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.