Religion in NSW public schools - A future less certain?

Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.

Religion in NSW public schools - A future less certain?

In recent years, the issue of religion in public schools has featured regularly in the news. However, there is not widespread community understanding of the background, issues and future prospects for religion in schools. This article tries to address these matters in relation to NSW.

Should religion be taught in NSW public schools?

Irrespective of the legislative base for religion in public schools (see next section), the fundamental question is: should religion be taught in schools? For those who see religion as the cause of conflict throughout the ages, as divisive and based on superstition and myth, little can be said to dissuade them from any hostility towards religion and its inclusion in schools.

On the other hand, there are some very good reasons why religion should be in the school curriculum.

  1. While Australia, and most western countries, are increasingly secular with the majority of their populations having no religious affiliation, the rest of the world is different. Religion remains a motivating force in peoples’ lives and there important to study. Knowledge about religious beliefs and practices, at least in the world’s major religions, is important to understand the world we live in.
  2. It is difficult to understand Australia’s heritage and western civilization without understanding the role religion and people of religious conviction have played in shaping today’s world.
  3. Religion also raises and answers questions about the existence of humans and the purpose of life that are minimally addressed in the mainstream curriculum.

A more complex question is why NSW public schools allow religious groups to teach their particular religion during school time. The answer lies in the early history of the colony of NSW, how public schools came into being, the influence of the Christian churches, the developing multicultural and multi-faith nature of the community and increasing non-religious secular parents who want alternatives. These matters are detailed below.

General Religious Education (GRE)

In the first half of the 19C, schools were established and run by the churches. There were no public schools. By the time of the1880 Education Act a few public schools had been established but, in a rapidly growing colony, the burden on Christian churches of running schools was becoming too great. They negotiated for the government to take over church schools on the condition that the churches could have daily access for one hour to teach students their particular Christian denomination. This became known as Special Religious Education (scripture) and is dealt with separately below.

The 1880 Act also established General Religious Education to be taught by classroom teachers and was non-denominational Christianity. In defining public schools as secular, the Act stated that secular includes general religious education. Sir Henry Parkes in his second reading speech in the parliament made it very clear that all students needed a strong grounding in the Christian faith.

These provisions for GRE have continued through time and are part of the current 1990 Education Act.

From 1880, GRE was taught by classroom teachers and included Christian prayers that were non-denominational. This is why schools often used the Lord’s Prayer as a school prayer or said it at assemblies.

GRE continued to be taught as non-denominational Christianity with a reliance on the Bible for curriculum and over time, more teaching about other religions was included.

GRE was extensively reviewed by the Rawlinson Committee, Religion in Education in NSW Government Schools, 1980. The recommendations for GRE were never formally accepted by the government and, as a result, the place of GRE was not clarified. A full history of GRE, including changes in curriculum up until the formation of the NSW Board of Studies in 1990 is documented in Journal of Christian Education, Papers 101, June 1991.

In the early 1990s, the Department provided a more inclusive working definition of GRE as teaching about the world’s major religions, what people believe and how that belief affects their lives. While well accepted, it set up an anomaly with the legal definition Benjamin v Downs [1976] ruling that GRE is non-denominational Christianity. The implication is that non-denominational Christian activities are part of GRE in schools– Christian celebrations, commemoration services, Christian songs and prayers but not those of other religions. Today, schools need to act appropriately, as well as legally, and take account of their students’ family backgrounds and religious affiliations before engaging in these activities. However, it is not clear where individual teachers stand if they engage in these activities. On the other hand, parents have the right to have their children excluded from any GRE activity or from all GRE.

The curriculum is the main focus of GRE and since 1990 it has been difficult to get the NSW Board of Studies (now Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards NSW) to focus on GRE in the curriculum. Some references in the primary curriculum and HSC courses in Studies of Religion are clearly GRE under the Department’s definition. The Department even provided a resource Belief in action 2004 to support primary teachers in this area. However, in 2001, a Board of Studies review of the Years 7-10 curriculum failed to take up the opportunity to map GRE across the curriculum. This inaction has continued into the Australian curriculum where, despite intensive lobbying and detailed submissions, advocates of GRE have been unsuccessful in getting a focus on GRE with the writing and approval processes dominated by secular (non-religious) interests.

Secular interests and anti-religion advocates have had a strong say despite the acknowledgement within the Education Act 1990 that secular education includes general religious education. Those supporting GRE acknowledge a need to learn about religion and have every right to ask “Where is it?”

GRE related matters

  1. Teachers making their beliefs known This matter is covered by the Department’s Implementation Procedures for its Controversial Issues in Schools Policy where it is stated that the teacher’s personal view should not intrude but a statement of the teachers’ views may be necessary to help students formulate their own views or to answer a request from students. Teachers should welcome such opportunities when they arise to express their faith under GRE provisions.
  2. School prayers and praying with students As indicated above, schools can use non-denominational Christian prayers. This does not extend to other religions and in a multi-faith setting it might not be appropriate to use these prayers. Having the right and respecting the beliefs of others can mean putting aside that right. The Department’s Religious Education Policy Implementation Procedures acknowledge school prayers that might be non-denominational Christian or multi-faith and outlines the procedures for establishing such practices.
    If teachers use non-denominational Christian prayers before school or lunchtime or at the end of the day, they should be certain of their appropriateness given the religious beliefs of the students and their parents.
  3. Religious groups in schools Schools are often requested by local religious groups to allow them access to the school to form clubs or prayer groups. This is possible, but at the discretion of the principal and with adherence to strict Departmental guidelines. Schools do not have to accommodate such requests and these matters are also covered in the Religious Education Policy Implementation Procedures.
    Scripture Union has a long standing permission with the Department for Interschool Christian Fellowship (ISCF) groups in secondary schools and SUPA Clubs in Years 5 and 6 in primary schools. These groups can operate with an adult adviser from the school staff or from outside the school and are also subject to Department guidelines.

Special Religious Education (scripture)

Background and practice

When the churches of the NSW colony handed over their schools to the government, the1880 Education Act enshrined an agreement to allow Special Religious Education (SRE) in public schools. Separate from any GRE, SRE could be provided daily for up to one hour by visiting representatives of the churches so that students whose parents nominated that denomination could be taught by its representatives. From the beginning, churches were under pressure to maintain this teaching.

In the years that followed, the churches were never able to take up fully the opportunity to teach SRE across primary and secondary schools. The one hour a day provision, the nature of the school day and the times for SRE gradually changed. The 20th Century Acts incorporated SRE, but as seen in the 1990 Education Act, SRE is now provided at times negotiated between the school and the approved providers and for no more than one hour a week. In reality primary classes have between 30-45 minutes a week and in secondary schools, where it is offered, 40-50 minutes.

An important milestone in the development of SRE in NSW was the Rawlinson Committee Report, Religion in Education in NSW Government Schools, 1980 The Government accepted all the recommendations related to SRE No 36-72 and these became the basis of an agreement between the churches and the government and reflect current practice.

Students attending SRE have done so according to enrolment information about their religion. SRE is now open to all religions, but the providers have to be approved by the Minister and must be a religious persuasion, not a para-religious organisation. Only approved providers can authorise teachers to enter schools and teach students whose parents have nominated their persuasion. Today, there are many combined Christian arrangements where various denominations are taught in the same class by teachers authorised by all the participating denominations. In secondary schools, often a single teacher will be appointed by a group of churches to provide lessons to different classes operating across the timetable.

Teacher authorisation involves applicants meeting Working with Children checks and additional Department requirements. The Department seeks an annual assurance that each provider is maintaining these requirements including the publication of curriculum on a website.

SRE is not compulsory and parents have the right to change their SRE preference or to withdraw their children from all SRE.

Implementation issues There are a range of problems associated with the implementation of SRE in schools. They include:
  1. Time One of the greatest difficulties for both schools and providers is setting aside appropriate time. In recent years, the Department’s enrolment form has been inadequate to provide useful information to form classes. Schools often see SRE as an administrative irritant rather than an opportunity to provide students with religious education. Administration has also been complicated in secondary schools by combined arrangements which allow a teacher to work across the timetable. SRE providers not included in the combined arrangements have felt excluded, unable to negotiate a separate time or able to provide an equivalent resource to meet the needs of their students. These negotiations about time for SRE are ongoing.
  2. Lack of teachers From the beginning, churches and now other providers find it difficult to provide teachers. This matter became acute after World War II with the rapid expansion of secondary schools. Only over the last twenty years have providers re-established themselves in secondary schools mainly through combined arrangements and a teacher working across the timetable. But such arrangements have not suited other providers or schools with high numbers of students from other religions or those with a high number of non-SRE students.
  3. Increasing secularism The Australia community has increasingly become secular and not acknowledged a religious affiliation. More parents have opted out of SRE for their children and this has caused problems for schools in accommodating these students. During SRE time, normal lessons are suspended to avoid conflict for parents between SRE and other curriculum studies. Invariably, schools have provided opportunities for homework completion, private study and reading. The recent addition of Special Ethics classes as an option for these students has assisted in this matter and is discussed below.
  4. Enrolment procedures For years the Department’s enrolment card has posed a problem for the provision of SRE. The lack of clarity about parents’ intentions has made it difficult for schools and providers to form appropriate classes. Schools have often had to engage complicated administrative arrangements to clarify parents’ wishes. Other schools have not pursued such clarifications, created large non-SRE groups and then argued that they could not justify SRE continuing. Providers have often found themselves in conflict with schools rather than working with them.

In line with recommendations of the Final Report of the Inquiry into Education Amendment (Ethics Classes Repeal) Bill 2011 which facilitated the establishment of Special Ethics Classes, the enrolment process has been revised. It now involves parents nominating their preferred SRE class or no SRE and when their preference is not available, they are advised that they can select an alternative available class or non-SRE. For those that nominate non-SRE, Special Ethics Classes are offered when available. It is important to note that Special Ethics was always to be an option for those not undertaking SRE. Setting up a choice between SRE and Special Ethics classes may have been a preference for some advocates, but it was never the intention of the changes to the Act that gave a legal basis for these classes and as confirmed by the Inquiry.


In April 2017, the NSW government announced, as the result of an independent review, that it will not be changing the arrangement for SRE and Special Ethics. Some recommendations to improve efficiency were accepted, but not changes to the provisions. It is up to the providers to take up the opportunity for the provision of SRE. This opportunity may not last, especially if not fully taken up by providers. However, there is some evidence that the proper implementation of enrolment procedures is resulting in increased numbers into SRE.

For those concerned about the provision of GRE, it remains a long agenda to encourage curriculum authorities and state Department’s to take religion seriously and ensure that students have an education about the world’s major religions, what people believe and how that belief affects their lives. (NSW Department of Education Religious Education Implementation Procedures Page 2)

John Gore

John Gore B. Com, Dip Ed. is a former chief education officer in the NSW Department of Education with responsibility for supporting the implementation of religious education in public schools. He is a recipient of the Director-General’s Award for Excellence in Public Education, an Honorary Member and a former Chair of the Pacific Circle Consortium and writes regularly on education issues for the NSW Teachers’ Christian Fellowship