The 113 year old elephant in Queensland’s state school classrooms

By Alison Courtice, Spokesperson for Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools (QPSSS).

Religious Instruction (RI), or as I call it, the elephant in the state school classroom, remains as controversial in 2023 as it was in 1910 when the law was changed to give churches right of entry to state schools to hold Sunday School during school hours.

At that time, 84% of Queenslanders were Christian, and they were proud of their internationally recognised truly secular state education. Hansard’s record of speeches demonstrates the controversy and reluctance to change the law but change it they did. The legal requirement for state schools to be secular was removed to accommodate RI.

Fast-forward 113 years and RI is still in our not-required-to-be-secular schools and remains controversial. It is a blight on our state education that governments of all types have not removed it. The closest a government came to doing that was in 1972, when a committee of enquiry into RI was appointed; it reported back that state schools should be places of "education not evangelism" and "The currently practised forms of religious instruction are educationally unsound on a number of serious counts, related to content, methodology, administration and philosophy. It seems clear that if the school, as an institution of public education, is to pursue its aims effectively, the disruptive and educationally unacceptable influences of the current forms of religious instruction must be removed."

The report recommended:

"In a world rapidly becoming a 'global village' there is need for increased international understanding if peace is to be attained. Such mutual tolerance may be further fostered by educational programs which aim at the broadening and understanding of cultures and religions beyond our own. In summary, it is argued that a program of religious education can assist in the development of a personal value system, an understanding of one's own culture, and a world view."

"State schools are predominantly educational institutions and the justification for including any subjects in their curriculum must be found in educational theory and principle, and not in the domestic aims of any sectional group within society. Therefore, it is not the role of the Queensland State school to initiate the child into any particular faith."

"In this sense, religious education is envisaged as teaching 'about religion' rather than instructing children in some particular religious doctrine with the aim of securing commitment to that doctrine."

I don’t know what then Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a fundamentalist Christian, expected, but he made sure the report didn’t see the light of day for 30 years and that opportunity to remove RI and put ‘secular’ back in the Act, was lost.

A minority of students have parent permission to do RI, approximately 97% of which is Christian RI. The Department of Education (DoE) administers the access to schools but has nothing to do with the content of RI, as that is determined by the religious provider.

The DoE does, however, choose to prevent non-participants from continuing with new curriculum work during RI time and won't allow schools to move RI to break times. All students miss out on valuable curriculum time. Not surprisingly, the Queensland Teachers’ Union wants it removed.

In a recent Supreme Court case when the Noosa Temple of Satan challenged the DoE’s refusal to let it provide RI, the Solicitor General appearing for the State of Queensland made it clear in his questioning that RI is disruptive, stops kids from learning and an administration burden for the school. He had been well briefed by the DoE!

Education Minister Grace Grace acknowledges the controversy of RI yet acts to keep the elephant in the classroom. It was recently reported in the Courier Mail that she said that schools can choose RI. She knows very well that RI providers choose schools, not the other way around. If schools actually had the option of refusing, there would be very little RI.

P&C’s Qld opposed RI in its submission to the 1972 committee of inquiry, and in response to recent questions by a journalist about removing RI from a list of priority areas for student wellbeing, acknowledged that RI has been a divisive issue in schools for a long time. Scott Wiseman, CEO, said there was no official stance on RI but said it needs to be a local community decision involving the P&C.

It’s not, so I call on P&C’s Qld to engage proactively in the conversation about RI and seek the views of its P&C members throughout Qld.

Given the Queensland government has, commendably, decriminalised abortion and passed voluntary assisted dying laws, it makes no sense for it not to knock off the low hanging fruit that is RI. It can’t just be about concerns over losing votes because what extra votes would ALP lose if they said that faith instruction should be done in family time not in school time?

QPSSS’ view is that if religion is to be in state schools it should only be in the form of a curriculum subject about worldviews, taught to all students. This is considered best practice, unlike segregating students by religion to instruct them in how to follow only one faith to the exclusion of all other views. It reflects the findings and recommendations of the 1972 report some 50 years ago.

113 years of RI is enough. Churches desperately cling to this mission field because of falling church attendance and overall religiosity.

It is well past time to remove RI, return classrooms to teachers and allow them to educate public school students. Parents have ample opportunity to attend to their child’s faith formation, should they choose to do so, at any of the countless free, publicly subsidised places of worship at a time that doesn’t impinge on the learning of other students and that doesn't confront young children with the bewildering practice of being religiously segregated from their peers.