Michael Kirby on Public Education

Posted on October 4, 2011

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The Honorable Michael Kirby, retired judge of the High Court of Australia,  spoke at the Sydney Opera House on 1st October 2011 at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

He spoke about the need to increase funding to public schools in Australia to bring it up to the level of facilities that one sees at private schools.

He said that in Australia, 67% of children go to public schools, he went to a public school and remembers his teachers fondly.

“Expenditure in public education is one of the big issues in the Gonski Inquiry. Parliament needs to shift money that has gone into private schools, to public schools.

“There’s a second problem, and it’s the problem of the decline of the secular principle and that decline is evident in the enormous funds that have been provided by federal legislation to the so-called ‘Chaplaincy scheme’ for public schools and other schools. The Chaplaincy scheme is a scheme which has appropriated somewhere between $360 million and $430million for chaplaincies in public education. The political will that is there to provide so much money for chaplains is not there to provide basic facilities for schools.

“In one case, the Warners Bay Public School, a local Christian group provided the money, something like $20,000 or $30,000 to provide what they called on their website a school chapel on public school land. I was so shocked by this that I wrote to the principal of the school and asked, “how could this be?” given the language of the Public Education Act. The resultant reply was that it wasn’t establishing a chapel, it was providing enough funds to close in a shed, the shed on the school grounds was exposed to the elements, therefore the local group provided the funds to close it in and make it a room, which they said on their website was available as a shed for religious instruction. An alternative to the instruction children otherwise received in the school concerning such issues as evolution and intelligent design and homosexuality and issues of religious instruction. This is where we’re coming to in our schools, which is putting around the begging bowl for money being provided for the Chaplaincy scheme of people who are not ordained ministers, people who were trained in religious belief and religious instruction, that is not required. You just need endorsement from the religious denomination concerned and these are two issues in public education which we as citizens have to consider- rebuilding the secular principle whereby religion is a private thing, it’s something personal. I have my religion, my religion is important to me, but it’s a private thing. That’s one of the greatest heritage of the British, we have separated the church, the religious domain and the state and it’s being eroded. We must be very careful about that erosion, we must as citizens resist it because secularism is a protection not just for people of religion, but for people of no religion; and it’s a protection for people of religion so that they don’t feel alienated in a school which has a particular denomination or a particular religious conviction or appearance.

“We’ve got to get back to support for public education, we’ve got to rebuild our public schools, we’ve got to go back to that original idea in Australia that spread public education across the whole of the continent for all children in the continent. We were the first continent to do that, we were one of the first nations to do it and it’s very important we should go back to and strengthen it because a nation is what it teaches in its public schools. We have to make sure that we send that message to all our politicians, that all citizens of belief and no belief, support the reinvigoration and strengthening of public schools with their great values.”

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