The role of the church in education has been squarely in the media again recently, following some remarks made by the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister observed that there was a significant drift of students from government schools to the non-government, including church, sector. He suggested that one of the reasons for this drift was an undue emphasis on political correctness in government schools and a turning away from traditional values.
Debate erupted on a number of fronts following his comments.
Some felt the Prime Minister was being unduly critical of the government school system and in effect was undermining it. Defenders of the integrity and commitment of teachers in state schools were quick to respond on their behalf. Charges of elitism were levied against some church schools which were accused of being exclusive.
Inevitably one focus of the debate became the basis on which the government funds both state and non-government schools.
The turmoil that resulted is complex and often emotive with the potential to cause deep division within our community. Many Anglicans feel torn.
Of course we want to see every child in our community being given the best possible education and the opportunity to thrive and flourish in their chosen field of endeavour. The church’s commitment to social justice also means that the least well-off and the most vulnerable in our community should receive special care and support to do well.
On the one hand this means ensuring that our state schools are well resourced. They need to be able to offer excellent teaching and learning environments. Schools need good facilities not only for academic pursuits but also for sporting, artistic and cultural activities. Teachers in our state schools should be properly rewarded for the work they undertake on behalf of us all, and be properly supported with, among other things, professional development opportunities. It’s hard to think of a role more important to the life and well-being of our community than that undertaken by teachers. I have no doubt that virtually all of our teachers give themselves to this work with great commitment, integrity and not a little sacrifice.
On the other hand we would also want to affirm the importance of the spiritual dimension in human life and the vital role of church schools in nurturing faith. For many in our community faith is seen as a fundamental part of life which we ignore at our peril. Churches, and other religious communities too, need to be able to develop approaches to education which address the spiritual development of students and integrate that focus within the whole school environment.
Indeed I would want to argue that addressing the spiritual dimension is vital in both state school and church school contexts, though it needs to be done in different ways in each setting.
When parents voluntarily choose to send their children to a church school they know that the school will both teach and attempt to nurture their children in the life of faith. That is part and parcel of the experience. It is accepted by all and actively sought by many.
The state school context is different. There is no such agreement on the part of parents that their children will be nurtured in a particular faith tradition. And in my view, it would be wrong for the churches, or any other religious groups, to seek to operate in that environment with a view to eliciting commitment to a particular faith. Even so, the school still has a responsibility to teach students in such a way that they are able to live in and contribute to our world constructively. I think it indisputable that understanding major religious traditions and how faith and the spiritual life work is an integral part of such an education. The churches and other religious groups may legitimately and constructively assist in this role.
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