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Religious Schools and Choice

Monday, 3 June 2013  | Remy Low

Religious versus Non-religious Schools?

There has been a period of sustained growth in religious schooling in across Australia generally and with it, an intense and at times polemical dispute has swirled (e.g. the controversy over the proposed Islamic school in the Sydney suburb of Camden in 2007). This is perhaps unsurprising as what are considered to be at stake in these debates are questions about some of the most cherished ideals of contemporary liberal societies, not least rational and critical thinking; freedoms of choice, religion and values; the qualities of citizenship; and entry to tertiary studies. In this brief paper, I approach this issue by looking at the policy context undergirding this trend, and in this way seek to move beyond the principled polemics of defenders of both secular and religious schools.

Religious schools in Australia can be preliminarily understood as a conjunction of ‘religion’ and ‘school’ as officially defined by the government. That is, with regard to the latter, they denote institutions that typically teach much the same general curriculum as other schools, and share the state and federal government aim of preparing children for their future lives of citizenship and employment in exchange for government funding. According to the Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), education through schooling is described as a key training ground for its future citizens, workers and indeed, for the prospects of the nation as a whole:

Australia’s future depends on a high quality and dynamic school education system to provide students with foundation skills, values, knowledge and understanding necessary for lifelong learning, employment and full participation in society. The education system is of the highest standard and enjoys international renown.[1]


In addition, owing to their particular ‘religious affiliations,’ it is supposed that religious schools also seek to pass on a particular set of extra-empirical beliefs. According to the official governmental definition of religion in the Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups, religion is defined as a set of beliefs about a ‘supernatural Being, Thing or Principle’ and the associated values arising from such beliefs.

Thus, under the present institutional arrangements, Australian schooling consists of two broad sectors along which the non-religious or secular/religious distinction correspond broadly with the categories of government/non-government – or synonymously, public/private – respectively. However, despite their non-government and private status, religious schools remain funded and governed by the Australian Federal and State governments. That is, for the purposes of classification and governance, education in religious schools is categorised as a form of schooling that is considered non-government and private. However, such schools are still obligated to administer, to a large extent, the ‘foundation skills, values, knowledge and understanding’ held as necessary for the good of the nation and its citizens. Such a conjunction is evident in the public discourse of politicians and policymakers when articulating the appropriate relationship between the two elements. For example, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, when pressed on the question of religion and religious institutions’ provision of social services, including education, asserts:

I think the church in contemporary society, obviously it is the mainstay, the sort of wellspring of faith and belief and existence for literally millions of Australians, and that's to be respected [...] Government does what it can and can provide resources, but often the real innovation, the real human touch comes from churches, comes from non-for-profit organizations, that then take those resources and use them in their own special way.[2]

From this statement, two points should be noted: Firstly, the conventional regard of religion and religious institutions as per the governmental definition of it as a ‘wellspring of faith and belief and existence’ (i.e. supernatural beliefs) that then produces ‘real innovation, the real human touch’ (i.e. values and conduct); and secondly, the relationship of the Australian Government to such religious institutions as one of ‘providing resources.’ With regard to religious schooling, the precise nature of such ‘resourcing’ in the form of standardised guidelines on various aspects of schooling is what I want to draw attention to.

Under a neo-liberal policy regime, education in general and schooling in particular have been framed since the late-1980s as a key means of “habituation” for the allegedly new, globally competitive labour market. In both religious and non-religious types of schooling, this policy objective has been evident in the increasingly standardised approaches to evaluation and comparison in educational governance, which has led to the proliferation of standardised testing and reporting across schooling systems for the purposes of ascertaining the relative efficiency of individual schools in comparison to one another in achieving national economic imperatives. The most prominent and recent examples of this are given in the Australian Commonwealth Government’s standardised National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests introduced in 2008 and the introduction of the My School website in 2010, which makes publicly accessible and comparable certain sets of demographic information derived from individual schools, as well as results from NAPLAN tests and post-school destinations of each. As a number of education scholars have argued, such mechanisms for ‘accountability’ are a result of a shift in policy towards allowing market forces to predominate, which makes it possible for governments and educational regulatory bodies to locate blame for 'poor performance' or 'ineffectiveness' at the local and/or school level.

What informs such regulations for accountability, then, is both the linking of funding arrangements to measurable efficiencies in performance, as well as the expectation that schools will become more effective, efficient and generally improve their educational performance because of competition for funding, students and parental preferences. As apparently ‘value-free’ accountability instruments that measure the relative effectiveness of various schools in achieving given objectives, standardising measures like NAPLAN and My School facilitate a market for school choice by rendering all schools comparable and commensurable on a national scale, as well as on smaller scales between schools in proximate locales and ‘statistically similar schools,’ all of which are meant to increase the ability of parents to choose led by calculative decisions on the most effective means of obtaining desired educational outcomes for their children – or in the words of former Minister of Education and current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, let “parents vote with their feet.”[3]

In such a policy regime, religious schools come to be seen as offering either values that stand alongside but separate from the standards of educational performance, or as nominally ‘value-added’ religious education that supplements the established public purpose as measured by standardised tests. Value-adding with regard to religious schools concerns whether the latter adds a positive benefit to the education process, and are concerned with discerning whether, quantitatively, religious schools perform more successfully than other schools in standardised tests or, qualitatively, whether religious schools create a more “caring, supportive and well-ordered environment would provide a climate in which teaching and learning would flourish, and that... would lead in turn to high achievement.”[4]

Within this prevailing order of things, then, religious schools may seek leverage by marketing how the values that it inculcates into individual students are at once derived from particular discursive traditions and amenable to educational performance as defined by the prevailing neo-liberal regime. In such a market-driven culture, as sociologist Bryan Turner surmises, “religious belief and practice is infused with commercial ideas and practices about selling religion and marketing religious institutions.”[5] The religious elements of religious schooling are thus confined to expressing private beliefs apart from the public standards of education defined by neo-liberal imperatives, and/or function as ‘value-added’ supplements that appeal to the private preferences of parents as consumers in the market for school choice. Within such a policy regime, despite the principled defence of religious or secular schools, all schools serve but a common object of faith: the market for choice.

[1] “School Education,” Deparment of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, accessed 5 February, 2012, http://deewr.gov.au/schooling

[2] Scott Stephens, “Prime Minister puts her faith in chaplaincy,” The Drum – Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 10 August, 2010, accessed 12 November, 2012. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-08-10/the-prime-minister-puts-her-faith-in-chaplaincy/938248

[3] Jane Caro, “Letting parents vote with their feet on school choice doesn’t add up,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December, 2008, accessed 22 April 2010. http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/12/14/1229189440012.html

[4] Ian Schagen and Sandie Schagen, “The impact of faith schools on pupil performance,” in Faith Schools: Consensus or Conflict?, ed. Roy Gardner, Jo Cairns & Denis Lawton (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 214-215.

[5] Bryan S. Turner, Religion and Modern Society: Citizenship, Secularisation and the State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 150.

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