Religion and Education in Australian Schools

Meredith Doig / 18 November 2011

An update to RSA members from president Dr. Meredith Doig

Friday, 18 November, 2011


Many RSA members have no doubt maintained their frustration at the long standing struggle to get religious indoctrination (commonly called Special Religious Instruction or Special Religious Education) out of public schools in Australia.  Now there’s another phase in the saga.


On Wednesday 16 November, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) held what is likely to be the first of many meetings with interested parties about the place of religious education in public schools.


ACARA is the body charged with the design and development of a nationally consistent school curriculum.  So far, we think they’ve done a good job – check out their website here.


In the past, it’s been very difficult to get all State Education Ministers to agree on a common curriculum – but this time ACARA has manged to get them all to sign off on the first four subjects: English, Maths, Science and History.  Economics, Business and Civics & Citizenship will come next.


The interesting part is how ACARA have treated the study of religion in schools.  In short, they haven’t!


Instead, they have designed the curriculum so that it addresses a number of what they are calling “General Capabilities”.  General capabilities refer to knowledge students should acquire and skills students should develop as they study their subjects.  Included are capabilites we think are foundational to the development of rational thought and ethcial behaviour; Critical and Creative Thinking, Intercultural Understanding, Personal and Social Competence, and Ethical Behaviour.


So far, so good.


However, ACARA has been pressured by a range of religiously oriented groups to consider the inclusion of some sort of religious education in its curriculum.  Some months ago, we took ACARA Chairman Barry McGaw to task for saying publicly that he saw nothing wrong with SRI.  We wrote to Professor McGaw pointing out there was indeed a lot wrong with SRI!


So, Wednesday was the first workshop of parties with an interest in the role of religion and education.  In addition to Anglicans and Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, there were academics and bureaucrats with a professional interest in this area.  And there were some non-religious people.   The Victorian Humanists were there, as were people from the Australian Secular Lobby.  Rationalists were represented by RSA President Meredith Doig.  Academic Cathy Byrne gave a very interesting overview of how other countries manage this fraught area, pointing out that Scandinavian countries have had mandatory teaching of religion and humanism for many years, while the Netherlands and the US have included teaching about religions not as separate subjects, but in core social science or as ‘cross curriculum’.


While the group clearly had differing views about how – or whether – religion should be taught in Australian schools, one thing seemed pretty clear:  whatever happened, it was not to be about teaching a religion, but teaching about religion.  Beyond this agreement, there were differening views about:

  • whether religion should be taught as a separate subject or as part of, say, the forthcoming Civics and Citizenship subject.
  • whether the existing General Capabilities (described above) were adequeate to inculcate the sort of intellectual skills and behvioural habits that should underpin life in a modern represetative democracy.
  • if there is a separate subject, should it be about relgions only, or should it include other ‘worldviews’ like humanism and atheism?


The ACARA curriculum will be mandatory for all Australian schools: government, Catholic and independent.  Therefore, it is vitally important we get this right.


RSA members with an interest in this area are invited to let us know your views.  In particular:


1. Should there be a separate subject, or are the current General Capabilities sufficient?

2. If a separate subject, should it include education about non-religious lifestances like humanism and atheism?

3. Or, should it be included in Civics and Citizenship (to be developed over the next 12 months or so)?


There will be a paper summarising the workshop that we will post here as soon as we get it.  After that, it’s likely there will be a fairly lengthy series of papers and consultations, before any proposal can be firmed up to go to Ministers.  We’ll be there!


Meredith Doig

President, Rationalist Society of Australia Inc.

All the more reason.