30 May 2014
Free, compulsory and secular
A review written for Sydney Review of Books
It says a lot about the secular nature of Australia that Marion Maddox’s important new book Taking God to School has not attracted more attention, or even, as she may have hoped, controversy.
Maddox’s thesis is straightforward enough. The Australian settlement established early consensus on the question of government support for religious schools, namely that it was undesirable. Education that was ‘free, compulsory and secular’ was the foundation stone on which a school system should be built. Maddox applauds the guiding instincts of politicians of the day who determined that government should enable this education model, led as they were by fears of sectarianism and the isolation of specific religions if the state supported religious schools. They also expressed an ideal about the kind of nation they wanted Australia to become: a fair country where every child would be well educated, each bound to the other in the same setting, without the added complication of religious affiliation getting in the way.
Maddox provides a thorough examination of the way in which this consensus unravelled, beginning in the Menzies era and then through successive administrations, most notably the Howard government. Her account is alert to the nuances and details that accompanied these changes. She shows how the debate over state aid to non-government schools drove a stake through the heart of the Labor party in the period preceding the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, leading ultimately to Whitlam embracing state aid to Catholic schools in defiance of the party’s national conference. Crucially, it was the Whitlam government that adopted a position that endures to this day: that is a dual commitment to public education open to all, and (my emphasis) to ‘the prior right’ of parents to choose the kind of school – public or private – they wished their child to attend.
Maddox sorts the fine grain of education policy, including charting the progress of Whitlam’s ambition for needs based funding, ultimately realised with the passage of the Australian Education Bill in the dying days of the last federal parliament nearly forty years later. Taking God to School is instructive reading for anyone interested in understanding how we have reached the stage where towards a third of students attend private schools, nearly all of a religious character, with many receiving substantial support from the federal government. For Maddox, it has been downhill ever since the high water mark of public school attendance in the late 1970s. Private schools are now better resourced and parents increasingly eschew the public option, especially when children enter secondary school.
This status quo ante should be challenged. Maddox focuses on the disparity of government support for public and private schools and argues against the current arrangements on the grounds of equity. This argument, while always bedevilled by statistics and ideological differences, has great legitimacy, especially given the retrograde steps taken in the first Abbott budget. Taking God to School provides an updated template for the discussion about the nature of our school system that Maddox specifically aims to provoke.
But there are additional elements that Taking God to School does not address that are equally important. They are the declining education achievements of students from low socio-economic backgrounds – itself a jarring equity issue – and the overall decline in education performance by Australian students across the board. Given the substantial numbers of children now educated in non-government schools, it is the evidence based reforms that we know work that should remain the priority for governments: greater principal autonomy, improved teaching standards, and greater support for parental engagement, delivered through a needs based funding system with additional support going directly to students in need – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with disabilities, students from low socio-economic backgrounds.
This approach lies at the core of the new funding model that Labor introduced and which the incoming conservative government is now doing everything in its power to pull apart. I would argue the future of this major policy reform should, along with the issues raised by Maddox, focus the mind of anyone concerned about the state of Australian education.
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Taking God to School is intended to provoke a discussion about the separation of church and state in schooling, with the author upping the ante by focusing on the proliferation of new, low fee Christian schools. The rapid expansion of these schools has coincided with the growth in size and influence of mega-churches like Hillsong in Sydney, where the emphasis on redemption, allied with material gain and emotional well being, has proved a successful drawcard.
Maddox hails from a different religious background. Her personal reflections, and examination of the theological underpinning of these churches and how this bleeds into the education practices of Christian schools, are among the most illustrative parts of Taking God to School. It is true, as she notes, that current policy facilitates the growth of new private schools, and that in low socio-economic neighborhoods schools of this type are now easily established. The fact that they receive support from government, which enables them to offer low fees, does not fully explain their success in attracting students.
In Taking God to School, Maddox points to a cohort of parents with a general mistrust of government – parents who, for example, do not believe the science of climate change, and choose schools to reflect that belief. This analysis does not account for parents who do not share these views but make the same choices. It is not sufficient to identify this group as marginal voters. Some are and some are not. Despite the implication that political parties are driving education funding policy in this direction simply to pick these voters up, I suspect there are multiple factors at play. Perhaps Maddox and other scholars will subsequently address this phenomenon in greater depth.
The author is on weaker ground when she asserts that, underpinned by a dominion theology, the manifesto of these new Christian schools, which calls for people to be answerable only to God and not the authority of the state, could see a kind of religious civil disobedience emerge. There is no evidence that I am aware of that shows that an education at a low fee fundamentalist Christian school will disproportionally result in actions of this kind. To strengthen her case, Maddox cites a handful of worrying examples of extreme theology that permeate mainly small, Pentecostal type Christian schools. My view is that these instances are the exception not the rule. Given the framework of regulations that apply to all schools and the requirement that all children – irrespective of the school they attend – must be taught the curriculum, examples of this kind are evidence more of a failure of both school leadership and regulatory oversight, rather than a hidden revolutionary agenda that is likely to produce students of sufficient numbers to challenge the legitimacy of governments.
The rise in attendance at private schools is ascribed in Taking God to School to the ascendancy of neo-liberal philosophy in national politics, with governments increasingly contracting out service provision. Here Maddox references Michael Pusey’s work in the early 1990s detailing the conservative bias of the public service, which by his reading is in thrall to the neo-liberal worldview.
I don’t buy it. Not because Pusey was wrong – he wasn’t. Not because neo-liberal thinking hasn’t played a role in the way governments have formulated and delivered policy – it has. One only has to cast back to the early debates around climate change to see the constraining influence of this orthodoxy in the counter-productive role played by Treasury.
But such an analysis fails to take into account a much wider picture. It was political decisions, primarily influenced by existing non-government school networks, that drove school funding policy from an early stage. Politicians from all parties have been conditioned by the need to respond to successful campaigns by this sector, with the now famous strike by Catholic schools in Goulburn in 1961 an oft-quoted example. This question split the Labor vote for years and a long-term bias towards private schools has infected post-war conservative parties.
The pattern of supporting both government and non-government schools was established well before neo-liberalism took hold. Whitlam’s Schools Commission is examined at length in Taking God to School. It specifically validated parental choice and accepted the premise upon which religious schools were established. This position is now entrenched in our political life.
The introduction by the Gillard government of a needs-based funding model to drive school funding represents the biggest step yet taken to address the equity deficiencies of the Howard government school funding model. At the same time, it doesn’t unscramble the egg that Maddox finds so unpalatable, a task I doubt any government would try.
It would drive genuine neo-liberals mad to contemplate the national accounts and the increased financial transfers that are automatically directed to education. Although they would be doubtless cheering on the Coalition as it now attempts to wind back this investment.
Then there is the more recent school improvement agenda of a new national curriculum, national best practice teacher standards, and of course the Gonski funding reforms mentioned above, that up until the election of the Abbott government, were supported by most state and territory governments irrespective of political persuasion. Maddox views the massive injection of funds by the Rudd/Gillard governments in a school building program as merely a quick way of stimulating employment in the face of the Global Financial Crisis. Yes, this was part of the story. But she does not reflect on why schools were chosen and not some alternative. The answer is that national governments have a primary duty to buttress the national interest, and in this respect education and our future prospects are joined hip and bone. While the new reactionaries are doing everything in their power to weaken this duty, and it is depressing to see education policy distorted to ideological ends by the antics of current education Minister Christopher Pyne, in the longer term this foundational duty should, indeed must, prevail.
The importance of education to unleashing the talents of the population and hence to national prosperity is self-evident. The fact that education is not easily susceptible to a market model, and the ever-looming presence of the ballot box, will hopefully impede the destructive tendencies we have recently witnessed.
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Taking God to School also focuses on the schools chaplains program initiated by the Howard government and continued and enlarged by the Rudd/Gillard governments. I became responsible for this program in 2010, and can confirm Maddox’s fear that the line between chaplains acting to support students in the provision of general pastoral care and proselytising was too easily crossed.
The program was voluntary both for schools and for students. It was also extremely popular, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the Queensland floods, where services were stretched and demands increased on schools to provide support for affected students. Nevertheless, the umbilical cord between churches with their mission to evangelise and chaplain providers who shared this same commitment required significant guideline changes to ensure chaplains did not overstep the mark.
The decision I took to open up the program to non-chaplains and lift the qualification requirements was based on concerns around this issue and some few cases of chaplains breaching existing guidelines. But I also wanted to widen the opportunities for non-religious support staff to come into schools and help students and teachers dealing with specific challenges that were holding back their learning, as was the case for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and for kids recently arrived from parts of the world mired in conflict. Again, the recent budget saw this decision reversed, which means that some schools and students will not get the kind of support they deserve, simply because they do not wish to embrace the chaplaincy model.
The most significant question raised by Maddox is also a matter that requires immediate attention. Does Australia want an increasingly segregated school system? During the second term of the Labor government, I became increasingly concerned at how easy it was for low fee non-government schools to start up, at which point they would automatically receive a guaranteed level of federal government support. This is apparent not only in the rise of new low fee Christian schools but in the growth of the Islamic school sector as well.
It is clear that for state governments, which bear the primary responsibility for public education, it is an easy cost shift to welcome the Commonwealth funded low fee private school and so delay or defer investment in public schooling in that area. In areas like the western suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne, where recently arrived migrants make up a large percentage of the school population, the flowering of schools directed to serve specific religious adherents introduces a complex new element into school funding policy.
The success we have had in building tolerant communities made up of many nationalities has, in part, depended on the children of migrants from different backgrounds going to school together. The early sectarian schisms that separated Protestant and Catholic are gone. The ongoing existence of Catholic schools proved to be no ultimate barrier to this gradual ecumenism. On that basis, we might have a relaxed attitude about the proliferation of new religious schools, except that in the absence of a well-resourced public school in their suburb the religious school can end up as a default location for students. If this situation comes to pass then the kinds of problems that I have argued are not yet palpable, but which Maddox foresees at play in the current crop of Christian schools, may well emerge.
Equally concerning is the splintering of the education system to the extent that it is not capable of delivering a comparatively thorough education, along with shared secular values which are the foundation of our democracy. The New Schools policy that operated during the Hawke government regulated the introduction of non-government schools, taking into account financial viability and the likely impact on existing schools. As Maddox makes clear in Taking God to School, it was the relaxation of this policy by the Howard government that saw a subsequent dramatic flight to non-government schools. The problem here is clear enough. Private schools have the capacity to choose their student intake whereas public schools must accept all comers. The result, and one which was very evident to me in the electorate of Kingsford Smith, was that public schooling becomes a residual system. Here you find a disproportionate number of kids from low socio-economic backgrounds, along with students with disabilities in underfunded classrooms presenting tougher teaching challenges. All this combines to turn off middle class parents who are worried that in these conditions their child’s education might suffer.
It was my intention to review the Commonwealth’s role in the establishment and regulation of new schools. Informal discussions with the Independent Schools Council of Australia had been positive. This work still needs to be undertaken with a view to strengthening the requirements for establishing new schools, ensuring long-term planning and coordination in concert with state governments, and putting in place more rigorous governance requirements for these schools, some of which do not operate with either sufficient financial or educational rigour.
President Bill Clinton famously sought to remind himself every day that it is ‘the economy stupid’. But it is education that makes the biggest difference to a nation’s capacity to manage change and provide for its citizenry – and most governments make it a priority, albeit with mixed success. Armed with the knowledge that a person’s level of educational attainment is a pretty good predictor of income and health, and sharing the belief that all children should be afforded an education sufficiently rigorous so as to enable each to reach their full potential, we have the rationale for the education project of the future, one that defends the positive steps already taken.
What this should encompass is a topic that cries out to be examined on another day. For now Taking God to School is calling for a fresh look at the predominance of religious schools. It is asking crucial questions about the level of funding these schools receive and the conditions under which they operate. Marion Maddox is challenging all Australians about the kind of society we want for the future. There is much at stake here and this makes Taking God to School essential reading.