Secularism in schools

In the SMH yesterday, longtime public school advocate Jane Caro criticised the spread of religion into NSW public schools, under the sponsorship of the Howard government’s school chaplaincy program. There had also been criticism earlier in the month about Hillsong recruiting at public schools.

Caro complains that

For those of us, however, who have deliberately chosen secular education for our children, such a religious invasion of our public schools is unequivocally unwelcome.

My reading of the 19th century debates on the introduction of public education was that the idea was more for the schools to be non-sectarian than to encourage secularism. This was a way of persuading people of different faiths to send their kids to the same schools. They would do it much more reluctantly if they thought that either other religions or no religion were to be taught. To this day, the NSW Education Act (section 30) leaves open the possibility of non-sectarian religious instruction in public schools:

In government schools, the education is to consist of strictly non-sectarian and secular instruction. The words secular instruction are to be taken to include general religious education as distinct from dogmatic or polemical theology.

But it seems to me that we have preference mismatching in schooling. In the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, nearly three-quarters of parents whose oldest child is at a public school say they have a religion. 12% of them seem quite religious, attending church at least weekly. Some of them may prefer to send their kids to a religious school, but instead have to enrol them in a secular public school, but because it is free rather than because it is secular.

On the other hand, parents who do want secular education but don’t want to send their kids to public schools also have limited options. There are only a few dozen independent schools in Australia that are not affiliated to a religion, though it is true that many of the protestant schools are only nominally religious. Yet more independent school parents say they have no religion (26%) than say they are active in a religious organisation (23%).

I’ve not seen any detailed explanation as to why there are so few secular private schools, though possible reasons include the stronger indoctrination motives of religious groups and the practical element of their long experience in running schools.

If schools could be for-profit I expect we would see more secular education become available – entrepreneurs would see the business opportunity in unbundling the benefits of private education from a package that these days mostly includes religion, whether it is wanted or not. Even the ultra-progressive Swedes allow for-profit education, though I suspect our local public education lobby would rather have Hillsong than corporations in the classroom.

14 thoughts on “Secularism in schools

  1. Excuse my ignorance on this, but is it the case that private high and private primary schools must be non-profit in all states in Australia?

    I also wonder how different schools would be in practical terms if they were private — most universities are nominally non-profit, but the difference between them and for-profit ones is exceptionally slim. IMHO universities in Australia where funding is limited care far more about the bottom line than any of the for-profit US universities I’ve been to (although I’ve only been to the rich ones). I imagine the same would be true of the rich private schools that have millions in saving — it’s hard for me to see how different they would be to for-profit ones.


  2. Conrad – It’s not the case that for-profit schools are banned everywhere (from memory, they are in Victoria but not in NSW). But it is a condition of federal and state funding that they be not-for-profit. Presumably for-profit entrepreneurs think that it would be hard to make money when all but a handful of existing schools receive considerable per-student subsidies.

    All organisations have to care about the bottom line, but presumably the argument for the ban is that for-profits would cut corners out of a desire to make money. How this is worse than cutting corners because government education budgets are made with little regard for need or desirable outcomes and distributed according to the preferences of teacher unions rather than parents is, you will not be surprised to hear, beyond me.

    Particularly in a private school market dominated by non-profits, it’s hard to see how a for-profit would survive long if it was delivering sup-optimal services.


  3. “I suspect our local public education lobby would rather have Hillsong than corporations in the classroom.”

    I would rather have McDonalds own the schools, sell their food in the tuckshop, and teach maths by counting Big Macs, than have Hillsong.


  4. Hillsong, aren’t they the people upset that science reminds people that the first book in the bible is littler more than a story. I think I’d go for the mighty buck over attempts to destroy the enlightenment.

    You have to be a little careful lumping all under the one roof, religious education in CofE private schools, or at least the one my children went to is quite enlightened, they were taught about all the great religions and I got the impression no attempt was made to belittle any. You can’t knock a religious school that teaches tolerance.


  5. Charles – Despite the claimed benefit of public schools in teaching tolerance, that is what private schools do too. The ‘faith-based’ schools went so far as to put out a declaration saying that’s what they do. I’ve been researching this issue on and off for a year, and the only example of private school ‘intolerance’ I have found was not permitting same-sex dates at a school formal.


  6. “I suspect our local public education lobby would rather have Hillsong than corporations in the classroom.”

    I agree, because allowing for-profit schools would probably result in a lot more competition for public schools than the likes of Hillsong, who are much more limited by the size of their niche. Really – if you allow private firms to provide child-care services (surely the area where information asymmetries in education are greatest), why wouldn’t you for primary and high schools.


  7. If you open the tolerance issue past religion then I think the public system is better.

    In a private school you run less chance of coming face to face with poverty. I think country public schools are even better at teaching tolerance as you don’t have the economic groups separated by suburbs.

    I’m probable wrong but it is my feeling that the better Australian Prime Ministers had their primary education in Country Public Schools. It’s also interesting that country kids are over represented in that group.

    I’ve often wondered why country kids punch well above their weigh, is it because being a country kid I notice, because they are more tolerant so better socially, because they know the social structure form top to bottom so if they have the brains they can fit in wherever they want to or because we are tolerated because we don’t know we are supposed to fail if we don’t come from the right school.


  8. Has Jane thought about sending her children to a Catholic school?

    There’s not much God-bothering goes on in them these days.


  9. I suspect it is hard for any school, whoever owns and runs it, to inculcate any particular value, be it tolerance or anything else, in a deliberate and consistently successful way.

    No Australian school has absolute control over what the children in it think and believe. For one thing, children at some point develop free wills of their own. For another, they have many alternative sources of information, examples and values — family, non-school friends, TV, books, the wider culture as well as the virulent youf sub-culture.

    The real culture and real character of a school community are not necessarily the same as the “official line” promoted by the staff. In fact, sometimes the staff are divided, and what is said for public consumption bears little relation to what is said in the class room, much less the playground.

    There is also the “law of unintended consequences” to contend with. The messages that children get from staff are not always the ones that the staff intended to send. Staff can preach tolerance, only for students to observe in the playground (when the teachers are safely out of the way in the staff room) that this is nothing more than a word you say on certain occasions. Or the staff (of an expensive Jesuit school, let us say) can preach “preferential option for the poor”, while the students still learn that it pays to be rich. Or the staff can preach “peace” so heavy-handedly that they produce a generation of eager army recruits.

    It really seems futile to try and justify any particular school system, or any particular school, on its alleged ability to output students who adhere to specific values.


  10. “I’ve often wondered why country kids punch well above their weigh”

    One reason is that many of us went to private boarding schools, often enough with a religious component and a strong line in community service and social responsibility.


  11. I teach maths at a for-profit high school in NSW. The students are internationals, mainly, and the fees are pretty high (on par with one of the major GPS schools.) We teach the NSW HSC and also a univeristy preparation program for one of the unis (sort of like a zeroth year at uni).

    When I graduated last year, I decided that I didn’t want to work in the public system if at all possible, but I also didn’t want to teach in a religious school, either. So I made up a list of non-religious independent schools and sent my CV to pretty well all of them. It was a fairly small list, but some of the best know schools in Sydney (Ascham, Sydney Boys Grammar) are secular.


  12. “I think country public schools are even better at teaching tolerance”
    Are you joking? Some of the most intolerant places in Australia are in the country (Like most of country Queensland, where I seem to remember One Nation was picking up a huge chunk of the vote in the 90s). Try painting yourself black or giving yourself slanty eyes and see how much those places arn’t.

    “I’ve often wondered why country kids punch well above their weigh”
    That’s funny — I often wonder why the reverse is true, and why they have such poor outcomes compared to city kids (more likely to drop out of school, less likely to go to uni etc.). If they are doing so well, then that’s great, since we won’t have to subsidize them anymore, create equity places in our universities etc.

    “If you open the tolerance issue past religion then I think the public system is better.”
    That wasn’t my experience. My recommendation for all the people that think public schools are wonderful places where kids learn to think on thir own, learn tolerance of others etc. is to go to some of them. It just isn’t true.


  13. I went to a country public school in a small town. I owe a lot to a couple of extraordinary teachers, but the school’s ethos really did reflect the ethos of the population it was drawn from – ignorant bigotry, in a phrase. In this case its less a question of public vs religious school as the stultifying effect of living in a small country town.

    And yes, country kids who move to the city after school do well on average, but that is a selection effect – those who do well leave, those who stay didn’t do well.


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