The history of education, religion and the state in Australia

Last week, the High Court ruled against the current funding model of the federal government’s controversial school chaplaincy program. It's just the latest episode in a debate over education, religion and the state that goes back to the colonial era, writes Keri Phillips.

There are two strands to the dispute over education, religion and funding. The first concerns the government funding of private schools, almost all of which are run by or affiliated with religious organisations. The second concerns the place of religious instruction in public schools. Both have been the subject of referenda and legal challenges. The relationship between religion, education and the state has been controversial since the states began introducing compulsory public schooling in the second half of the 19th century. Until then, schools had been largely run by the churches and paid for by the government.

‘By 1880, all the colonies had ended public funding of denominational schools and set up public primary school systems without the involvement of churches’, says Macquarie University’s Professor Marion Maddox. ‘One of the controversial topics that actually stalled setting up the public systems in some colonies for some years was the question of what kind of religious education should be taught and, if any, how should it be taught.'

“Nearly all non-government schools in Australia are religiously affiliated or even owned by churches, so religion in education is a really big thing in Australia, where it's not quite so big in the countries that we compare ourselves with, like the United States or like Canada.”  Said Helen Proctor, a specialist in educational history, sociology and philosophy at the University of Sydney. 

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