26 May 2021

It's 2021, how are religious schools still a thing?

| Zoya Patel
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St Christopher's Cathedral

Is it time we created a separation between church and school? Photo: File.

When it comes to education, everyone has an opinion. Understandably, parents, community members and decision-makers all want to make sure kids are getting the best possible start through their schooling, and there are so many different elements to what makes a good education (with plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong).

Every child deserves access to high-quality free public education that provides them with a strong foundation for their future.

When I refer to education, though, I mean tangible knowledge – maths, science, English, social studies, health, history, languages etc. The ability to problem solve, think critically and work with other people.

One thing I absolutely don’t include when defining education is religion.

In fact, I think religious education should be restricted to outside of school hours wherever it takes place. It boggles my mind that private religious schools still exist.

As a child, I went to public schools, both in Canberra and out, but we still had time set aside each term for what was then referred to as ‘scripture’ sessions.

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In these, we were taught about Christianity, with basic Bible stories and often an arts and crafts-based activity. I had permission from my parents to abstain from these sessions as we practised a different religion at home, and so would be sent outside with a book for the hour or so they took (which now feels like a waste of time).

This was in the late 90s, so I imagine things have changed now. But even in such small doses, I can’t help but feel that religion has no place in our public or private education systems.

It has the potential to distract or trouble the way subjects are taught, especially when they contradict religious ideology (for example, in science, history, sex education), and more importantly, it can present a fundamental position on social and political issues that impacts on the ability of children and young people to critically engage with the world around them and form opinions of their own.

I was raised with religion at home and found myself drifting towards atheism through high school. School, thankfully, was a safe haven where I could explore ideas without judgment or imposition, and where I was supported to formulate my own opinions on how our world is structured, and what guides our actions as human beings.

Even more importantly, in my opinion, the time I spent at school was dedicated to learning, without the imposition of absolutist moral tutelage taking time away from the hard skills development of my core subjects.

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Friends who attended private schools, where religion was a key part of school life and activities, including mandatory religious education as a core subject, have shared with me their stories of feeling frustrated by the church services they had to attend, and the topics and approaches taken by the religious studies teachers (another compulsory unit of study).

One told me how she tried to question her teacher’s instruction on other religions, which he posed as nonsensical in comparison to Catholicism, and how she was dismissed and ridiculed for this.

Of course, I have no doubt that this isn’t the norm, and that schools today (at least some of them) encourage discourse and robust discussion around religious diversity.

But are these subjects that even need to be explored in a school setting, or imbued throughout the culture of a school more broadly? Isn’t it more appropriate that religion be the remit of parents and their religious leaders, and school be a place where education and knowledge isn’t complicated by personal beliefs?

Religion is a core part of human history, but should specific religious practices and beliefs be incorporated into our education system via religious schools, or is it time for separation between school and church?

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I went to an aglican school and loved every minute of it! The pastors were some of the most hillarious people I have ever met – genuinely sad specimens with no real meaning in life beyond trying (albeit failing miserably) to indoctrinate kids.

I made some of my best friends in classrooms laughing at bible vomit and have enjoyed a happy life of building friendships based on sin with them! I do hope that the next generation are afforded that opportunity too!

As I’ve mentioned previously, the private versus public school argument isn’t always straightforward.

When Andrew Barr closed my sons public school in Kambah (he also closed two other primary schools) and he replaced them with a hastily contrived super school on the site of the closed Kambah High School.

There was no considered process or resourcing for the kind of change management you would expect for such a massive change to ACT education.

The superschool was and remains hopeless and my son was forced like many others into the Kambah catholic school. I can tell you the Kambah catholic school wasn’t full of rich kids and families, I would guess the average income of the families there would have been less than the public schools of inner Canberra. The facilities and resourcing would also have been less than many Canberra public schools.

It’s a complex issue outside the Grammar and style private schools.

I was sent to a private Anglican school, despite having atheist parents. I am grateful to have had the experience. I believe religion is part of general education, and am often shocked at the gaps in my own children’s religious knowledge.

The author of this article has some valid points but fails to understand the basis of what ‘education’ entails. Every society educates and socialites its young to become useful members of adult society. As a pluralistic and multi-ethic society, citizens have the right to educate their young according to the ideas of their essential beliefs. Australia has become a largely secular society. Many would comment that it’s culturally Judeo-Christian values are being replaced by a moral vacuum exhibiting a new post- Christian morality which emphasises the individual over society to society’s detriment. Thus many parents want their children schooled in the moral values of their community whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim etc. I do agree, however, that such schools may threaten social assimilation if the values they teach are too different from mainstream values and if the students in such schools are overwhelmingly of one community. Such balkanisation would not be useful when the children finally go out into society which is diverse. One would hope that such schools have strong regulatory oversight and inspections to ensure that they conform to the universal national standards.

Most parents I know couldn’t care less about the catholic component. They are just glad to have their kids out of the public system.

Spot on. The public school system is not the same across all parts of Canberra.

The best public school teachers want to work at the best public schools, making it hard for some of Canberra’s public schools to retain their most promising talent.

I keep hearing it’s a tough gig teaching in an outer suburban school with lower socioeconomic kids and less educated parents to help support the in class learnings.

It is easy to depict religion as an inconvenience today. Perhaps what is needed is better values education. Values underpin everything in our society. Many secular values are hidden – like efficiency and productivity. I’m rather thankful that inconvenient religious people are some of the strongest advocates around in disability, refugees, poverty, disarmament and equality for women. Helping religious people think about whether their tradition is living out from their best values is always worthwhile.

ChrisinTurner4:51 pm 27 May 21

Separation of state and church should be followed. Private schools are a blight on our democracy as recently demonstrated in Sydney. Certainly taxpayers should be expected to fund private schools. Look at other countries.

Capital Retro3:50 pm 27 May 21

Richard Orchard said: “If you want though you can close steel, aluminium, and concrete factories here, and move all the emissions to China.”

That has already happened Richard but you never see the climate alarmists demonstrating outside the Chinese Embassy, do you? At least the Falun Gong people used to.

russianafroman3:50 pm 27 May 21

It’s (insert current year), why haven’t we (insert opinion)?

If you want to ban religions/cults, please start with Marxism/socialism that is being taught in all ACT schools. Children have the right to a basic education without being brainwashed by left wing extremists.

Daniel O'Connell1:54 pm 27 May 21

Freedom of religion as a human right would be meaningless if it were not able to be taught in religious based schools

Wellington Sludge1:13 pm 27 May 21

Ideological arguments aside, research about the Goulburn School Strike of 1962, to understand that there would need to be a whole lot of infrastructure change needed before ridding the country of religious schools could happen.

Exceptional work on the click-count Zoya. This might be your best one yet.

The only thing religion teachers actually teach is that not all adults should be treated equally. They try to teach that message by demonising ‘sinners’ but end up just demonising their own sad little cult. No wonder athiesm is on the rise!

Stephen Saunders9:26 am 27 May 21

Chewy and Capitol forgot to tell us that old chestnut, they’re just doing it altruistically, to “save” the government money.

Good luck to church or islamic schools, but it is shameful that 21st century LibLab deliberately pursues a divisive two-tier funding system, to entrench inequality and damage outcomes.

The “Christian Porters” of our Federal Cabinet aren’t born like that. It takes years of pampering in the elite schools.

Capital Retro9:51 am 27 May 21

It appears Whitlam played his part in entrenching the two-tier funding system: https://www.ieu.org.au/gough-whitlam-s-contribution-to-education-in-australia/

I don’t know what it has to do with Christian Porter though.

Good to see that you conviently ignored the content of my entire comment to go on a rant about private schools.

But seeing as you mention it, independent and private schools do save taxpayers money as they cost significantly less per student from taxpayers money.

There is no divisive two tier funding model that entrenches inequality. Stop drinking the Koolaid.

Money in the education sphere should be directly tied to the student and parents should be free to send their children to the schools of their choice as long as that school is meeting the government approved curriculum.

Why are you so upset that individuals have choice?

Religion is intertwined into the history and culture of humanity helping to outline one way of presenting a moral code to live by. If you dont like it, you dont have to participate or send your children to those schools.

But as Zoya has exactly zero real experience of what religious schools are teaching and why, it seems a bit silly to value her comment on this issue much at all. Particularly seeing as the article does not come from a place of curious interest but rather a clearly closed minded and pre-determined position.

Although it is interesting that she only focuses Religion to be removed to focus on “real learning” when public schools have been including ever more ideological and political teachings in the curriculum for years. Inclusions that sit way outside what is necessary for core learning and basic morality.

But I’m sure Zoya would never want those parts of the curriculum stopped…….because she agrees with them.

Capital Retro8:02 am 27 May 21

It’s obvious you didn’t do much research on this topic as Islamic schools in Australia are growing at rapid rate. There is no separation between “church and school” with Islamic values.


My opinion and experience is totally opposite to yours, in that religious schools throughout history have shaped great people who have made efforts to promote what is good and true for the betterment of everyone.

We need more people like that in this day and age, not less.

Not The Mama7:48 am 27 May 21

I think you are right Zoya. And unfortunately religion intrudes deeply into other institutions that should also be secular… Politics, The Constitution, and The Law to name the three most significant.

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