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New South Wales ‘secular’ education and the Public Schools League

Peter Garrett, a former Australian Federal Minister for School Education, puts Marion Maddox’s thesis in her book Taking God to School[1] in this way:

The Australian settlement established early consensus on the question of government support for religious schools, namely that it was undesirable. Education that was ‘free, compulsory and secular’ was the foundation stone on which a school system should be built. Maddox applauds the guiding instincts of politicians of the day who determined that government should enable this education model, led as they were by fears of sectarianism and the isolation of specific religions if the state supported religious schools. They also expressed an ideal about the kind of nation they wanted Australia to become: a fair country where every child would be well educated, each bound to the other in the same setting, without the added complication of religious affiliation getting in the way.[2]

The government of the colony of New South Wales under Henry Parkes certainly thought this way as did much of the population. The catch phrase used in the nineteenth century was ‘free, compulsory and secular’ and this slogan has been rejuvenated by the work of Maddox. While the argument of Maddox is worth weighing and given serious thought, and while Garrett’s review of her book begins to do this, there is a danger of misunderstanding the intentions of the nineteenth century discussion. In particular, there is the risk of believing that by the use of the word ‘secular’ the nineteenth century advocates of educational reform were seeking to eliminate religion from a state-funded school education system. Such a usage can been seen in Craig Campbell’s work ‘Free, compulsory and secular (more…)

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