In its poll in 2000, the Gallup organisation found that two-thirds of the Australian population approved of the regular teaching of religion in schools. For parents of children of school age, this approval rises to over 7 in 10.
For the last century and more, the main vehicle of teaching religion in Government schools has been teachers from faith communities regularly visiting schools for a half hour class, commonly called “Scripture”.
This provision of religion teaching was virtually universal in all States except South Australia until the end of World War 2. In the past fifty years, “Scripture” has been dealt two body blows: in the nineteen fifties, the source of volunteer teachers shrank quickly as many women entered the work force. By the mid seventies, the number of children receiving religious instruction in this way hit an all-time low. In Western Australia for example, a commission appointed by the State Government reported that only 14% of primary school aged children received ‘Scripture’ in 1975.
By the end of the eighties, the churches had re-grouped and numbers of ‘Scripture’ teachers and students started to rise again.
However, in the eighties, curriculum reforms began to change the way children are socialised in class: more group work, less formality, more individually-tailored lessons. The volunteer pool of Scripture teachers has been hard put to match their pedagogy to the changed face of the class room.
So “Scripture” is again in decline. There are a number of reasons for this, including standards of training Scripture teachers, and schools whose curriculum already feels too crowded.
Many schools have welcomed the work of ‘Scripture’ teachers as much for their pastoral care of students as for their impact on the curriculum. Scripture teachers function as a benign presence of the wider community in the school. Many are seen as surrogate grandparents for the children.
The community and its schools are beginning to take note of these two needs: Children need pastoral care beyond what teachers are able to offer; and children more than ever need an exposure to the world of religion.
In many respects the rise of chaplaincies in Government schools in the past two decades is a response to school children’s pastoral care needs. There are 500 or more State school chaplains around Australia and while the majority of them are in High Schools, the demand for chaplains in Primary Schools is outstripping the ability of agencies to provide them.
Schools are in the midst of considerable change. Government funding policies and the assumed requirements of parents are blurring the distinctions between public and private schools, that is, between Government and (in the main) faith-related schools. In many of these private schools, Religion is a Learning Area that sits alongside the 8 Learning Areas mandated by the new State Curriculum frameworks.
The world also is in the midst of change, much of which is generated by the zeal of faith-inspired terrorists, and a growth of new conservative politicians proudly wearing their religious faith as an appeal to voters.
This is an urgent time for the wise, critical teaching of religion. For a start, children need to know that not all Christians are right wing in politics. For their own spiritual benefit, students need access to the world’s spiritual heritage: Taoist and Christian wisdom, Muslim and Jewish ethics, Buddhist and Hindu mindfulness of the world, and the treasury of saints of all religions and none.
Students need to understand our Muslim neighbours in Indonesia, and how modern secular democracies grew out of medieval theocracies.
Now is the time for a greater inclusion of religion in the curriculum of all schools, both in the natural places for it in the Social Sciences and English, but more especially in its own Learning Area.
This cannot happen in Government schools without changes in curriculum policies. It is heartening that there are revisions of Years 11 and 12 syllabuses around Australia which will encourage students to study some aspects of religion as tertiary entrance subjects.
For this to be taught well, the skills and knowledge of teachers will need to be reinforced, and teacher-training institutions are preparing to respond to this new need.
We owe our students a new depth of professionalism in opening to them the exciting world of religion, its beliefs, rituals, sacred stories and its mysteries.
Broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Perspective, 30 March 2005