Words by Duncan Willis
Illustration by Ashleigh Duncan

Throughout primary school, my friend Boris and I were inseparable. We sat next to each other in every class, at lunchtime and at recess. The sole exception was one class each week when Boris got to sit in the corner and draw pictures while I had to learn about a guy who lived 2000 years ago and who could provide everybody with bread and fish. Boris was Chinese and Buddhist, and thus his mother had opted out of his religious education for reasons I didn’t understand until later. While I learned about Jesus and the disciples, Boris read books or joined in other classes.

This simple classroom separation has its origins back in 1872, when the colony of Victoria declared that education was to be “free, compulsory and secular”. Government funding to all denominational schools ceased in 1874, and religious instruction in government schools was banned. Ever since, religion has become an ever-increasing presence in government schools. In the ‘50s, volunteers from Christian and Jewish groups were allowed to deliver religious instruction alongside the curriculum. They were joined in the ‘90s by volunteers of other faiths, providing students with Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu and Muslim options. The Government now spends more money on religious education than it ever has before.

Religious education in Victorian schools was completely overhauled as part of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. The act stipulated that primary schools could provide either Special Religious Instruction (SRI), defined as “instruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs” (2.2.11, section 5), or General Religious Education (GRE), “education about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world” (2.2.10, section 4). GRE was intended to be taught by qualified teachers, whereas SRI is taught by volunteers of various faiths. No syllabus has ever been written for GRE, and unless a teacher develops their own course in their own time, there is effectively no class where children can learn about religion in a secular context. In 81% of Victorian primary schools, the only option is Christian religious instruction, usually taught by a volunteer from ACCESS ministries, an inter-denominational Christian group.

Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) argues the current system is unfair. Scott Hedges, who co-founded the grassroots organisation in 2011, sees the current system as betraying Victoria’s progressive history. He believes that in making schools “free, compulsory and secular”, the 19th-century government was sending a clear message that it would not embroil itself in sectarian disputes between the churches. Furthermore, it was making an effort to construct a society different to that of England or Ireland, which had been racked by years of sectarian violence. However, Field Rickards, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, believes that at the time, secular meant “non-sectarian”, and not, “free of religion”. Hedges refutes this, arguing that Rickards is “totally wrong on the facts … and wrong in spirit”.

FIRIS believes that students should follow a curriculum in GRE that teaches students about the beliefs, architecture, culture and festivals of different religions in a secular context. This new course would be at the expense of all current religious instruction in schools. Hedges points to Australia’s closest neighbours, which include countries that are predominately Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, arguing that to understand the culture of our neighbours, we must understand the fundamentals of their religion.

Dan Flynn of the Australian Christian Lobby rejects the view that GRE and SRI are substitutes for one another and instead, says that they should be taught together. Flynn believes that the stories in the Bible, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule, are important because of the messages they impart to children. He believes that SRI should remain an option for parents, while GRE should be core curricula. He argues that SRI shouldn’t be taught by qualified teachers because true believers of the faith can provide more genuine experience. He likens it to learning about Indigenous Australian culture from an Indigenous elder as opposed to a textbook. However, he concedes that perhaps the volunteers teaching SRI need higher levels of training and the primary schools need to come up with better alternative plans for children who opt out of religious instruction.

Dr David Zyngier, a Senior Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Monash University Faculty of Education, is deeply critical of the ACCESS curriculum from an educational point of view. He states that “students are not being challenged to think independently”, that activities “minimise intellectual growth” and, “moreover, there does not seem to be any logical selection and sequencing of the content”. Where most primary school curricula, over successive years, aim to create an environment where students learn independently and develop deep levels of thinking, the ACCESS curriculum favours individualised ‘busy’ work. Zyngier argues that the curriculum is incompatible with the current Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) and that religious instruction should be removed from Victorian public schools to “ensure that the damage that is being done by ACCESS Ministries to our most vulnerable children end sooner rather than later”.

Lara Wood, the FIRIS campaign co-ordinator, alleges that current system “encourages ignorance”. She argues that religious education in schools is important, but the current system does not allow for education, merely instruction, or “indoctrination”. She believes that SRI is harmful for students, alleging that children “are being taught to be suspicious of children of other cultures” and that they are being taught that if they do not develop a personal relationship with God, then they will go to hell. She accuses ACCESS ministries volunteers of indoctrinating and proselytising children, despite the fact the ACCESS volunteers must sign an agreement which specifically outlaws proselytising.

I didn’t come out of primary school brainwashed, believing Jesus was the only way to avoid hell, I didn’t end up suspicious of other religions and cultures. However, I didn’t leave primary school with an understanding of Gospels, or of the messages of the Bible, or of our Judeo-Christian heritage. I didn’t know a thing about any other religion, believing Islam and Judaism were other denominations of Christianity.  As I found with my friend Boris, understanding one’s religion is key to understanding one’s culture. A secular religious education would have helped me develop a tighter relationship with both my best friend and others of different faiths to my own.