More than 1.1 million students (out of a total student population of 3.4 million) attend non-government schools in Australia. More than 90% of these students are in religious schools.
Although the Howard Coalition government (1996–2007) is commonly attributed with responsibility for the unprecedented growth in non-government schools, there were two periods in the last century when the growth rate was higher—the 1950s and the first half of the 1980s.
The defining change in schooling over the last two decades has been the diversification of religious schools. Before the 1980s, close to 90% of students in the non-government sector attended schools associated with the two major denominations, Catholic and Anglican. In 2006, this proportion dropped to just over 70%, with the remaining students attending schools affiliated with a large array of minority faiths. The most substantive increases in enrolments have been in Islamic schools and new classifications of ‘fundamentalist’ Christian denominations.
Previously unpublished Census data show that the distribution of children from religious families across school sectors also changed markedly between 1996 and 2006. Some religious groups—particularly Jewish and Catholic—have had traditionally high rates of enrolment in non-government schools, and this has changed little. However, other religious groups increased their enrolments in the non-government sector significantly, almost entirely in independent schools. In 1996, 9% of Muslim students attended independent schools, increasing to 21% in 2006. In 1996, 28% of fundamentalist Christian students attended independent schools, increasing to 40% in 2006.
Although religious schools dominate the non-government school sector, numerous parent surveys indicate that religion is usually not the most important factor in choice of school. It is outweighed by discipline, educational quality, and the school’s capacity to develop their child’s potential.
Schooling in Australia has had a long association with churches, but concerns have been voiced about the social impact of the segregation of students into religious and sometimes culturally homogeneous schools. It has been claimed that religious schools undermine social cohesion by reducing the opportunity for children from different backgrounds to interact and develop tolerance and appreciation of diversity, and that the teaching of religion is authoritarian and harmful to children.
The available Australian and international evidence does not support this contention. Data from the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) finds that people who attended non-government schools (which are usually religious schools) do not express opinions that are less socially liberal or less tolerant of difference than people who attended government schools. On some issues, the opposite is the case. People who attended non-government schools actually have higher rates of civic participation than people who attended government schools. Furthermore, there is no evidence that attending a religious school increases religious commitment among students.
Not all religious schools generate the same amount of community disquiet. Two types of school in particular receive the most media attention—Islamic schools and the Exclusive Brethren schools. Arguably, much unease about these schools stems from the lack of information and, in some cases, misinformation. There is no reason to believe that these schools are the source of problems either for students or for society.
Likewise, there is no evidence that the increase in the number of enrolments and religious schools has exacerbated social tensions or created a sectarian divide. On the contrary, it can be argued that religious schools circumvent conflict by allowing free expression of different values and beliefs.
Multicultural societies have to attempt a difficult and delicate balancing act between social cohesion and pluralism. Differences must be respected but a stable, free society requires that some core values are preserved. Aggressive secularism and heavy regulation of religious schools potentially undermine that process.
Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow with the Social Foundations program at The Centre for Independent Studies. Jennifer has been at the forefront of debate on education matters, with more than a hundred articles in major newspapers and regular radio appearances. She is the author of the CIS Policy Monographs Boy Troubles (2000), Families, Freedom and Education (2001), Schools in the Spotlight (2003), and Schools of Thought: A Collection of Articles on Education (2009).