Bahai News -- Public core defends its own values

Public core defends its own values

By Linda Doherty, Education Writer
June 25 2003

Fits all . . . a student in class at Bilgola Plateau public school, where
Baha'i has become a popular choice of religious study, even among
non-religious parents. Photo: Peter Rae

Defenders of public education have hit back at perceptions that religious schools have a "monopoly on values" and claim that private school funding policies are increasing the divide between rich and poor Australians.

The chairwoman of the NSW Public Education Council, Lyndsay Connors, said public schools were at the "heart of egalitarianism", and had educated the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Governor-General, Major-General Michael Jeffery.

"I do not like attempts by particular groups to claim a monopoly on moral and ethical values for any particular schools," Ms Connors said.

"The public education system was one of the keystones of our egalitarianism and that's why so many people are concerned at the retreat back into marketplace values for something as vital as education."

Values, discipline and identity are factors cited by the federal Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, as contributing to the stampede towards religious schools, which educate 30 per cent of NSW's 1.1 million students.

The NSW Minister for Education, Andrew Refshauge, said public education was a melting pot of diversity.

"NSW public schools embrace the values of respect and acceptance. They don't operate in an exclusive manner. The values of acceptance and strong leadership in the wider community grow out of this understanding and appreciation of diversity."

Under the Education Act, the state's 2200 public schools must accept all students, regardless of wealth, disability or behavioural problems. Non-government schools have no legislative requirement to take all-comers.

Ms Connors said the federal funding of $4.37 billion this year to 2650 non-government schools was widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Dick Shearman, general secretary of the Independent Education Union, which represents teachers in non-government schools, said "distortions in the system" had highlighted large increases to wealthy schools at the expense of the many needy non-government schools.

"It creates a political problem when you have a system that gives a substantial increase in funding to schools that are already well resourced."

But Dr Nelson told Parliament yesterday that the funding allowed parents to choose the school that "best suits the aspirational needs they have for their children".

The State Government has taken heed of parents' desire for explicit values and will next year pilot "values education" in 50 public schools, with weekly lessons on themes such as respect, compassion, honesty, integrity and loyalty. There is already a dose of religion in public schools, from scripture classes to studies of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism in the syllabus from kindergarten to year 12.

Studies of Religion is the fifth most popular Higher School Certificate subject after English, maths, business studies and biology, and is increasingly being taken by public school students. .

Scripture, or "special religious education" is taught for about 40 minutes a week in about 70 per cent of primary schools, but is less common in high schools.

One religion popular with middle-class parents is Baha'i, with 2100 NSW children enrolled in 132 scripture classes.

Principals observe that the Baha'is' concern for world peace and unity appeal even to non-religious parents.

Forty of Bilgola Plateau Public School's 400 students go to Baha'i classes to learn about Abraham, Buddha, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus and Muhammad, the "messengers of God" who preceded the Baha'i founder, Baha'u'llah.

©Copyright 2003, The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

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