministries, the main provider of Religious Instruction classes, on the other hand as reported in The Age, is quoted as disagreeing when he argues: 'The decision seems to emphasise secularism at the expense of faith'.

In relation to being secular it is true that state-based legislation forbids government schools from teaching about religion.  In Victoria, for example, the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 states: 'education in government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect'.

The Western Australian School Education Act section 68(1a) argues in a similar vein when it states: 'curriculum and teaching in government schools is not to promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect'.

Ignored, though, is the fact that the various state governments, while arguing that state schools should not promote one religion or belief system over another, accept that there is a place for religion in the school curriculum.  Both in terms of Religious Instruction and also by being incorporated into subjects like history, literature, music and the arts.

The NSW legislation requires state schools to offer religious education classes for 'children of any religious persuasion' and the Victorian legislation requires students to be taught 'about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world'.

In its submission to last year’s review of the Australian national curriculum, a Foundation to Year 10 curriculum currently being implemented by all the states and territories, the body responsible for designing the curriculum, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, also argues that students have the right to be taught abut 'different religions, spiritualities and ethical beliefs'.

The Melbourne Declaration, the road map used by the various state, territory and commonwealth education ministers when formulating education policy, also argues that Australian students, whether in government or non-government schools, need 'to understand the spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life'.

Clearly, the fact that various state based legislation argues education in government schools, as apposed to non-government faith-based schools, should be secular in nature does not exclude Religious Instruction classes or incorporating religion in the broader curriculum.

What might this involve?  In relation to the broader school curriculum many of the submissions to the national curriculum review argue that as Judeo-Christianity is one of the world’s major religions, certainly in relation to its impact on Western civilisation and Australia’s development as a nation, that there needs to be a greater emphasis.

The submission by the Anglican Education Commission in Sydney argues: 'Our justice, government, education, health and general welfare systems are all established on the Judeo-Christian foundation of this civilisation'.

The Catholic Education Commission of Victoria puts a similar case when arguing that the moral and ethical teachings associated with Judeo-Christianity: 'are the foundations of our liberal democracy'.

A number of other submissions, including one from Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, argue that as Australia is increasingly a multi-faith, multi-cultural society that students should be familiar with and understand a range of religions including but not restricted to Judeo-Christianity.

To argue that religions should have a greater place in the school curriculum is not to proselytise.  Rather it is to recognise, while we are a secular society, that students need to encounter a more transcendent sense of life that incorporates a strong moral, spiritual and ethical dimension.

As argued by T S Eliot in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, it is also the case that religion is a fundamental aspect of any culture and if students are to be culturally literate religion needs to be incorporated in the formal curriculum.

Andrew Hamilton

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he co-chaired the Commonwealth Government’s Review of the Australian national curriculum.

Dictionary page image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Kevin Donnelly, education, curriculum, schools, religion



submit a comment

Existing comments

Some years back, on behalf of non catholic and catholic reverends I confronted a high school headmaster in NSW with an ultimatum to give back our Religious Ed classrooms [reduced without notice to a paltry minimum] or all ministers and myself would man the pulpits and voice our anguish . We did so, and the following week we had more classrooms than needed. The headmaster revealed he was under pressure from unions. Thus NSW law needed watching! [ An innocent primary headmistress nervously asked if her school was the offender! Whatever State don't cave in too readily on catechesis.Viva coal face ecumenism!

Father John George | 28 August 2015  

For six years, alongside an Anglican friend, I taught SRE to kindergarten children in the state school system. We were both committed and enthusiastic about this task. Invariably, when introducing ourselves at the start of a new school year I would ask the children, "Who has heard of God?" and, usually, quite a few didn't raise their hands. SRE is a vital ministry and churches need to be much more professional in preparing, and supervising, volunteers. A well-prepared curriculum is so necessary, and churches need to ensure that the curriculum is being followed in a purposeful and dispassionate way. Volunteers are absolutely essential to the organisation of any school, and scripture teachers need the support and training that's necessary to equip them for that ministry. It's time for churches to stand up on this issue.

Pam | 28 August 2015  

This recent Victorian government decision may not be the culmination of a process whereby the number of students taking SRI has gradually been reduced. There are interested parties who would like anything to do with the Western Judaeo-Christian religio-spiritual heritage removed completely. There are other interested parties who would have it otherwise. I suspect this decision will leave everyone unhappy. T S Eliot was very strong on the moral influence Christianity had on Western Culture. Obviously religion cannot be taught the same way in state schools as it is in Catholic, or other faith schools. But there is a way that familiarity with a diversity of religious traditions, including Australian Indigenous Religious Beliefs, Christianity and Other World Religions could enrich both the curriculum and students' lives. That is probably the approach to the curriculum we should take. I think voluntary religious education, outside core study times, by appropriately vetted providers, should continue to be offered.

Edward Fido | 28 August 2015  

A good, informed article, but even the writer himself seems to get confused at one point between promoting religion and teaching ABOUT it: "In relation to being secular it is true that state-based legislation forbids government schools from teaching about religion. In Victoria, for example, the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 states: 'education in government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect'. That first sentence is later contradicted within his own article: "Ignored, though, is the fact that the various state governments, while arguing that state schools should not promote one religion or belief system over another, accept that there is a place for religion in the school curriculum."

Robert Canning | 28 August 2015  

To say "The decision seems to emphasise secularism at the expense of faith." is disingenuous as secularism is really about creating equality for faiths and none. And the decision is not excluding faith from schools: SRI can still occur in and around schools. Likewise to say " state-based legislation forbids government schools from teaching about religion" is not entirely true. As noted Victoria's Education and Training Reform Act 2006 states: 'education in government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect'. And NSW includes General Religious Education in the curriculum. Appealing to 'Judeo-Christianity' as tradition is also somewhat disingenuous: it is a post World War 2 construct (and probably a response to diminish traditions that contributed to the Holocaust and events leading up to it).

GraeMac | 29 August 2015  

I am not sure just what this writer is trying to say apart from the point he makes towards the end of this article when he says, "many of the submissions to the national curriculum review argue that as Judeo-Christianity is one of the world’s major religions, certainly in relation to its impact on Western civilisation and Australia’s development as a nation, that there needs to be a greater emphasis (words missing _ I guess 'on teaching it'). I might be presumptuous but it appears the writer agrees with this point. I personally am not so sure this view fits our society anymore and in fact contributes to the treatment in this country of those of other religious traditions and sadly those seeking to come here from 'non-Christian' countries.

Tom | 31 August 2015  

Those who campaign against religious education (and faith-based schools are also in their sights) risk creating high levels of religious illiteracy, leaving more people vulnerable to folk religion at the best and destructive cults at the worst.

Peter Green | 31 August 2015  

Perhaps I am mistaken but I had the idea Australia was a Christian country founded on Christian principles, the teaching of which should be maintained in our schools. There is a lot in the school curriculum that I disapprove of considering the ages of students studying literature/English. Students need a balance between what they read and how they should act. It always astounds me that the Catholic Church espouses Labor government when that government has abolished religion in schools, lowered the age of consent, lowered the age of drinking and introduced the appalling Family Law Court, backed by Justice Murphy.

shirley McHugh | 31 August 2015  

As a taxpaying supporter of public schooling, I am comfortable with the idea of teaching 'about' religions in secular schools but would want to draw the line at religious 'instruction'. As a traditional Catholic, for example, I can see that there are both merits and shortcomings in the historical record of my Judeo-Christian heritage, but I can also see that aside from their shortcomings, there are also considerable merits in the teachings and practices of other great religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Instruction in any one of them, however, tends to err on the side of indoctrination. One person's faith is too often another person's superstition. For that reason, in my view, faith-based religious teaching should have no place in a secular education system.

Paul Begley | 31 August 2015  

I am deeply saddened by the loss of RE or Scripture as we used to call it. I had many happy experiences teaching in state schools. Recently at my book club one of the Mums complained bitterly that her son had been discriminated against because a literature exam question included one referring to a Judas and her child didn't know what that meant. Her argument was that she didn't want her child to know about those awful things. I checked out the book, one by a much acclaimed secular writer and could see no reason why a teenager shouldn't be alerted to the fact that some people cannot be trusted. The whole of society will be the loser when a teacher must not use a text that contains any reference to any religion. We are heading in a very sad direction and it is time to slow down and learned that life is full of traps for the unwary.

Margaret McDonald | 31 August 2015  

Pam's comment on volunteer education is an important one. I have been in an ecumenical situation where a sect managed to get control with some very bad consequences fortunate the ministers and principals were able to repair the situation. I have also been in a situation where a teacher with no religious interest always quietly found things to do in the room where the class included several almost uncontrollable boys.

Margaret McDonald | 31 August 2015  

Whilst a Pastoral Associate in Far North Queensland some years ago , I was asked to take some SRE at the local Primary for Yr 7 . I enjoyed the experience and so did the students. We had a well organised curriculum , the support of the Head, the classroom teacher ( who would have enjoyed sitting back and watching) as well as the local church leaders. I believe having a teaching background, as I have, and theological study (in my case at Masters Level - maybe a bit too high?) certainly helped me in the task. You have to strictly stick to the task and prepare your lessons properly , so pushing your own barrow is definitely out of order!

Gavin | 31 August 2015  

Kevin Donnelly states that 'many of the submissions to the national curriculum review argue that as Judeo-Christianity is one of the world’s major religions ... there needs to be a greater emphasis'. The news is that Judaism and Christianity are actually separate religions! This unfortunate conflation could be quite offensive to many Jews, for obvious reasons. Somewhat ironic that a howler like this appears in a piece advocating increased religious literacy ...

Barry | 31 August 2015  

The study of religions is critical metaphysics a branch of philosophy. I applaud more incorporation of philosophy in education. It encourages looking at different methodologies or modes of thinking. Philosophy gives connects subjects - the social sciences with sciences with maths with music with literature. The issue being - the teaching of religion, religious instruction is not the same. It does not achieve the same means nor the same educational outcome.

DWalsh | 31 August 2015  

I'm glad that SRE has been banished. As it seems to be taught at present, it has no place in a secular school. However, I pity children (and future societies) where children have no access at school knowledge of the ethical systems that hold us together. I can't see, from the Premier's announcement, that there's any replacement program for SRI ready and waiting, or teachers properly qualified to teach it. Victoria is about to throw out the baby with the bathwater. (I'll be happy to admit I'm wrong if a call goes out to draw up a curriculum that enshrines the ethical principles of our nation, with adequate teacher training an essential support). I think I'm reluctantly coming back to the idea that Catholic Schools are a Good Thing, after all.

Joan Seymour | 31 August 2015  

There has always been confusion about "religion" in Australia. I came out from England in the 1950's.. in England the Church was established and what was taught in the classroom was all part of the inherited Western culture. What took place in the Chapel was about personal involvement. I found that in the 1950's clergy in Australia still thought of their half hour in the classroom as an opportunity to "Convert" which still happens with Sydney based evangelicals. In Victoria with the "Council of christian education " syllabus it was forbidden to "indoctrinate or proselatyse

john ozanne | 31 August 2015  

Peter Green: The more religous literacy the better. We need to know where we've been and how we got here, where ever that is. What do you mean by 'folk religion'? Witch magic? UFO and elfin mist questers? Any indigenous practice for which no rational western scientific justification has been yet found for? On the subject of the dangerous its not only the obvious cults that are destructive. And do we define something as a cult because it encourages self destructive behaviour? Where does that leave martyrdom, like those monks burning themselves in early days of Vietnam War? Unhappily its hard to see a single belief system or religion which has not evolved a power structure capable and at times prone to perpetrate abuse and harm on its believers most of all. Or those who diverge ever so slightly from the current correct line. What do you think is behind people's ease with belief in nonsense like Templars Gold & banker jewish market maguses? You can see from all this there is a wealth of interesting stuff to teach and study, without proselatizing! Kids'd love it! Maybeeee that's why they want to decommission it. Someone might learn to think.

Jaq | 31 August 2015  

The influence of religions in the world is enormous. Accordingly, all children's education should include an understanding of the beliefs and values of the main religions. Christianity has been fundamental to our nation's development and to our various institutions and welfare generally. It is important that this information be acknowledged and given due recognition in the education of the major faiths. Would an understanding of Islam include a study of how ISIS has come about? I have a problem with this because this is a complex topic to consider objectively. From my perspective it would then be necessary to include Christian fundamentalism and its role, e.g., in the invasion of Iraq.

Anna | 31 August 2015  

“It’s not the man that finds the truth, but the truth that finds the man. Because the truth is a man, Jesus Christ.” St Ambrose to St Augustine in the movie Restless Heart. Or if you can't work that one out, sooner or later, "He that is of God hears God's words." John

AO | 31 August 2015  

Hi Barry, you argue against using the expression Judeo-Christianity - strange then that His Holiness the Pope uses the same description.

Kevin Donnelly | 02 September 2015  

Barry, the use of the term "Judeo-Christian" is quite in order since both Judaism and Chrsitianity share a common father in faith, Abraham, are monotheistic religions and have a moral basis in the Decalogue. Pope Pius XII also said: "Spiritually we are all Semites."

John | 02 September 2015  

I couldn't agree more. But this is not a licence to proselytise, simply to educate, and until schools and provider organisations such as Access Ministries make that clear to their trainees AND agree to remove them from their responsibilities if they transgress, then I will continue to support the government stance

geoff Duke | 04 September 2015  

I have a sense that what's being offered is a compulsory study of ethics and the role religion has played throughout human history. And voluntary clubs which engage in specific religious cultural practices which aid the spiritual strengthening of participants. The presence of people wanting to offer this, and voluntary attendance at their sessions are powerful.

helen cantwell | 04 September 2015