The role and place of religion in state schools has hit national headlines again in recent weeks. In Queensland, controversy has arisen over a proposed policy to restrict proselytising by students.
And the NSW Government’s religious education program, in which students not taking part in the classes pick up litter or do colouring in, has come under renewed criticism.
Religion forms part of state schooling via specific religious instruction referred to as special religious education (SRE) or special religious instruction (SRI), the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP), and general religious instruction.
The last of these forms part of a student’s general cultural education, and rarely causes controversy. But the first two have been the source of intense debate.
States differ in approach
All states and territories currently provide some form of SRI or SRE in their education acts. However, the way in which the religious instruction is offered varies from state to state.
For example, Western Australia and NSW operate an opt-out system, while Victoria operates an opt-in system. In the first system it is presumed students will attend religious instruction class, while in the second the presumption is reversed.
The availability of diverse options for SRI and SRE classes also varies.
Western Australia has only three providers: YouthCARE, WA Baha’i Centre of Learning, and a Catholic SRE program. By contrast, the NSW Department of Education lists 110 authorised providers including Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Vedic and Baha’i – although the majority of providers are Christian.
The Victorian and NSW systems provide the greatest contrast. In Victoria special religious instruction can only be offered outside of normal class hours (such as before or after school or during lunchtimes). In NSW, SRE classes are conducted during normal class times and schools are to ensure that:
… no academic instruction or formal school activities occur during time set aside for SRE/SEE.
Special Education in Ethics (SEE) classes are offered in some schools for students who opt out of the SRE program. However, ethics classes are currently not available in all schools.
Quality curriculum and training
A major challenge of the SRI/SRE programs is that they are predominantly delivered by volunteers. As a result, the quality and appropriateness of the material delivered can vary significantly between providers.
Recently in NSW, the pastor of an approved SRE provider was reported as describing the Quran as “a virus”, and Islam as “culturally incompatible with Western Christian values”.
In approving SRE/SRI providers, state education departments must ensure each provider not only has an appropriate curriculum but also provides adequate training for its volunteers.
As Australia’s religious demographics continue to change in the coming years and decades the place of religion in state school education will continue to be controversial.
Rather than responding with knee-jerk reactions to controversial incidents state education departments, SRE/SRI providers and chaplaincy providers must evolve their programs to keep up with the needs of all state school children – both the religious and non-religious.
Renae Barker is a lecturer in Law at the University of Western Australia