Flat White

What would happen if church schools closed?

12 February 2018

8:02 AM

12 February 2018

8:02 AM

I’m told, on good authority, that bed-time stories in the house of some school principals include a retelling, in hushed and reverent tones, of what happened with the Goulburn School Strike in the 1960s. This was the event, more than any other, that led to the current Federal funding arrangement, and which has led to the establishment and growth of Australian non-government schools, of which over 90 per cent are Christian-affiliated. Gerard Henderson summarizes the history of those tumultuous times as follows:

On Friday July 13, 1962, six Catholic schools in the Goulburn diocese closed and instructed their pupils to enrol the following Monday in the government school system. Some 2000 Catholic pupils applied for entry into the public-school system, which had only 640 vacancies.

The immediate cause of the protest was the refusal of NSW health authorities to install additional toilet facilities at Our Lady of Mercy Preparatory School in Goulburn.

Henderson concluded that, in his opinion, the action “was not successful, and within a couple of weeks, the Catholic school children returned to their original schools.” Perhaps that was the short-term result, but the reality was that it was enormously successful over the longer term. As Henderson himself observed:

In 1967 the Liberal Party announced that, if re-elected, it would provide a form of per capita payments to children attending non-government primary schools. By the end of the 1960s, the principle of government assistance to non-government schools and students had been firmly established. Soon after, Labor, which had long opposed assisting non-government schools, came on board.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been wondering if something similar to this might possibly happen once again. Back in November 2017, Malcolm Turnbull announced the appointment of an Expert Panel “to examine whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion.”

But what would happen if this led to another stalemate, like in 1962? In particular, how many children would the government realistically be able to afford to cater for, if even a small number of independent schools were forced to close? This is a financial aspect that people such as Mark Humphery-Jenner, an associate professor of finance at UNSW, simply fail to take into consideration when he argues that “religious exemptions are bad for business.”

Below is a snapshot of the current breakup of enrolments from The Australian Bureau of Statistics for both non-government and public schools.

Notice that Catholic and independent schools now make up 35 per cent of the market. And that figure is even higher for secondary education, especially in capital cities, where according to the Independent Schools Association the figure rises to over 40 per cent. What’s more, as Blaise Joseph has demonstrated, in his excellent article in The Spectator, this represents a massive financial saving to the government. As Blaise states:

Non-government schools mean less taxpayer money has to be spent — estimates range from $2 billion to $9 billion of savings per year. According to a new report from the Productivity Commission, federal and state governments combined spend over $7,000 more per student in government schools than in non-government schools.

One of the key questions coming out of the Ruddock Review will be whether church schools will be allowed to employ only Christian staff, or at the very least, those who actively support their statement of faith. As Professor Patrick Parkinson from Sydney University has written in a draft submission to the Religious Freedom Review:

If a Christian school cannot advertise for staff with one criterion being their adherence to Christian beliefs, or even give preference to staff who hold Christian beliefs, then within a fairly short period of time, the staff profile of the school will be indistinguishable from the state school next door. There really is no point in having a Christian school if the only staff who need to be Christians are the School Principal, the Chaplain and the religious studies teacher.

Likewise, Dr David Hastie, associate dean of education at Alphacrucis College in Sydney (and formerly educational strategist for the Anglican Schools Corporation) recently argued in Eternity magazine:

As part of Australia’s richly diverse suite of educational options, Christian-affiliated schools offer an alternative vision and mission for education, built along a rich ancient, unifying narrative about the world and self. This has been hugely attractive to many Australian families, religious and non, with now 1.25 million enrolments in Christian-affiliated schools, the fifth highest percentage in the world. The right to exclusively hire staff who embrace and embody a unified vision lies at the core of cultural coherence for any successful organisation. Given the huge size of the sector, protecting this as an industrial right in Christian schools in particular, now lies at the core of Australian religious freedoms in general.

In a sign of what is to come, “Victorian Greens Whip Susan Pennicuik introduced a Private Member’s Bill, the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Equality for Students) Bill 2016 (the Bill) to amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) to limit the application of the special exemption for religious organisations and institutions.”

Then, as reported by Eternity, there was a “discussion paper released by the Northern Territory Department of the Attorney-General and Justice proposing to “modernise” the NT Anti-Discrimination Act by removing exemptions for religious bodies in the areas of religious educational institutions.”

What’s more, during last year’s ‘non-binding-voluntary-postal-survey’, the Labor Party promised, that if elected, it would commit $1.4 million to establish an LGBTIQ watchdog. The commissioner’s—or should that be, commissar’s?—role will be to champion for particular minority-groups in the wider community.

I’m really wondering what they’re going to call this new government department. “The Ministry of Love”, as George Orwell hinted at in 1984? Because as Penny Wong explained: “The Commissioner will address structural discrimination, work towards ensuring our schools, workplaces, and communities are free from discrimination.” Which sounds nice, except for the fact that it means the eradication of choice and the homogenization of conscience: not more freedom, but less.

There’s a crucial lesson to be learned from what happened with the Catholic Diocese of Goulburn in 1962.  If parents begin to feel that it is useless waste a lot of money sending their kids to independent schools and do not have the resources to homeschool, is the Liberal government ready to spend another $2-8 billion per annum on education and lose another huge slice of its constituency who does not believe in a statist, atheistic education?

The federal government cannot afford – either financially or politically – to not support the religious freedom of independent schools. And if we want a free and democratic Australia, neither can the Australian people. The cost, either way, would be far too high.

Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.

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