Submission: Supporting the provision of general Religious Education in Victorian schools
The Christian Religious Education (CRE) Task Group of the Uniting Church Synod called for submissions on various issues to do with religious education in Victorian schools. The one I was most interested in was the question of the provision of General Religious Education. This is my submission:
In the early 1970s, at the urging of the then Council for Christian Education in Schools, the Victorian Education Department appointed the Russell Committee on Religious Education. The Committee handed down its report in 1974. The report was in favour of religious education; its summary states:
The Committee believes that a person’s education is incomplete unless he has some awareness and understanding of the religious dimension of human experience. It therefore considers that religious education should be available to all children in government schools.
The Committee understands the purpose of religious education to be the development in students of the capacity to understand and assess religion as a major and continuing influence in human society, as a unique dimension of experience and meaning, and as a source of values in their own quest for a philosophy of life.
In order to ensure that the education of children in Victorian schools was complete, the Russell Report recommended, among other things, that: ‘the programs of religious education in each school be conducted by Departmental teachers, including persons given a special registration to teach religious education only, with the assistance where desired and practicable of representatives of the Churches and other bodies in the community acting as resource personnel’.
In 1974 the suggestion was made that religion, as an essential part of human life, be taken seriously and taught as part of the core curriculum of Victorian state schools by trained teachers. (As someone who was born in 1973, I wish that the recommendations of the Russell Report had been implemented.)
There were three problems with these recommendations. One was the response of churches, who wanted to continue to offer Special Religious Education. It is possible that some churches will continue to be a barrier to the introduction of General Religious Education today; last year the Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne rejected a proposal that called ‘on the Victorian Minister for Education to facilitate the introduction of a program of multi-faith, general religious education into all Victorian state schools as soon as practicable’. However the very existence of this Task Group gives the Uniting Church the opportunity to decide to support General Religious Education.
Another problem was that the teachers’ union did not want to give religion the legitimacy that would come from it being seen as a normal part of education. One of the benefits of the current debate on Special Religious Education is an apparent softening in the attitude of teachers to General Religious Education.
In May last year the branch council of the Australian Education Union resolved to call on the State Minister for Education to suspend all state funding for ACCESS Ministries. The AEU is strongly opposed to any sort of Special Religious Education, arguing that: ‘It should never be open to sectarian interests of any sort, religious or otherwise, to commandeer parts or the whole of public education.’ No Uniting Church participant in Special Religious Education would see their participation as an example of sectarian interests commandeering public education, but it is unfortunate that the AEU’s concerns have been given apparent weight by some extremely tactless comments made by ACCESS’s Evonne Paddison. The AEU quotes her as saying: ‘“In Australia, we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples” and … “What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools.”’ These comments, while possibly taken out of context, do make it appear that ACCESS sees Special Religious Education as an evangelical opportunity, contrary to the intentions of Education Act.
However, that same resolution said: ‘The AEU does support teaching about religions from a cultural and historical perspective, by qualified teachers, as part of an accredited curriculum program approved by the VCAA’. It may be that it would now be possible to introduce General Religious Education into Victorian schools with the support of teachers.
The third objection to implementing the recommendations of the Russell Report was a concern that the Education Act might not have allowed general religious education in state schools. A 2006 amendment to the Education Act does now allow general religious education to be taught in state schools:
2.2.10. Education in Government schools to be secular
(1) Except as provided in section 2.2.11, education in Government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect.
(2) Subsection (1) does not prevent the inclusion of general religious education in the curriculum of a Government school.
(3) A Government school teacher must not provide religious instruction other than the provision of general religious education in any Government school building.
(4) In this section general religious education means education about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world.
For the first time in decades it seems possible that religion might be viewed as a mainstream, legitimate subject of study by children in Victorian state schools. I believe that the Synod should put time, energy and money into advocating for General Religious Education.
According to Dr Peter Sherlock the vast majority of Special Religious Education in Victorian state schools is provided by ACCESS Ministries. He writes: ‘In 2010, some 3,245 volunteer staff provided 30 minutes of CRE each week for 124,000 children in 876 schools. This represents the provision of CRE for 39% of Victoria’s 318,000 state primary school children, across some 67% of the total number of schools, using lesson plans and materials developed by ACCESS.’
When compared to the current model providing General Religious Education would have many advantages. It would reach many of the 61% of children who currently do not receive any religious education. It would teach children who are growing up in an increasingly multi-faith environment about several of the faiths that they encounter in daily life, rather than just one. It would enable the teaching of world faiths that, while present in Australia, are currently too small to provide volunteer teachers for Special Religious Education.
My hope is that, as the Russell Report suggested back in 1974, ministers and members of the Uniting Church would be able to offer our particular expertise as guest contributors to General Religious Education classes, along with rabbis and imams and priests and pastors and other representatives of the many religions present in Australia. Rather than seeking to present a one-size-fits-all image of Christianity in Special Religious Education, we could then talk about what makes the Uniting Church in Australia unique.
Most importantly, we could contribute to religion being taken seriously as an important part of life, rather than being seen as an optional extra.