As school begins for the year, many parents are thinking about who their child’s teacher will be and what extracurricular activities they will sign up for. Scripture classes can seem like just another box to tick, but maybe they require more thought. Kylie Grey takes a look at state of religious education in Australian schools.
Scripture is a part of the school week many public school parents pay little attention to, but it’s one that can have a profound impact on children’s moral development and worldview.
‘Nowadays we don’t really care about religion that much,’ says Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University.
‘We think, “Ah whatever, we’ll just throw in a little bit and it can’t hurt anybody.”
'We’ve forgotten that actually these things can have quite serious consequences for how people live their lives, how children form their attitudes, how they feel about one another growing up.’
We don’t teach maths by having enthusiastic amateurs with no particular expertise share their enthusiasm.
Professor Marion Maddox, Macquarie University.
A conversation about the quality and influence of religious education in Australia is long overdue, according to Professor Maddox, who is also the author of Taking God to School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education.
So what are our children learning in their scripture classes? I decided that my six-year-old daughter’s Anglican scripture class was a good place to start finding out. She attends Clovelly Public in Sydney’s east. While there are no accurate state-wide statistics on scripture class attendance, Anglican classes are believed to be the best attended.
Here’s an excerpt from the year one scripture class at Clovelly Public school with the Reverend David Rogers:
That’s just one school, though, and while researching her book, Professor Maddox found that what’s taught in scripture classes is very variable.
‘Far be it for me to dis people going into our schools, heaven knows we need more people showing love and the volunteer spirit for children in our schools, but we don’t teach maths by having enthusiastic amateurs with no particular expertise share their enthusiasm,’ she says.
‘We teach maths by having people with several years of professional training both in the subject and how to convey it to children. The problem with religion is that it too is a specialist area but we don’t treat it like one; we treat it as though there is a lot of scope for passing on confusion and for children to get quite mixed messages and have very little opportunity to get those mixed messages sorted out because they are only seeing the scripture teacher for half an hour a week.’
Jon Thorpe is the director of Youthworks, which provides ministry support for the Anglican diocese in Sydney and Wollongong. Youthworks is responsible for the Anglican scripture curriculum taught in public schools. The curriculum is also used by many other Christian groups who provide scripture classes across the state. Thorpe says volunteer scripture teachers are chosen through local church groups.
‘Everyone who teachers SRE [Special Religious Education] on our behalf would be an active member of their local church,’ says Thorpe. ‘Their senior minister would endorse them as an appropriate person, so in that sense we rely on local knowledge and participation.
‘In NSW we are currently rolling out the working with children check and every teacher needs to complete SRE accreditation training, so we want to make sure all of our teachers are well equipped, godly, Christian volunteers.’
A review into Special Religious Education
In NSW, a Special Religious Education and Special Education in Ethics Review began in late 2014. Commissioned by the NSW Department of Education, it’s being conducted by an independent reviewer, ARTD Consultants.
Ironically, it was the Ethics Classes Repeal Bill of 2011, initiated by Christian groups, that put the spotlight on religious education.
Doctor Bryan Cowling, the NSW director of the Anglican Education Commission, acknowledges that in NSW, Special Religious Education is an area of instruction which has received little or no scrutiny since the introduction of scripture classes in 1880.
‘At this stage the Department of Education does not vet what’s in the curriculum, it does not set any particular standards for the teachers,’ he says.
‘Each of the teachers provides their own, and unless the provider has the resources to have somebody observe their teachers teaching, it is possible that somebody could be teaching SRE in the classroom for years and not have another adult in the classroom to observe what they are doing.
‘There are significant issues to look at there in terms of the monitoring of quality.’
An ethical alternative
In NSW, parents who opt out of scripture classes can have their children attend secular ethics classes. They’re now available in 320 public schools and are run by a non-government organisation called Primary Ethics. The ethics curriculum caters for kids from kindergarten to year six.
‘Children from the age of four can tell the difference between what a social convention is and what an ethical question is, so they know the difference between telling a lie and, say, licking their knife,’ says Teresa Russell, the CEO of Primary Ethics.
Primary Ethics’ classes reach 20,000 students and many more are on waiting lists. The organisation is looking for more volunteer teachers and a $20 million grant to meet the growing demand.
The future of religious education in Australia
Doctor Anna Halafoff is a research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. She’s also a member of REENA, the Religious Education and Ethics Network of Australia. Halafoff and her colleagues at REENA would like a course in the study of world religions and philosophy to be included in the national curriculum from kindergarten to year 12.
‘We know that in countries like Australia there is still a lot of prejudice that exists and negative stereotypes of religious groups and people, and I think the only way to combat that is through education and through better understanding,’ she says.
‘What we need to do is to have a critical education about religions and a better understanding about what religions are and what they mean to people; I think this is sorely lacking in Australia.’
She says a comparative religion course could complement faith based religious classes and would not necessarily have to replace them.
Does God belong in school?
Does God belong in school?
Thursday 5 February 2015
Find out more about this debate at Earshot.
As a first step, REENA is working with the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Review Authority to include these study areas across the curriculum in subject areas like history and civics and citizenship.
Their efforts seem have been ignored by Professor Ken Wiltshire and Doctor Kevin Donnelly, the authors of the National Curriculum Report, which was delivered to the federal government at the end of 2014.
‘Recommendation 15 of the National Curriculum Report notes that there should actually be a better recognition of the contribution of western civilisation and Judeo-Christian heritage in Australian schools, ignoring the importance of diverse religions pretty much altogether,’ says Halafoff.
So will we decide that God no longer belongs in our public schools?
It’s unlikely, but the drive to include the study of comparative religions and philosophy in the national curriculum seems especially urgent in light of current world events.
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