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Religious schooling and how it is funded is a key election issue

By John Kaye - posted Wednesday, 15 September 2004

In the mid-19th century, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Roger Vaughan launched an extraordinary campaign against state schools, describing them as “seed plots of future immorality, infidelity and lawlessness”.

Even by the standards of the time, Vaughan’s prediction that state schools were sure to “debase the standard of human excellence and corrupt the political, social and individual life of future citizens” would have been controversial. Nowadays, most of us would regard Vaughan’s tirades as anachronistic and extreme. But not all of us.

In a pamphlet aimed at prospective parents, the Coffs Harbour Christian Community School quotes Archbishop Vaughan’s words and concludes, “Today, it is clear that he was correct”. This leaflet also urges parents not to “sacrifice their children on the altar of state education”, suggesting that to send children to public school is to somehow stunt their capacity to tell right from wrong.


If you think this is the flaky and shaky worldview of one mid-North Coast school, then think again. The Coffs Harbour leaflet is lifted almost word for word from a template provided by a private company called New Hope International (NHI). NHI is a missionary organisation that has a close association with the country’s extensive network of “Christian Community Schools”. NHI’s literature makes it clear that these community schools are “a vital part of the kingdom of God”, and their purpose is to impart a muscular Christianity based on some quite literal interpretations of biblical scripture.

NHI’s printed materials seem to rest on the unquestioned assumption that non-Christian society is, almost by definition, immoral - or at least amoral. In a world of political correctness, sex education and risqué television, only Christian schools can prevent people going to seed.

In light of this, it’s unsurprising that State schools are seen as something of a bogeyman - let alone the teachers’ union that champions them. NHI describes the NSW Teachers’ Federation’s campaign for more funds for public education as “part of the ongoing attack of Satan on the Work of the Kingdom”.

One’s first instinct might be to dismiss this as fringe literature. But Christian Community Schools now educate a sizeable minority of Australian children, and have benefited handsomely from the Howard Government’s huge increases in funding to private schools.

Moreover, NHI’s materials frequently criticise state schools for offering “values-neutral education”. Sound familiar? It becomes more difficult to ignore NHI when one man who is clearly paying close heed to its propaganda is Prime Minister John Howard.

Religious schooling - and the role that governments play in funding it - has emerged as a key battleground for this year’s federal election campaign. The Coalition has been drawing up its battle lines for the past 8 years. In that time, Federal funding to private schools has increased from $1.9 billion a year in 1996 to $4.9 billion a year now, with religious schools among the major beneficiaries. By 2007, this figure will be $6 billion.


Howard and his troops are amplifying this quiet assault with a shrill verbal attack on the integrity and quality of public schools. In all his talk of “value-free” and “value-neutral” education, and his call for flag-waving and anthem singing in the playground, Howard has been implicitly endorsing NHI’s picture of public schools as loose and lawless. He is feeding the inaccurate stereotype on which religious schools are thriving.

Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s approach has been softer. He talks of good parenting, reading to kids and watching what they eat. But again, the subtext is that parents must step in where schools and society might fail - another idea that gets a regular airing in Christian school literature.

The Greens aren’t opposed to the existence of religious schools, nor are we claiming that funding should be cut off. We are calling for an end to the cycle of huge increases in funding, particularly as funding for public schools is static or declining in real terms.

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About the Author

John Kaye is Greens member of the NSW Legislative Council. He is a passionate defender of public education, a campaigner for environmental protection and a staunch opponent of privatisation. Before entering politics John worked for 20 years as a university researcher and lecturer in electrical engineering where he focused on clean energy solutions to greenhouse. He is a proud member of his union. John Kaye's home page is here.

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