The Rationalist Society of Australia has called on the South Australia government to re-adopt a previous Labor government’s foundational statement on public education, including the commitment to secular schooling.
As part of a public consultation on the ‘Purpose of public education in South Australia’, the RSA has recommended the Malinauskas government re-adopt principles in the Weatherill government’s Foundation statement on public education.
The document – which was discontinued under the Marshall government – outlined three foundational principles that should underpin public education: ‘Compulsory and free of tuition costs’; ‘Universality’; and ‘Secular’.
When the Weatherill government adopted this statement, then education minister Susan Close celebrated it as possibly the first time in South Australian and Australian educational history that a government had adopted a foundation statement describing “the essence of public education.”
The statement says a compulsory, free, universal and secular public education system is “integral to enhancing the individual life opportunities and fulfilling the potential” of all children.
It argues schools should not be based on particular religious or cultural groups given the diversity in public schools.
“As public institutions, they are necessarily secular and multicultural, teaching students to engage with, critically understand and respect different cultures and beliefs in our society – particularly those of Australia’s Indigenous nations – without favouring or emphasising a specific world view or set of cultural assumptions or practices,” it said.
In a submission to the current public consultation, the RSA president Dr Meredith Doig said governments across Australia had for too long undermined the secular nature of public schools and warned against schools being used as “missionary fields”.
“We strongly urge the Malinauskas Labor government to recommit to these three fundamental principles. In particular, the Rationalist Society endorses the statement’s commitment to secular education,” she said.
Submissions to the public consultation closed on 17 March.
The South Australian government says it will develop a purpose statement, a set of guiding principles, and measures of performance for the state’s public education system.
Submission by the Rationalist Society of Australia, 17 March 2023
This is a formal submission by the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) to the public consultation on the ‘Purpose of public education in South Australia’. The RSA is Australia’s oldest freethought organisation, promoting reason, evidence-based policy and secularism.
We urge the Malinauskas government to adopt again the Weatherill government’s Foundation statement on public education (‘the statement’), written by Professor Alan Reid with support from the Public Education Advisory Committee.
Introducing the statement, education minister Susan Close, said:
We believe that this is the first time in South Australian, and perhaps Australian, educational history where a public system has adopted a foundation statement that describes the essence of public education in order to guide its work.
Unfortunately, the Marshall government discontinued official support for the statement but it can still be found online here.
Page 4 of the document outlines the three foundational principles that should underpin public education:
- Compulsory and free of tuition costs
- Universality, and
The document argues that:
…a compulsory, universal and secular public education system, free of tuition costs, is integral to enhancing the individual life opportunities and fulfilling the potential, of all children and young people in South Australia. It is also the major means by which our society can develop young people with the dispositions, values and skills to go beyond individual self-interest and contribute to the common good.
We strongly urge the Malinauskas Labor government to recommit to these three fundamental principles.
In particular, the Rationalist Society endorses the statement’s commitment to secular education:
The diversity of public schools means that they cannot be based upon a particular religious or cultural group. As public institutions, they are necessarily secular and multicultural, teaching students to engage with, critically understand and respect different cultures and beliefs in our society – particularly those of Australia’s Indigenous nations – without favouring or emphasising a specific world view or set of cultural assumptions or practices.
Governments across Australia have for too long undermined the secular nature of public schools. The Howard government and successive Coalition and Labor federal governments have provided more than $1 billion in taxpayers’ money to put religious agents into public schools under the guise of the National School Chaplaincy Program. In doing so, the program has consistently discriminated against non-religious people by preventing them from filling the chaplaincy jobs, which are essentially pastoral care roles.
Unfortunately, such religious-based discrimination is likely to continue in the new National School Wellbeing Program, including in South Australia, because religious labour-hire firms, the overwhelming majority of which are Christian, are likely to continue to dominate the supply of people to these roles and they continue to discriminate against otherwise qualified and experienced non-religious applicants.
Further, in a blatant disregard for the secular nature of public schools, some states (especially Queensland and New South Wales) continue to allow religious missionaries to take over classrooms to deliver Religious Instruction / Special Religious Education, interrupting normal curriculum time.
South Australia should not allow its public schools to be treated as “mission fields” by allowing religious groups to present seminars and religious instruction classes during core educational time.
While children can be opted out of the classes, they lose valuable learning time and can suffer social anxiety by being segregated along religious lines. This segregation is in direct conflict with the need to be inclusive and respectful to students of all backgrounds.
We urge your government to put a stop to this and support an inclusive learning environment as well as give back core education time.
According to 2021 ABS figures, South Australia is now one of the least religious parts of Australia, with almost 46 per cent of people identifying as not religious. Given the growing diversity of South Australia, religious and non-religious, it is crucial for the state to ensure its public education system is secular and remains proudly so into the future.
The state has no business supporting the faith formation of children in its public schools. Faith formation should be left for families to undertake in their own times and in religious venues like churches, mosques or temples.
In sum, we recommend the Malinauskas government adopt as the purpose of public education in South Australia the statement already developed in 2016, viz, that public education should be compulsory and therefore free of tuition costs; that it should be universal to all students regardless of their economic circumstances, family backgrounds, abilities, geographic location, culture or beliefs; and that it should be secular, not favouring or emphasising a specific worldview or set of cultural assumptions or practices.
Dr Meredith Doig,
President, Rationalist Society of Australia