Comments on Education Laws for the Future (2005)

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This document contains a submission in relation to two aspects of the October 2004 Education Laws for the Future: Consultation Paper.  

In brief this document submits that

  • the proposed Guiding Principles must require a high standard of educational content; and
  • proposed changes regarding Religious Education require reconsideration to ensure that religious, spiritual or philosophical programs that might be taught in State Schools be limited to those that are actually compatible with democracy and with the individual liberty that is an even more basic foundation of Australia's legal and governance system.

Sections of the Consultation Paper that relate to these points are reproduced in this document for ease of reference.

Guiding Principles

Guiding Principles for High Educational Content Standards

The draft guiding principles for the proposed new Act, which would be included in its opening section, are unsatisfactory, because they do not specify demanding standards in educational content.

For example, they call for "high-quality education" but they give no indication of what this means or how it would be assessed.

This oversight gives rise to the possibility of very 'wishy washy', insubstantial education.

This risk is serious because the draft Guiding Principles appear to be framed in a similar way to the (so called) Adelaide Declaration of 1999 in which a ministerial council defined the national framework for Australia's education for the following decade on an apparently most inadequate basis.

In a November 2004 Commentary on the Adelaide Declaration the present author suggested that there were many weaknesses in the Declaration including:

  • the Declaration is built on a foundation of overly-simplistic 'post-modern' assumptions that knowledge is more a product of the assumptions of particular social groups rather than having objective / empirical reality independent of those assumptions. This is reflected in:
    • the emphasis in the Declaration on learning how to learn rather than on acquiring basic knowledge as well as the ability to learn;
    • the emphasis on developing student's sense of self worth through a nurturing environment, rather than by making solid 'intellectual, physical, social, moral, spiritual and aesthetic' progress and a nurturing environment;
    • defining schools as learning communities, rather than as knowledgeable and learning communities;
    • failure to include making solid 'intellectual, physical, social  ..' progress as an item in developing the talents and capacities of students.
  • post-modern assumptions are an over-reaction to defects in traditional epistemologies  which has had serious and now demonstrable adverse practical consequences when they have affected real-world situations;
  • post-modern assumptions are also reflected in the Declaration's approach to cultural issues where the practical consequences of differences in cultural assumptions are ignored. In particular:
    • the Declaration endorses making students 'informed citizens with an understanding and appreciation of Australia system of government and civic life' - but does not mention their need to understand the cultural foundations on which the effectiveness of that system of government depends;
    • in endorsing social justice, the Declaration focuses on ensuring that outcomes are not adversely affected by discrimination or by socio-economic / regional disadvantage - but entirely ignores the disadvantages which many suffer because of particular cultural assumptions.
  • the Declaration stresses the importance of curriculum development but needs to very clearly define how this is to be achieved - as the effect of post-modern assumptions seems to have undermined course quality in some cases.

Moreover it has been suggested that under Queensland's Study of Society and the Environment, program students are told knowledge is tentative and shifting [1]. Similarly it is suggested that post-modern assumptions that all texts reflect political biases, rather than attempts at timeless truth, dominate in Queensland's English syllabus [1].

These views, though they correctly reflect some subtle limitations in traditional epistemologies, are hair-raisingly dangerous as a basic proposition about knowledge (see Eroding the West's Foundations which amongst other points notes that this claim about knowledge would discredit the notion of public 'truth' (ie that statements can have widely accepted meanings) and thus discredit debate about alternative policies which is an essential foundation of democratic government). It has been suggested that introducing such complexities at school level is simply irresponsible, and educationally counterproductive [1]

Others have suggested that the 'whole-language' approach to learning reading and writing reflects similar problems - and leads to substandard functional illiteracy in a large number of students [1].

All of the points mentioned above about the need to revise the Adelaide Declaration must to be reflected in the Guiding Principles for the proposed new Queensland Act.

In particular, the Act's Principles need to:

  • refer to acquiring basic knowledge, as well as the ability to learn;
  • highlight the role of schools as repositories of knowledge;
  • ensure that students understand the cultural foundations of Australia's system of government;
  • recognize that some groups may suffer disadvantages on account of their cultural assumptions;
  • clearly specify a process for solid curriculum development.

Spiritual and Philosophical Programs must be Compatible with Australia's Institutions

The broad intent of the proposed changes with respect to religious education are that (to conform with changes within the community) there should be provision for qualified organizations to present spiritual or philosophical programs in state schools in response to parental demand in parallel with traditional religious education.

At the same time the draft Guiding Principles state that education must "provide for a democratic society".  

However there are many religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions that are opposed to democracy to a greater or lesser extent. For example, Islamism (one example of a modern ideology that opposes democracy [1] and has been seen to demand its own style of power structures [1]) is being spread in SE Asia through funding for religious education (eg see 1, 2, 3). And there are others that are opposed to democracy in less extremist ways (see examples in Competing Civilizations). Moreover:

  • societies in East Asia tend to accept epistemologies which do not give much weight to abstract concepts. In the absence of 'public truth' there is little solid basis for public policy debate to to challenge the opinions of the powerful, and societies tend to be autocratic. For a similar reason they also tend to involve social hierarchies - because these can be vital to ensure unity in the absence of agreement on 'public truths' (see comments in Competing Civilizations);
  • as noted above there seem to be elements in Queensland's Study of Society and Environment  and English syllabus which undermine the foundations of democratic government.

Thus it is vital that the Education Act ensures that compatibility with democracy, egalitarianism and so on actually receives close attention.

This condition can not be met unless the proposed new Act requires that :

  • the values that are inherent in democracy and other key values be identified; and
  • the values implicit in various religious, spiritual or philosophical programs be evaluated for their compatibility.

This matter does not seem to have received adequate attention. 

For example: Professor Brian Hill (Murdoch University) suggests religion should be part of state school curriculum to instill values. Young people need to know of moral principles and values and world-views underpinning them. Schools have been encouraged to take religion out - leaving values in free-fall - which is counterproductive to balanced education. Values are needed to give people reasons to go on living. If a person's framework is damaged, then suicide can be seen as an option. Professor Hill argues that schools should teach both religious and non-religious values. PM has accused some state schools of being values neutral. Professor Hill argues that introducing values education in vacuum will not solve students search for meaning - as values can not be separated from wider world views. Educators need to endorse democratic values. As traditional values have been challenged and the range of possibilities enlarged by ethnic diversification - value such as democracy can be challenged. Social researchers and educators (who focus on rights and procedures) can be blind to actual values inherent in democracy (Symons E., 'State schools need religion to instill values', Australian, 25/10/04)

However even more fundamental to Australia's legal and governance systems is their highly unusual assumption of individual liberty. In a 2001 analysis, Competing Civilizations, the present author suggested that:

  • this characteristic has arisen mainly under Christ-ian traditions - apparently because Christ-ian teaching locates the ethical guide to moral interpersonal relationships in individual consciences. Individual liberty can not be assumed, and in practice is not assumed, under those religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions which require that ethical interpersonal relationships be externally enforced through moral law or social elites; and
  • the assumption of individual liberty has been critical to the effective use of rationality as a means for effective problem solving - a technique which has led to significant economic advantages.

Thus perhaps as important as compatibility with democracy is that the Education Act ensure that the religious, spiritual and philosophical programs taught in state schools provide the flexible basis for moral interpersonal relationships that is required to sustain individual liberty. This is considered further in The Importance of Values Taught in State Schools.

Thus while parents should be able to choose which program their children participate in, the Education Act must recognize that:

  • religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions have real-world consequences for social, political and economic outcomes; and that
  • compatibility with the institutional foundations of Australia's system of government (eg in terms of individual liberty, democracy) is not automatic.

If schools unknowingly allow ideologies to be promulgated that are not compatible with advantageous characteristics of Australia's institutions, the latter could be damaged in the medium to long term.

John Craig
January 2004

A: Consultation Extracts


Objects and guiding principles (from p5-6 of Education Laws for the Future)

Most modern legislation contains an opening section that explains the objects of the Act. This objects section usually summarises the broad intent, or essence of the legislation.

In recent years it has also been the practice for new legislation to contain guiding principles. These principles outline the way in which the Act is to be administered and how decisions are to be made. The guiding principles aid in the future interpretation of the Act.

The Education (General Provisions) Act 1989 predates these practices, and has neither objects nor guiding principles in its opening sections. The inclusion of objects and guiding principles into the new legislation creates an opportunity to embody the Government’s strategic direction for education generally, and state schooling specifically.

Importantly, the objects and guiding principles show how the new legislation will be underpinned by an inclusive approach to education, helping all students to achieve their full potential. Further information about the Government’s commitment to inclusive education can be found at: 

It is proposed to:

  • develop objects and guiding principles that are consistent with the matters dealt with in the legislation, and its intent. These would include:


All schools

The main objects of the new Act would:

  • state the responsibilities of parents and the Government in relation to the education of young Queenslanders
  • provide an appropriate program of education for young people between the ages of five and 17 years, including provision of a full-time, non-compulsory preparatory year of school
  • ensure young people continue to participate in one or more education and training options for a further two years up to the age of 17 years, or until they achieve a Senior Certificate or Certificate III vocational qualification
  • provide for the participation and learning achievements of young people to be recorded
  • empower schools to maintain safe learning environments
  • facilitate the exchange of consistent information between schools
  • provide for the registration of students participating in home schooling
  • enable the payment of allowances and grants to facilitate educational outcomes for young people.

State schools

In addition to these main objects, the Act would:

  • provide for the establishment and management of state education institutions
  • provide that education in state schools is free, that schools may seek voluntary contributions and that the state may charge for the provision of specialised programs and additional services in certain limited and specified situations
  • provide for the establishment and operation of parent organisations for state education institutions
  • enable state education facilities and property to be used for purposes other than state education in certain limited situations.

Proposed guiding principles

The overarching guiding principle is that high-quality education in all Queensland schools should provide for a democratic society. This is achieved by:

  • ensuring that all children have access to a high-quality education that develops every young person’s potential and maximises educational achievement
  • promoting the enthusiasm of young people for lifelong learning
  • providing education programs to suit the learning needs of individual students, including those who may be educationally disadvantaged on the basis of culture, linguistic background, gender, disability, location or socioeconomic status
  • facilitating improved social, educational and employment outcomes for young people including, in particular, those who are at risk of disengaging from education and training
  • recognising the social, religious, spiritual, physical, intellectual and emotional needs of all students
  • promoting respect for, and tolerance of, others
  • encouraging parents to take part in the education of their children, and recognising their right to choose a suitable educational environment
  • treating parents with openness and fairness, and having regard to the principles of natural justice in managing relationships with students and their parents
  • supporting quality improvement and providing regular and clear information to parents and students on individual progress and regular school performance information to the community
  • promoting inclusive practices and preparing children and young people to be active and reflective Australian citizens in order to build civic and social cohesion
  • offering educational opportunities that ensure students with disabilities have access to, participate in, and gain positive educational outcomes from schooling
  • providing learning environments that are culturally appropriate to reflect the diversity of contemporary Australian society and the cultural diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Queensland
  • encouraging innovation, diversity and opportunity within and among schools
  • fostering community commitment to young people by involving members of the community and community organisations in education programs
  • providing opportunities for Queensland schools to engage with international education systems, educators, students and partnerships.

Religious education (from p25-26 of Education Laws for the Future)

State schools provide secular education but recognise that for many families religious education is important in helping students to develop their own beliefs, values and attitudes and ultimately reach their full potential. The Government recognises that families hold these beliefs and allows religious education to be conducted at state schools. Queensland students in Years 1 to 12 at state primary, secondary and special schools have long had access to religious education at the request of parents.

The legislation also allows for a program of selected bible lessons to be offered by primary and special schools.

Currently the Act limits the instruction to only that which is identified as ‘religious’. However, in today’s society there is an increase in spiritual and philosophical beliefs that do not meet this definition and therefore cannot be provided in schools. Extending the nature of the groups that can provide programs at state schools will refl ect the true nature and makeup of our diverse school communities, and will not discriminate against individual parents’ choices for their children.

Chaplaincy services can also be offered to students who wish to gain access to other forms of support in relation to spiritual, ethical and religious matters. These services must be developed through a principal-approved, local chaplaincy committee in consultation with school administrators, teachers, parents and local religious groups.

Religious education at state schools is not compulsory and principals allocate students to religious programs provided at the school according to parents’ wishes. Parents may withdraw their child from all religious instruction by writing to the principal and the principal then makes suitable arrangements for students who are withdrawn from religious education.

It is proposed to:

  • continue with state schools facilitating religious education during school hours, for up to 40 hours per school year
  • allow state schools to expand the program provided to include spiritual and philosophical programs if there is demand from parents
  • require the approval of the Director-General of organisations offering religious education, chaplaincy services, spiritual and philosophical programs, during school hours. The organisations would need to demonstrate they:
    • are incorporated
    • are able to provide a quality program
    • have procedures in place to monitor staff and any programs provided, and protect student welfare – for example, blue card
    • have public liability insurance (at least $10 million)
    • would not pose a threat to the good order and management of the school
  • provide that chaplaincy student records remain the property of the department, and ensure protection for the chaplain where there is need to disclose confidential student information to protect a student
  • enable the reading of religious or spiritual texts to be undertaken as part of the religious education, spiritual or philosophical program. The legislation would not prevent these texts being studied as part of a subject in the school’s curriculum – for example, history or study of religion subjects
  • provide an alternative education program for students not participating in religious education, spiritual or philosophical programs. This would be organised by the principal of the school in partnership with parents.