As the cultural fabric of Australian society becomes increasingly varied, Centre of Citizenship and Globalisation Research Fellow, Dr Anna Halafoff, examines why education about diverse religions and spiritual beliefs in Australia’s state schools is lagging far behind other nations.
Due to processes of globalisation, societies such as Australia have become increasingly culturally and religiously diverse. The 2011 Australian Census reported a significant decline in Christianity from 68 per cent in 2001 to 61 per cent in 2011, and a rise in non-Christian religions up from 4.9 per cent in 2001 to 7.2 per cent in 2011. The largest non-Christian groups are Buddhists at 2.5 per cent, Muslims at 2.2 per cent and Hindus at 1.3 per cent. Those declaring ‘No Religion’ also increased dramatically from 15 per cent in 2001 to 22 per cent in 2011. However, the way in which religion is currently taught in Australia’s government schools does not align with these demographics.
Up until recently, public education has been the responsibility of state governments in Australia. Consequently, each Australian State has its own unique history, laws and policies concerning education about religions, and/or religious instruction, in government schools. For example, the place of religion in Victoria’s state schools has been long debated largely due to different perceptions of what constitutes a secular society and thereby a secular education system.
The secular clause in the 1872 and 1928 Victorian Education Acts prohibited education about religion from being taught in Victorian Government school curricula, yet allowed for religious instruction (RI) to be delivered by volunteers from Christian organisations before or after the prescribed four-hour school day.
After considerable pressure from religious groups, The Education (Religious Instruction) Act of 1950 maintained the four hours of secular instruction provided by teachers, however RI was permitted to be taught during school hours by accredited representatives of Christian religious groups. These RI programs were voluntary and students could be excused from attending at their parents’ request. The 1950 Act also allowed Jewish RI to be provided in Victorian Government schools on a voluntary ‘opt-in’ basis.
While Australia was a largely Christian nation in the 1950s, it was on the edge of significant cultural and religious transformation. Diverse religious groups, including Baha’is, Buddhists and Sikhs, were permitted to deliver RI programs in Victoria’s state schools, alongside Christian and Jewish providers, in the late 1990s in response to increasing religious diversity.
The 2006 Education and Training Reform Act, distinguished ‘special religious instruction’ (SRI) from ‘general religious education’ (GRE) and finally included the provision for teaching GRE within the core curriculum by qualified teachers given that education about diverse religions does not contravene secular principles.
However, to this date there has been no allocation of financial resources by the State Government to provide GRE curricula, or to train teachers to deliver GRE programs, other than in years eleven and twelve. The 2006 Act defined SRI as ‘[i]nstruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs’ and GRE as ‘[e]ducation about major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world’, and stated that except for provision of SRI, ‘education in Government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’.
In contrast, the United Kingdom has been cited as a leader in developing world religions education programs since the 1970s and Canada also introduced an inclusive ethics and religious culture program in its government schools in 2005. Consequently, education about diverse religions and (religious, spiritual and non-religious) beliefs (ERB) in Australia’s state schools has been described as lagging far behind other nations.
Recent Australian and international studies have also acknowledged the positive role that ERB can play in promoting social inclusion and have recommended that ERB be included in the curriculum from the first years of schooling. An extensive public debate, particularly concerning the nature of Christian RI (or RE as it is known in NSW) programs and the lack of a non-religious RI option in Victoria, has leant significant urgency to this issue. Groups such as Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) and the Religions, Ethics and Education Network Australia (REENA) have disseminated research findings and raised awareness of problems with current RI/RE models and potential benefits of ERB in Australia.
Optimistically, The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the agency responsible for the development of Australia’s National Curriculum, has met with REENA scholars and peak religious and non-religious community leaders, including Humanists and Rationalists, on several occasions to discuss ERB in the National Curriculum.
Education about diverse religions and beliefs can be taught within subject areas of History and Civics and Citizenship, and in general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities, such as Intercultural Understanding and Ethical Understanding. Opportunities for appropriate resource development and dissemination, drawing on local and international best practices, are also being discussed at national and state levels.
REENA is committed to ensuring education about diverse religions and beliefs is adequately developed and implemented across the National Curriculum to increase awareness of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews and to provide a critical education about the role of religion in society. Hopefully in the near future Australia will not only catch up with other increasingly multifaith and non-religious nations, but rather, be a leader in the field of ERB internationally.
Dr Anna Halafoff is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University and an Associate of the UNESCO Chair in Interreligious and Intercultural Relations – Asia Pacific, at Monash University. Her current and recent research projects/interests include: intercultural and interreligious relations; multiculturalism; community engagement and countering violent extremism; education about religions and beliefs; Buddhism and gender; and Buddhism in Australia. In 2011, Anna was named a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations' Global Expert in the fields of multifaith relations, and religion and peace-building.