School Scriptue in NSW – the historic angle
In the debate about school Scripture and Ethics Classes in NSW, I haven’t heard much about the historical background to the current arrangement between the State and churches. And I think that understanding this historical background would moderate a lot of the antagonism toward school scripture.
You have to understand that it was not always the case that the State was involved in education – that is only a relatively modern phenomenon. And this is certainly true in the early days of the colony of NSW! Back then the government was not at all interested in education – it was busy managing the business of a penal colony. And it was actually the churches who took up the role of educating children. They did this as they saw a great social need which they could serve – though education certainly wasn’t the main job of churches.
The important role that the churches played was not resented – but was in fact recognised and appreciated by those in government – and even supported. Since the early days the governor himself saw the need for churches to receive assistance from the government in the task of running schools, and this was formalised in the 1820′s with a Corporation which provided for the running of church schools. This was particularly necessary in a convict colony with only a small number of free settlers.
The colony began with strong Church of England roots – but also grew to include Presbyterians, Methodists and especially a large number of Roman Catholics. These denominations all began their own schools, not wanting other denominations to influence their children. This led to a profusion of schools – a few of them good, but more often these schools were small and badly run, even when the schools received a pound-for-pound subsidy from the government.
By the 1840′s the churches were struggling to run the profusion of churches in the colony. Under Governor Fitzroy the colony adopted a system modelled on the Irish National System. The majority of church schools would now be consolidated and looked after by the state, which promised to provide a general education that would be acceptable to all denominations, and in return the churches were allowed to come in during school hours to provide special religious education (SRE) according to their own denominations. This arrangement was enshrined in legislation.
However not every school transitioned to the government – the churches continued to maintain a few of the best schools, which continued to receive some government subsidies in the same way they had since the early years of the colony. Some of these schools exist today as the private church schools.
Today we have a situation where not many people understand the historical background of education in NSW, and think it is an abominable intrusion into public schools that should be free from religion. A lot of this feeling is based more on an understanding of the American arrangement of church, state and public schooling, rather than the history of education in NSW. We must remember that from the early years of the colony, schools were operated by the churches, and not by the state. And the public schooling system we know of now was only possible because denominations were assured they could teach Scripture during school hours (SRE).
SRE was never meant to be a threat to people of opposing religious beliefs. That is because the Roman Catholic priest, the Methodist minister, the Anglican minister could all come in and conduct instruction in their particular religion to children of their parishoners. And for the rest of the time all those kids could all receive the same general education. If anything, the arrangement between the state and the churches failed to foresee a time when there would be a militant, vocal atheist minority in the community. But even now, there are arrangements that take this into account – children can simply go to non Scripture.
Opponents of SRE would want to see SRE disappear from public schools. However this would mean that the government would be reneging on an arrangement which made our public school system possible in the first place – and which would arguably return control of public schools back to the churches!