Ladies and Gentlemen
I want to start by mentioning Sir Robert Menzies who has a special place in the history of independent education in Australia – as the Prime Minister who, in 1963, took the first initiative to provide Commonwealth assistance to independent schools.
Menzies believed that education, including religious education, was pivotal in the creation of future Australian leaders and the future of Australia – and now, of course, Australia’s many independent schools educate over 35% of Australia’s children.
Menzies, speaking on the topic of freedom of worship in 1942, said that “we are a diversity of creatures, with a diversity of minds and emotions and imaginations and faiths. When we claim freedom of worship we claim room and respect for all.”
I can think of no better principle on which to ground the importance of religious education in Australia.
The rights of parents to choose the way in which their children are educated is a sacred and ancient right. When St Paul travelled across the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago, he found small but growing Christian communities passing on their faith to their children.
Throughout the Middles Ages and after the Reformation, Christian schools sprang up all over Europe as a testament to the Christian commitment to education. It is fitting, then, that the first schools in Australia were Christian schools. Rev. Richard Johnson, the first chaplain to the colony of New South Wales, established an Anglican school in 1793.
The freedom to educate one’s children in accordance with one’s faith is inseparable from the freedom to worship in accordance with one’s beliefs. This is not only a matter of common sense, but it is also a matter of international law. Article 18(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that signatory States should “undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
For many Australian parents, being able to send their children to a school which genuinely adheres to the tenets and beliefs of their faith is essential to their exercise of religious freedom. It will indeed be a tragic day if the government – this government or any future government – wrenches this freedom away. So, together, we might fight to ensure this does not occur.
It is one of the great and enduring lessons of history that freedom is most often strangled in the name of safety or security.
Under the banners of non-discrimination and equality, the government-led Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) Inquiry into Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws has so far produced a consultation paper which has many Australians, including the Coalition, very worried about the future of religious education in this country.
The consultation paper’s draconian vision has drawn almost unanimous rebuke from faith leaders, religious schools, legal experts, and peak bodies.
For example, the Inquiry’s third term of reference cites the importance of ensuring that religious educational institutions can continue to build communities of faith in accordance with their beliefs; but the ALRC’s current law reform proposals would actively undermine the capacity of religious educational institutions to do this by curtailing the freedom of these institutions to hire staff on religious grounds.
Being able to hire teachers and other staff who share the ethos of a religious educational institution is fundamental to the capacity of that institution to build and maintain a community of faith.
This is not just important in the context of religious studies classes but also in consideration of the holistic form of education being provided by religious schools. A community of faith is not built by chaplains alone, but by a whole body of people – all working together – to live out their faith with integrity.
The shadow of the ALRC’s final report, to be released later this year, looms over us all. Gatherings like this one are an essential to convey the message to the government that schools of faith – and the families they serve – will not stand by and allow their role in our nation to be undermined.
As shadow minister for education, I know only too well this is not the only challenge you are facing. Despite a 60% increase in schools funding over two decades, as you know standards are declining.
Report after report is confirming that our children are slipping behind. Just last week we learned that 20 per cent of students starting Year 7 have a reading ability of a grade 4 student – this is quite a shocking statistic.
So working together, with you, the Coalition is determined to do whatever it takes to see this trend reversed – we are determined to celebrate and support what is working and I know much is working in your schools – but we are also determined to fix what is not working. We are determined to listen to schools, teachers, parents; celebrate great teachers; fix the curriculum where it needs fixing; reform teacher training and ensure that the foundations of education – reading, writing and arithmetic – supported by evidence based learning such as the teaching of phonics – comes first.
We must stem the tide of teachers leaving the profession, especially since the Department of Education has warned that the demand for secondary school teachers alone is projected to outstrip the number of graduate teachers by more than 4,000 over the next two years.
My prep teacher was the late and wonderful Sister Celestine at Sacred Heart College Geelong. She was a legend – a caring, engaging and gifted teacher who made her mark on literally thousands of five year olds including me. We need a nation which puts every single teacher on a pedestal.
I want to finish on this message – religious schools are not a threat to our children, but a gift to their future. They are not a threat to diversity, but proof of its success.
The continuing presence of religious schools is also a reminder that the purpose of education is more than just the satisfaction of metrics and standards, student employability, or some other measure of material success.
They are a reminder that education also has a higher purpose—the cultivation of wisdom and a love of knowledge for its own sake.
They are a reminder that the purpose of education is, as Plato said, to teach us to love what is beautiful.
On our side of politics, we will be doing everything to ensure that religious schools will be able to continue their great work in this country for many, many years to come.