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Time for change: a new role for religion in education

After last week’s High Court challenge verdict on funding chaplains in schools, religious education is back in the headlines. The role of religion in Australian schools has been vigorously debated for…

A good knowledge of the different religions should be part of a National Curriculum. Flickr/Jake Wasdin

After last week’s High Court challenge verdict on funding chaplains in schools, religious education is back in the headlines.

The role of religion in Australian schools has been vigorously debated for more than a century. Recent events including the landmark High Court case, the pending Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) case outcome in Victoria, the decision to review Special Religious Education programs in NSW, and the move towards a National Curriculum all highlight the need to examine the role of religion in Australia’s schools.

A changing curriculum

Before the National Curriculum was conceived in Australia, education had largely been the responsibility of state, rather than federal, governments. Consequently each state’s approach was different, and religious school curriculum varied significantly.

While a state by state account is beyond the scope of this article, a brief history of Victorian policies on religion and education provides some insight into the current issues.

From 1872, the secular nature of government schools in Victoria prevented any teaching of or about religion during school hours. There was, however, constant pressure from religious groups to have access to students and unofficial religious instruction did occur.

From the 1950s, volunteers from Christian and Jewish groups were permitted into government classrooms, but instruction was delivered alongside, rather than within, the official curriculum. In the 1990s, other faiths also began to offer Special Religious Instruction (SRI) programs, which now include Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu and Muslim options.

But it wasn’t until 2006 that state policy allowed for the teaching of general religious education (GRE) in Victoria. This involves teaching students about diverse religions within the curriculum. While some faith-based schools and organisations deliver such programs, they are by and large yet to be developed or resourced in Victoria’s government schools, except for in Years 11 and 12.

Instead, the Victorian government continues to fund ACCESS Ministries, an inter-denominational body that provides Christian education and chaplaincy in government schools. Other Special Religious Instruction providers do not receive state government funding to develop or deliver their programs. SRI classes are intended to instruct children into a particular faith tradition, whereas GRE programs teach children about diverse religions and beliefs and their role in society. Accredited volunteers from religious groups teach SRI, whereas GRE is taught by qualified teachers.

Religious teaching in a changing society

There are serious concerns about religious instruction in Australia, as its exclusive nature and its emphasis on particular religious traditions is problematic in an increasingly multi-faith society.

International and Australian scholars also argue that educating students about diverse religions and beliefs generates greater levels of inter-religious awareness, respect and understanding, and promotes social inclusion.

Exposing students to many religions is important for promoting tolerance. AAP Image/Mark Graham

Despite a growing number of Victorians not ascribing to any faith, a proposal by the Humanist Society of Victoria to teach ethics classes as a non-religious option was rejected in 2010. In the recent Victorian case, Aitken and Others vs. DEECD, a group of parents argued that their children faced discrimination as a result of not participating in Special Religious Instruction classes. The case was heard in March, but the decision is yet to be announced.

Lagging behind

Australia’s government schools have been described by experts such as Cathy Byrne as “lagging behind” other nations with respect to their treatment of religion.

For example, the United Kingdom includes diverse religious education in their government schools and in Canada there are religions and ethics programs.

The National Curriculum provides an opportunity to address this in Australia. The “need to nurture an appreciation of and respect for social, cultural and religious diversity” has been given prominence within the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians and The Shape of the Australian Curriculum documents.

Religion and ethics in the National Curriculum

The Religions, Ethics and Education Network of Australia (REENA) was formed in February 2011 by leading Australian scholars, educators and community leaders. Over the past twelve months REENA has met with senior representatives in the Victorian, New South Wales and federal governments and with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the agency responsible for the development of Australia’s National Curriculum, to discuss the place of religion in the National Curriculum.

While it was recently reported that hopes for a separate religion subject or a substantial religion component in Civics and Citizenship within the new Australian Curriculum have been dashed, ACARA is incorporating religions and ethics education into several subject areas, including History and Civics and Citizenship, and in the general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities, such as Intercultural Understanding and Ethical Behaviour.

Opportunities for appropriate resource development, drawing on local and international best practice, are also being considered, in consultation with REENA.

These are, largely, optimistic developments. Awareness of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews is a crucial component for living and working in an increasingly diverse society.

Ensuring that religions and beliefs education is adequately developed and implemented across the National Curriculum will improve religious literacy and provide a critical education about the role of religion in society.

Despite increasing pressure from academics, parents and teachers, however, the issue of Special Religious Instruction in Victorian government schools is yet to be resolved. The recent review of ethics education programs in NSW recommended that Ethics classes should be allowed to continue and that an independent review of Special Religious Education (SRE) programs and ethics classes be conducted in 2014-2015.

REENA has called for a similar review in all Australian states that deliver SRI/SRE programs, with the hope that all Australian schools can offer inclusive religions and beliefs education for all students.

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28 Comments sorted by

  1. David Zyngier

    Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

    Great piece Anna!

    Academics are running a campaign to end SRI. If you agree with the following statement please email me directly.

    Special Religious Instruction – a statement from the teaching profession.
    If you agree to have your name added please email David Zyngier (Monash University) Feel free to circulate this statement.

    The policy of ‘Special Religious Instruction’ (SRI), )*, currently enacted through differing state Education statutes across Australia…

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    1. Doug Paice

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to David Zyngier

      Sounds like an excellent approach. I'm an atheist and my kids go to a secular private school, but I'd love for them to have the kind of ethics class you describe, in tandem with one in comparative religions. Though, the problem is that a general values/ethics class could easily run against some religious views, particularly on topics such as sexuality, relationships and even health. The only addition I'd make would be to include critical thinking in the curriculum along with it. How would it handle

      The statement "Families are in the best position to provide specific religious education and guidance of and for their children either in the home or through special after school organisations." is also one I strongly agree with.

    2. Anna Halafoff

      Research Fellow, Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University

      In reply to Doug Paice

      Thanks Doug, as I mentioned above what is needed is 'a critical education about the role of religion in society'.

    3. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at

      In reply to David Zyngier

      Fully agree with David calls to tackle the issue of SRI. There are good historical experience and reasons why Western ancestors lay the foundation for the separation of churches from politics, and later the separation of religion and public school. People should remember the period of history in Europe called the Dark Age: , where many critical thinkers realized that religion as antithetical to reason.

      The author of the 2006 best seller…

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  2. John Coochey


    As a victim of the British school system of the fifties and sixties I think you may be optimistic about a diverse education about religion. There is only one subject that must be taught by law in the UK and that is religion. In my case a compulsory religious service each morning and one lesson of religious indoctrination each week. There was no attempt to educate about any other religion and the Bible was taught as fact despite such minor problems as there being no historical evidence for any event in the Old Testament, for example Jericho was not a walled city at the time of the Israelite incursions into Palestine. The Headmaster was a member of the Crusaders religious group and anyone showing opposition to compulsory religion tended not to get entered for GCE' s which was at his discretion. The one good thing is that it made me totally immune to any spiritual superstition for the rest of my life.

    1. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email

      In reply to John Coochey

      I relate to your comment John. I still have strong memories of my parents being called in to discuss my "disruptive" influence at primary school when I was about 10 years old.

      In those days I accepted that there was a god and a christ etc etc ... but ... my crime was to genuinely (and rather naively) ask the religious instructor how they could explain the difference between the 7 day creation story and the theory of evolution on one occasion, and on another occasion to parrot that my fathers…

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    2. Anna Halafoff

      Research Fellow, Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University

      In reply to John Coochey

      Thanks John and Fred, that's precisely my point - the type of RI/RE you had John in the UK and 1950s and 1960s is still allowed in Australia, although it isn't compulsory. The UK has moved on to teach a more inclusive course, including education about diverse religions, whereas we still have quite a long way to go!

    3. John Coochey


      In reply to Anna Halafoff

      I would assume that that was because of Hindu and more particularly Hindu immigration

  3. Robin Bell

    Research Academic Public Health, at University of Newcastle

    Thanks Anna,
    But, REENA appears to be a secretive and unrepresentative body. The official REENA website ( lists only your email address and that of one other religion academic who you quote in your article as an expert opinion. A short and ambiguous statement of priciples is the only document linked to the website. A search of the net provides no mentions of REENA other than on a handful of christian web pages.
    It seems that REENA may be a network of two? I'm not at all sure that is a reasonable body to be taking such a leading role in formulating religious/ethics education in schools. Particularly given the lack of community involvement and zero transparency.

    1. Anna Halafoff

      Research Fellow, Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University

      In reply to Robin Bell

      Hi Robin, at last count there were 63 members on REENA's e-list but you are correct that their names aren't published anywhere as yet. I'll take this advice on board and discuss it with the REENA group.

      We have organised two conferences and held a Roundtable with ACARA last year so I can assure you we are much larger than two and include academics, educators, community leaders, and youth leaders with an interest in religions and beliefs education. Please see our Statement of Principles for more details

      Dr Cathy Byrne's PhD, and many journal articles, have established her as an expert in this field.

    2. George Higinbotham

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Robin Bell

      It is customary for groups such as REENA to comment on, if not formally in amicus curiae, then at least issue opinions on matters that bear on the interests of their members.

      In Aitken and Others vs. DEECD parents claimed that the SRI policy violated their rights under the laws of Victoria. Does REENA agree or disagree that SRI as currently practiced in Victoria gives rise to discrimination?

      If not why not, and if so, why has it not made its objections to SRI policy known?

      I am concerned…

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  4. Peter Fox

    Medical doctor

    You wish to "improve religious literacy and provide a critical education about the role of religion in society"? Oh my.

    There is absolutely no role for religious indoctrination in public schools. I have no problem with ethics classes, but you guys are constantly trying to use ethics as a front to push religion.

    When you are wiling to offer equal class time to both the Flying Spaghetti Monster And His Noodly Appendage and the monotheistic religions, we can discuss this further.

    Keeping a distance from religious indoctrination in schools is is a situation Australia can be proud of "lagging behind current nations". We need to take this further and protect innocent children from being brainwashed.

    1. Robert Haye


      In reply to Peter Fox

      Peter, as a devout atheist I think that all religions should be taught - at all schools that receive government funding Teach public and private schools all the different religions and if the school wishes to teach only one then withdraw funding.

      When students see all the religions lined up against each other with their competing gods, they will understand that it is superstitious claptrap.

  5. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Like John Coochey above, of a similar vintage, I just got C of E at boarding school- chapel and evening prayers daily and chapel twice on Sunday. So I never knew about Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Sunni and Shiite Islam, Bhuddism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism or for that matter atheism.
    The difficulty for those who propose that many religions be presented to school kids is that those kids will see that they are all similar and all wrong, except atheism or course.

  6. Ned Young

    management consultant

    While I am not religious myself, humanity is. We are nowhere near sufficiently evolved to be so husbristic to think we can so easily "move on" from religion. Unlike other commenters I have to strongly disagree with this sentiment.

    "Families are in the best position to provide specific religious education and guidance of and for their children either in the home or through special after school organisations."

    The opposite is the case. Families are the best arena to provide instruction in ETHICS…

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    1. Doug Paice

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ned Young

      Yes the world's religions require teachers with special training, the priests etc, and that's what the "Families are in the best position..." statement is about: for specific religious instruction the family chooses (or not) what and where the children learn, probably at church and church related study, that the last part "either in the home or through special after school organisations."

      The trouble with RI/RE at school is that it's from a single church/religion/sect and teaches that as fact…

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    2. Ned Young

      management consultant

      In reply to Doug Paice

      Hi Doug. OK, I now get what your were saying - that the fact that RE/RI does require skilled and educated practitioners, then surely, the parent's own inquiries around their local (ex-school) religious community to decide whether Sunday School, or Fellowship, Girl's/Boy's Brigade are the best way to go, given your peculiar child's schedule, the religion parents have chosen for them, the church they will attend, what time services, on what days. This particularly makes sense when a student's progress…

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    3. Sandra Kwa

      Grad Cert Ethics and Legal Studies, CSU

      In reply to Ned Young

      There is nothing faddish, ideological or hobby-horsey about the academic field of Ethics and Moral Philosophy. I didn't know either until I started this course. Ethics involves the study of many different philosophers, past and present, with many different approaches but all with the same aim: to enhance humanity's ability to co-exist peacefully and meaningfully in a just, mutually-beneficial society. Religion and ideology have not achieved this aim to date. Perhaps it is time to give ethics a try. It offers no simple black and white solutions, gets you thinking from all angles about complex issues, and assesses right and wrong through rationality and logic - not because a god figure or higher authority has decreed it.

  7. Ned Young

    management consultant

    The other god here that dare not speak its name is "parental choice". Remember, close to 50% of Australian parents send at least one of their children to a private school, with near 90% of these choosing a religious (overwhelmingly Christian) school. I dare say that if all parents had access to funds to make a choice, that 50% would jump to 75%. Those pushing against RE/RI really are swimming against the tide, and I dare say are partly responsible for the flight from government schools in the first place.

    1. Doug Paice

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ned Young

      From my experience, talking to other parents about school choice, most of the people who chose to send the children to private school aren't doing it for religious reasons. The parents make that choice based on quality of education, for those parents they end up choosing a religious school because that's what is available.

      My parents sent me to a catholic high school, my Father wasn't religious and my Mum was active in the Uniting Church. The reason I went to that school was that the local state high school had a bad reputation and didn't go through to year 12.

    2. Christopher White

      PhD candidate at La Trobe University

      In reply to Ned Young

      One of my own children attends a Catholic girl’s secondary school, despite the fact that neither of her parents are religious and both are Gay! The reason for this is that Catholic schools tend to have relatively low fees and relatively good educational outcomes; the religious affiliation of the school played no part in the choice to send her there. Her mother and partner are both experienced teachers and made the choice after much investigation and in consultation with the school; the teaching staff and her fellow pupils are all thoroughly aware of her family circumstances. There have been no repercussions and she is very happy there.

      I would also like to point out that this school provides a comprehensive education in world religions. In that aspect alone it should serve as a model to other schools.

    3. Ned Young

      management consultant

      In reply to Doug Paice

      Christopher White/Doug Paice

      You have both highlighted anecdotal data that is mentioned far too often that something fascinating is taking place sociologically, but I do not know of any scholar who has touched it. And that is, the flight from government comprehensive secular schools to private Christian schools (and to a much less, but still noticeable and growing number if Islamic and Jewish schools), by parents who who claim or, some, or all of the following:

      1. They were raised/schooled…

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  8. Cheryl Howard


    It is children who are left out of the debate. They are naturally inquisitive and capable of thinking for themselves. If asked more often educators may be surprised by the complexity of their questions (and be unable to answer them).

    Access Ministries (Victoria) has by its very nature only one mission - the promotion of Christianity. This cannot in fairness be funded by government because we live in a pluralist society.

    Secularisation is an ongoing project. Children need to be educated in such…

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  9. Astor Cosma

    logged in via Facebook

    IMO: I would like to see all religions removed permanently from all Australian school education (public and private).
    Churches, mosques, temples are places where the religious congregate to go to for worship of their religion/s.
    Also, the religious have their 'holy' or general books to read in the privacy of their own homes.
    If kids are curious about other religions, then they can easily access their local library and/or internet for information.

    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Astor Cosma

      "If kids are curious about other religions, then they can easily access their local library and/or internet for information."

      After all, this approach has worked well against bigotry in all its forms.

  10. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Yes, I agree in principle with the piece and most commentary, though cautious about giving an impression that I am atheist or against religious education in favour of something else called 'secular'.

    A lot of argument is misplaced. Separation of church and state in this country has only ever been concerned with the workings of government, not with the education of children. In that respect there is ever reason for state owned schools to offer the same clear educational benefits to their students…

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  11. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    As a Pastafarian I take heart at this review. Now is the chance for the one true religion to be taught in schools next to the other "false gods". The sooner children are taught of his noodliness The Flying Spaghetti Monster the sooner enlightenment will shine on us all, as well as Fridays off.