Teaching of Religion in Victorian Government schools ought to reflect the growing mutifaith nature of the community and the wishes of the parents, writes Dr Anna Halafoff, Vice- Chair of Religions for Peace Australia
While the role of religion in Australian schools has been vigorously debated since the 1870s, it has recently generated considerable controversy, particularly in the State of Victoria. Despite the Victorian Government’s positive record of promoting multifaith engagement, Christian volunteers – provided by ACCESS Ministries – currently teach 96% of students enrolled in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes in Victoria’s Government schools. Faith communities, including Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Baha’is and Greek Orthodox, also provide SRI taught by accredited volunteers. Concerns have been raised that the exclusive nature of these programs, coupled with an emphasis on instruction into a particular religious tradition, is problematic in an increasingly multifaith society such as Victoria. In addition, while the 2006 Victorian Education and Training Reform Act finally allowed the teaching of General Religious Education (GRE) in Government schools, GRE programs have yet to be developed and implemented.
Numerous voices have entered the religion in schools debate in 2011 including parent groups, academics, religious communities, humanists and secularists. Despite the differences between these groups, there is growing support for a General Religion and Ethics Education (GREE) program to be taught by qualified teachers in state schools, as opposed to students receiving instruction into a particular faith tradition by religious volunteers. The public outcry in the media – in newspapers, on radio, TV, twitter and facebook – against SRI in Victoria can no longer be ignored. As the new National Curriculum is currently being developed, and the need for appreciation of religious diversity has been given a prominent place within its mission statement, the debate is timely.
Optimistically, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) has recently announced a couple of significant changes to their SRI policy. Whereas previously students who chose not to attend SRI couldn’t engage in any meaningful activity, DEECD (2011) has now declared that schools must: ‘ensure that students who do not attend SRI are appropriately supervised by teachers, and engaged in positive, independent learning such as self-study, including revision or other activities, for example, community service, peer mentoring, participation in clubs or instruction in areas outside the core curriculum’.
Moreover, DEECD has also altered the form in which parents specify whether or not they wish for their children to take SRI classes. Previously, if a family didn’t return their form within 14 days the student would automatically be placed into an ACCESS Ministries’ SRI class. This is no longer the case, as these students will now participate in alternate activities as described above. This is a much fairer system, whereby only students who elect to take SRI will be placed in whichever class their parents specify, for example, either an ACCESS-Christian, Buddhist or Jewish SRI program.
ACCESS Ministries’ classes are therefore no longer the default SRI option, and their number of enrollments is expected to fall dramatically. Currently ACCESS Ministries is the only SRI provider that receives government funding for their programs. Consequently, several calls have been made for this funding to be distributed more fairly among all of the SRI providers and for all SRI programs to be better monitored and evaluated by the DEECD.
However, even if SRI programs were funded more equitably, and more SRI options were available in each school this would create an administrative nightmare for schools and teachers. In addition, the question that many parents and scholars are currently posing is whether religious instruction should be occurring in Government schools at all, funded by taxpayers’ money, or whether it should be the responsibility of religious communities themselves, to be offered in religious centers such as churches, temples and synagogues and funded by religious groups.
Consequently some scholars and community members have argued for a shift away from SRI to GREE. Both the UK and Québec no longer provide religious instruction in schools but rather a more general religious or religious and ethics education, which is part of the curriculum and taught by qualified teachers. In these models all students learn about diverse religions and in Québec they are also provided with ethics education. GREE could be developed and taught as a separate subject in Victoria or it could be woven through subjects such as History, Geography, Citizenship and Intercultural Education. Indeed, Australia’s new National Curriculum will include studies of religions across these learning areas. As briefly described above there is broad-based community support for including GREE in Government schools, and Victorian legislation has allowed for both SRI and GRE to be delivered since 2006, although the DEECD have yet to make a significant commitment to the development of a GRE(E) program and/or resources.
Finally, many faith community leaders and educators are in favour of providing both SRI and GREE in Victoria’s Government schools. Minority and majority faith communities have worked hard to establish their SRI programs and feel strongly that they are providing a service to their community members, which is worth preserving, by assisting with the faith formation of children who cannot afford to attend private religious schools. They are, however, increasingly realising that there is a corresponding need to provide GREE programs to promote greater levels of religious literacy and interreligious understanding in Australia.
There is no doubt that there are sufficient concerns to warrant a review of the way that religion is taught in Victorian schools to derive, through a consultative process, an more equitable model of SRI and/or GREE that is better suited to meet the needs of an increasingly multifaith Victoria. The danger currently facing societies such as ours is that ignorance about religions leads to the kinds of disrespect that greatly undermines social inclusion strategies and places our common security at risk. As religions are playing an increasingly prominent role in public life, there is a growing need to counter this ignorance and advance a greater level of interreligious awareness, respect and understanding, among young people in particular.
Dr Anna Halafoff is Vice Chair of Religions for Peace Australia. Anna is an assistant lecturer in Sociology and for the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC). She is also a researcher for the UNESCO Chair in Interreligious and Intercultural Relations – Asia Pacific, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University. Anna holds degrees from the University of Melbourne (BA 1991) and the University of New England (Master of Letters in Peace Studies 2000 and Grad. Dip. Ed 2005). She has recently completed her doctorate at Monash University, titled ‘Netpeace: Multifaith Movements and Common Security‘. Anna is also a committee member of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils and the Victorian Buddhist Council.