Book Review of ‘Taking God to School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education?’ by Marion Maddox (Allen & Unwin, 2014)

Book Reviewed by John Carr, Brisbane CBD Group, Sea of Faith Australia

The recent publication of several books on the relationship between religion and education in Australia is timely for us in SoFiA as “Religion in Education” will be the topic for the 2015 Conference.

Marion Maddox’s book joins such other Australian works as: Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro’s What Makes a Good School?, NewSouth Publishing, 2012; David Gillespie’s Free Schools: How to get a good education for your kids without spending a fortune, McMillan Pan, 2014; and Cathy Byrne’s Religion in Secondary Education: What, in heaven’s name, are we teaching our children?, Brill, 2014.

Bonnor and Caro’s, and Gillespie’s books are rather journalistic, while Maddox’s and Byrne’s are relatively academic. The books by Bonnor and Caro, and Gillespie are aimed at parents currently agonising over school selection, while Byrne’s book on curriculum content is based on her 2012 Ph.D. thesis, supervised by Dr Maddox of Macquarie University. Cathy Byrne has agreed to be the keynote speaker at our 2015 Conference.

As the titles foreshadow, the common theme of all four books is that religion now plays too large a role in primary and secondary schooling in Australia. It’s a double blow: the proportion of children in religious schools has grown substantially over the past 40 years; and religious programs and staff now have much greater access to children in government schools. More seriously, the authors assert, Australian politicians, parents and children are being conned into paying for a kind of radical religious education that most neither want nor understand.

Marion Maddox’s Taking God to School is the most comprehensive and detailed of the four, and she does a very good job of exploring the complex issues that have dominated debate and policy development over the past 200 years. The fundamental issues in the relationship between religion and education were and remain the sponsorship, funding and staffing of schools, and the teaching of religion in what we now accept as the years of compulsory schooling. Throughout the first 150 of the 200 years, those who favoured free, secular schools generally won out. Supporters of what became government or public school systems were motivated by fears: fear of sectarian divisions in society; of wasteful duplication of facilities; and of their own brand of religious faith being swamped by others. The catch-cry was “free, secular and compulsory”. The groups to stand aside from this ideal were the majority of Catholics and those who could afford to send their children to élite private schools that followed the traditions of the English “public” schools. In the past 40 years, however, the conflict over these issues has taken a very different path. The dominant catch-cry seems to be not “free and secular”, but “taxpayer-funded sectarian education”.

Professor Maddox deals effectively with the complexities of State and regional differences. At no stage did all States and Territories reach the same solutions or compromises. Terms like “secular”, “religion” and “values” seemed to have different meanings in different places and their meanings have certainly changed over time. Alliances changed from time to time as religious institutions adapted to developing knowledge, new denominations emerged and the number of adherents to religions old and new increased or declined. Political parties came, went or changed.

Maddox has picked up on some of the odd, paradoxical patterns and events in this history. Amongst the supporters of State schooling have been leading Christians, Jews (such as Henry Cohen MLA, late 19th Century) and Muslims, while some of the most complaisant enablers of religious schooling were atheists, including the odd Prime Minister. While religious institutions and authorities have usually been at the forefront of campaigns for religion in schools, some Christian denominations have been seriously divided. In recent years, different Uniting Church agencies have sometimes been on opposite sides of campaigning, those supporting more funding for religious schools at odds with those opposing their exemption from anti-discrimination laws.

Some of the most engaging sections of Maddox’s book are based on detailed case studies that she and other academics have undertaken. Her analysis of the funding of schools in the Mildura area is particularly instructive. There are 10 schools in the area, four state (three primary, one secondary), three Catholic, and three conducted by the Lutheran Church, the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) and Christian Education National (CEN). The spread of Socio-economic Status ratings (SES) is not great, eight of the school cohorts being just below the 1,000 benchmark, and the Lutheran and SDA cohorts slightly above. All the schools received substantial funding from the two levels of government in 2011: between $7,000 and $12,000 per annum (to the nearest thousand). The author’s focus is on Mildura Christian College, a P–10 school run by CEN. It had an SES of 962, government funding of $11,445, fees of up to $2,000, and just 67 students. Maddox contends that Mildura is an example of “choice” gone mad, leading to costly taxpayer-funded duplication. Furthermore, the CEN school, better funded than the State schools, does not appear to meet standards expected in a modern liberal democracy, either academically or in social justice: Its curriculum is “Bible-based, Christ-centred” (Creationist science and “Accelerated Christian Education” materials) and its staffing policy is discriminatory.

Professor Maddox’s second major target is religious education in government schools. She does not oppose courses that provide objective information on the nature and history of religions. These are not widely available. Queensland does have such a course (Study of Religion) at senior secondary level, but it is offered mostly only in Catholic schools. Nor is Maddox opposed to courses in ethics, which have had a stormy history. What she does fear is the increasing access of mainly volunteer religious “teachers” to government schools. The record in this area (Religious Education, Special Religious Instruction, etc.) over the past 150 years has been extremely fraught and the systems operating in the various States have usually satisfied neither religious organisations nor parents, teachers and principals.

What radically changed the dynamic in this area was the establishment of the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP) by the Howard Government in 2006. Maddox’s detailed treatment of this topic is largely based on the work of the Victorian inter-church body, Access Ministries, though some examples are drawn from the work of Scripture Union-managed school chaplains in Toowoomba [Queensland]. She explores the qualifications and duties of chaplains, comparing them with those of related professionals, such as guidance officers, counsellors and welfare officers. She also reports on the plethora of ancillary programs that Chaplains promote, like “Shine”, “Strength”, “Belle”, “Bella Chicks”, “Girls Getaway” and “Red Frogs”. While publicity material portrays these personal development programs in bland terms and school principals mostly approve of them, the organisers, when amongst friends, describe them as vital means of “discipling” — faith formation — to bring young people to “a relationship with the Lord”. Schools are “the greatest mission field”. The conflict between public and private descriptions can be quite bizarre, as when Access Ministry officials defend their programs against charges of “evangelising” and “proselytising”, which are explicitly banned by the terms of the Government contracts.

The picture Maddox presents suggests that successive governments of both major parties have, out of a mixture of political greed and religious naivety, presided over a major shift in education. The egalitarian ideals of the past, that education should be universal, free and secular, have been replaced by a seriously divided and potentially divisive schooling system that favours the wealthy and the radically religious. As for parents, they too have naively swallowed the media propaganda that to be “good parents” they must choose non-state schools for their children in order to get a sound education based on “traditional values”. As State schools continue to be underfunded, this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the wider political level, the changes in religious education can be seen as an example of the continuing neo-conservative economic policy of outsourcing and privatisation. As this review is being written, the 2014 Federal budget has just been released. Amongst other things, it appears to have dismantled the last of the measures for the funding of schools recommended by the Gonski Review and to promote the privatisation of universities and the deregulation of university fees. A further $245.3 million has been set aside to fund the National Chaplaincy Program for the next five years. Plus ça change