The end of Australia's egalitarian education?
In Australia's public schools, students are now routinely exposed to evangelism from very conservative Christian groups. Marion Maddox uncovers the surprising impact of these groups on once secular public schooling, and the ways in which governments have been persuaded to support their cause.
Marion Maddox is a Professor of Politics at Macquarie University. With PhDs in theology and in politics, she is author of the pathbreaking God Under Howard, and is a product of both public and private schools.
As a primary school teacher I often find myself reading children’s books. I call it research. But when I heard Marion Maddox interviewed on the radio I thought that this is a book that will make me think. I was not disappointed. She writes very well and has clear and concise arguments. She brings up many interesting points that I felt the need to discuss with others. If her aim was to start discussion, that is exactly what she has achieved with her book Taking God to School.
Having worked in the Catholic system as well as the state system I myself noted the difference in the teaching of Religion. In Catholic schools the teachers of religious education are trained teachers who must undertake two years of extra study to gain their qualification to teach religion. This makes a strong contrast to well meaning church members who come into the state schools to proselytize to students. Telling bible stories and doing activities seems to lack the deeper thinking and engagement that the trained religious teachers seem to achieve.
This book would be useful to start a conversation at an adult level. Although it may not be useful in the primary classroom it does raise interesting points and examines different aspects of the argument, which could be used in upper high school English or Arts subjects. This book made me think and made me question and re-examine my own ideas and experiences, which I hope my students would also learn. This book is a great read that I recommend all teachers as a start to a conversation about religion in schools.
Jen South, Casual Relief Teacher, Gippsland
Marion Maddox's examination of the role of state funding of religion in Australian schools is scrupulously researched and passionately argued and is essential reading for all Australians. Maddox is a theologian and is mystified by the ignorance and indifference shown by the majority of Australians to the steady erosion of secular education in Australia. She outlines the history of secular education reforms back to the nineteenth century, when Christians were concerned about sectarian divisions and realised that the only way to achieve a unified education system was to leave religion out of schools.
Maddox outlines how, particularly with the advance of neoliberal economic theories and under the banner of a spurious notion of 'choice', state funding has steadily increased for private religious schools, divisive rather than inclusive programs of religious 'education' have entered state primary schools and the chaplaincy program has provided further inroads into schools for churches keen to make more disciples.
In many ways Australians are indeed largely indifferent to religion but that indifference plays host to an apathy that has masked awareness of what exactly goes on in schools when it comes to religion. This book should be compulsory reading for all politicians and all parents, but really it's for everyone as we're all taxpayers and we should be aware of exactly how that money is being spent.
Blair, Melbourne High School
Having recently read A History of Australian Schooling by Craig Campbell and Helen Proctor, where they write: “Arguably the most contentious issue in Australian education today is the amount of public financial subsidy given to public and non-government schools by federal governments” (p.261), I have found it a most interesting exercise to read this current book. The sub-title of Marion Maddox’s book is ‘The end of Australia’s egalitarian education?’ and she certainly takes up the challenge of the contention and argues her case strongly. “If there is a religious struggle for the future of the nation, schools are an alluring place to start” she writes (xix).
The early part of the book’s seven chapters covers some similar historical background to that found in Campbell and Proctor, but in less detail and from a more personal angle: it doesn’t take much detective skill to work out that the author’s own education was imparted at Sydney’s MLC School, though she doesn’t name it.
Maddox is a passionate contender for the concept that early Australian statesmen championed: “education that is free, compulsory and secular”. For Maddox, that means no government subsidy for non-government schools. It means no more government funding of the chaplaincy program in schools, specifically because most of those positions have been taken up by personnel from conservative faith-based groups. The fact that parents in some public schools are billed around $200 per annum for stationery, textbooks and library books (Year 3) seems to fit her “free” criterion OK though. Home schooling parents will be bemused to know that “Even ‘compulsory’ is weakened by the rise in homeschooling” (xxi), when they consider the registration criteria they must fulfil in order to home school their children.
Maddox has concerns, and rightly so, about accountability for the funds that the government allocates for education. Her contention, however, that “the state provides benefits, but can only expect limited accountability in return” (p.92) and that “Australia is unusual for the combination of high subsidies to private schools and the little demanded of them in terms of accountability” (p.117) will come no doubt as a great surprise to schools, whose registration and eligibility criteria are under constant and ongoing scrutiny and review. One wonders what would be the result of repeating the “desperate step” of the Goulburn community when faced with the withdrawal of government funds supporting the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Mercy School: sending all the students to the local government school (p.58). Our present-day government schools are in no better position to provide adequate schooling to the whole populace than was the case in that particular rural community half a century ago.
However, Maddox is not opposed to religion in the classroom! Quoting a former bureaucrat, Stephen Saunders, in his commentary on the more ready reception than expected of the SES model for funding, Maddox writes: “the faith that people carry with them can sometimes influence the way people approach public policy” (p.76). “Religion is a powerful and fascinating element in people’s lives, including in modern, ostensibly secular Australia. It is plain too that we have not worked out, as a society, how to handle it” (p.153). “In a multicultural multi-faith society such as Australia, religion is far too important a topic to be left to volunteers. Instead it deserves proper consideration by professional teachers …. by making the academic, non-confessional study of religion a standard subject” (p.190).
The passion of Maddox’s argument against what she sees as the insidious infiltration into schools of conservative Christian fundamentalist religion sometimes leads her to use a somewhat cynical tone, which is not helpful to her cause [e.g. “Confirming that faith can overcome logic” (p.99) or stretching the point in her statement that a democracy “that enacts anti-discrimination legislation can hardly condone — let alone fund — teaching incivilities and prejudices to the young as God-ordained” (p.106) or her drawing attention in her discussion of Oxford Falls Grammar School to the fact that “their uniorm includes a green blazer and navy tie” (p.111)].
This book demonstrates meticulous and wide-ranging research — even to the point of overwhelming the reader — and draws attention to what appear to be some quite blatant anomalies in the allocation of public funds, e.g. in the case of the multi-campused NSW MET School (p.82). Its use in a classroom setting is hard to envisage, but it’s hard to overestimate its importance in every school. The subject of current debate across various media, Taking God to school is a polarising and controversial book. It deserves to be read and interacted with.
This academic yet highly readable book is an extraordinary volume. The thesis is clearly stated & cogently argued, with ample scholarly as well as personal insights. It is powerfully written in ways which kept me reading, reminded me of childhood, my teaching career, made me anxious, and threatened nightmares as a parent & now grandparent.
The appendices are concise and useful, with the glossary providing quick access to what are sometimes otherwise indecipherable acronyms. The acknowledgements provide clear evidence of the esteem in which the author is held in the academic world, the extensive consultation undertaken by the author, & the clear & sole ownership of the opinions expressed by the author. The Notes, at over 30 pages, provide quick access to original sources, and are conveniently arranged by chapter. The index provides a quick overview of whose words are quoted, page by page.
There is opportunity for the reader to argue or to agree with the author's observations; what cannot be argued with is the wealth & validity of evidence that Maddox presents to balance & support her arguments; and this is a most satisfyingly well argued book.
Maddox begins with the personal, the experience that all of her readers will have shared, or still be experiencing: the introduction is entitled 'When We Were kids'. Maddox slides us into her book by beginning at the beginning, in infant school. Turns out that little Marion Maddox attended a 'local school', or State public Primary school, despite being 'descended from two generations of ministers'. There were a mix of Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, &, she believes now, Orthodox Jews, in her classroom. Religious Instruction was part of the curriculum, & some of her favourite activities were conducted in this stream of education. Maddox continued in Public education until the final two years of High School, when she changed schools to attend an 'elite' Private Girls' school.
This personal history goes some way to explain her selection & development of the thesis of her book. As the descendant of thinking people of faith, Maddox was always aware that her forbears fought to establish free, compulsory, secular education for all in Australia. Moving to this elite school opened her eyes to the class differences that were so prominently & suddenly displayed in her young life: her former State High school library was woefully short of books & a safe playground/sporting area: this new school was awash with facilities.
Maddox goes on to discuss not only Government funding of 'Private' schools, but also the gradual erosion of the secularism of Australia's schools: not only do the Private religious schools receive more money than the State schools: the Religious Education within them occupies more and more mainstream time, with non scientific theory & evangelism also gradually gaining greater space in the curriculum.
As a text in High Schools, this book could be a useful addition as a resource for Studies of Society & Environment, Religious Study, & History of Australia. It is unlikely to be useful as a class text, rather as a reference, although sections could be useful for critical thinking skills, as well as literary analysis. I could also see it as useful as a source for an extract for close study in preparing for the Critical Reading section of the examination in the Senior English curriculum. However, I think its primary use is as a text for engaging & extending thinking teachers, parents, grandparents in both the Public & Private school sectors; & as a text for thinking Australian voters to engage with.
Helen Wilde, SA