KATHERINE FEENEY May 23, 2012
The secular “common good” in Australia is at risk as more children are educated at non-government Christian schools, a leading expert in social inclusion will argue at the University of Queensland tonight.
Professor Marion Maddox, the director for research on social inclusion at Macquarie University, said private school students were likely to miss out on basic information about science and politics if the curriculum conflicted with the school's religious views.
The seminar follows analysis of the 2012 federal budget that revealed funding to government schools would be cut as money allocated to private schools goes up, leaving independent school students more than $100 better off over the next four years.
Most public school funding is sourced from state governments.
Speaking ahead of her talk, Professor Maddox said recent policy changes allowed for more religion in state schools, with the “Christianisation” harbouring a range of negative consequences, including an end to secularism in Australia.
“The fact that an increasing proportion of students are being educated in schools that determinedly disavow those values of inclusion and equality that we think of as Australian is a cause for concern,” she said.
“There are plenty of cases of teachers who have been sacked, or students who have been expelled because of their sexuality or sexual behaviour in ways that would be prohibited by law if they were state schools, and yet these schools take government money and cite religious freedom, and that's something we haven't really had a public debate about.”
But representatives from Queensland's non-government schools dismissed Professor Maddox's claim greater exposure to Christian values threatened Australian society, arguing their students had access to the same curriculum taught in the state school system.
Latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show almost 40 per cent of Australian secondary students attended private schools, while more Queensland students were enrolled in non-government schools today compared to decade ago.
According to the ABS, the state's Catholic and non-Catholic independent schools accounted for 33 per cent of all full-time students in 2011, up from 29 per cent in 2001.
An 18 per cent majority of these students were enrolled in Catholic education, though private Catholic schools outnumbered private independent schools in the state 292 to 179.
Independent Schools Queensland executive director David Robertson said a 2011 ISQ survey showed more parents chose independent school due the perception “a better level of education was available” than any other reason.
Brisbane Catholic Education Office spokesman John Phelan said parents chose Catholic schools because of the “Catholic Christian values intrinsic to our schools”.
But Professor Maddox said further examination of the literature showed the values parents were referring to were not specifically Christian.
“What they actually mean by 'values' relates to how these schools will make the kids wear the uniform and make sure that everyone talks nicely and there's 'discipline', which means 'other kids are not getting in the way of my child learning',” she said.
“Parents understand that private schools can be selective and state schools have to take everybody.”
Professor Maddox said teachers were also subject to this selectivity, citing the dismissal of an unwed, pregnant teacher from Queensland's Caloundra Christian College as an example.
With the current enrolment trend set to continue, 30 to 50 per cent of teaching graduates are likely to enter religious schools and Professor Maddox said it was important to note these workplaces weren't covered by the same anti-discrimination provisions as the public sector, despite receiving government funding.
Professor Maddox said some of the best funded non-government schools were those more likely to teach students fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
“For example these schools will teach creation science instead of evolution and teach a modified English curriculum that shields students from 'dangerous' words and themes, and they'll also teach an unusual approach to citizenship, so that God's law is more important than the law,” she said.
“Maybe [these students] don't take any of these messages in, but on the other hand are they emerging from their schooling with a fully rounded scientific education; are they going to be equipped with the scientific vocabulary to understand the debate about the environment for example?”
But Mr Robertson said all independent schools encouraged “critical thinking”, while Mr Phelan said it was not true to suggest local Catholic schools did not teach elements of the state curriculum.
“Some people seem to think that Catholic schools do not teach particular components of the curriculum,” he said.
“What we do is teach the current curriculum, but add to it by delivering the curriculum within an overarching environment of Christian values.
“As an aside, on the specific issue of climate change, the Catholic Church agrees that the climate has changed consistently throughout history.”
Professor Maddox said while past research had indicated Australians distrusted the overtly religious, contemporary political discourse was couched in faith-based terminology.
“We assume we have a secular constitution but don't really pay attention to how it works, and we have quite a large shift going on with significant potential for change in Australia's political culture,” she said.
“Given the collapse in party ideology, for both sides a religious vocabulary becomes a handy shorthand for saying, 'look, look, we do stand for something; we have some values'.”
Professor Maddox will deliver a seminar entitled Values R-Us: The Christianisation of Australian schools and the dissolution of the common good at the University of Queensland at 5pm today.