Simpson’s donkey, hijabs and education policy

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It was only a matter of time before the consequences of relying on the mantra of ‘choice’ in education caught up with the Howard government. The possible threat of terrorism arising from some extremist Islamic groups and individuals has now focused the Howard government’s attention on Islamic schools.

It has been forced to face the fact that what children learn in their schools has profound significance for our society as a whole. We are all affected by whether or not young people are being educated to live and learn peacefully alongside those from families with different beliefs and attitudes.

Now that the dangers inherent in their own schools policy have started to emerge, the mindless reactions of certain members of the government risk fanning the very forms of prejudice that can encourage terrorism.

The Howard government will only have itself to blame if there are now parents who believe that the mantra of parental ‘freedom of choice’ entitles them to schools that exist to emphasise the distinctive values of their own particular faith or ethnic communities, along with, or even in preference to, those ideals that are widely shared by most Australians and across all decent societies.

After all, no government has invested more public funding than this one in encouraging parents to find virtue in choosing their children’s peers through private schools – with their specific ‘values’ – relative to its investment in public schools that are open to all.

Last week, Education Minister Brendan Nelson made a fool of himself by declaring that ‘everything at the heart of what it means to be Australian’ and the key to ‘the directions of the country’ depend upon knowledge of the story of Simpson and his donkey. This is a tale that emanates a war in which Australian troops were opposing those of Turkey, many of whom were Moslem.

Having encouraged the establishment of separatist religious schools, it would seem naï, perverse or even hypocritical to condemn a specifically Islamic school which did not see this tale as the best way to convey to its students what it means to be a citizen of modern Australia.

During the last federal election campaign, politicians from both major parties and religious leaders, notably Cardinal Pell, were tripping over each other in mutual congratulation about the increasing amount of public funding being channelled into private schools. Those who saw the need for caution in promoting schools operated by relatively closed communities, religious or other, were sidelined.

Now we are hearing from the Howard government for the first time in ages of the virtues of ‘secular’ society and its values.

This comes from the very same government that has neglected public schooling. Howard and his colleagues have even attempted, when pushed to justify their preferential funding polices for private schools, to denigrate the importance of public education as a key agency for moulding, teaching and practising the secular ideals common to all Australians, as well as for learning how to deal rationally with different opinions.

The same government that has undermined public education and presided over the exodus to private schools is now advising parents who don’t want to bring their children up according to Nelson’s menu of values to ‘clear off’.

As far as our laws allow, governments should be blind to religious differences. Where there is evidence of law-breaking, governments should bring the offenders to justice. If our laws are inadequate to protect us against terrorism, governments should bring forward concrete proposals to strengthen them.

Similarly, if the federal government is dissatisfied with the curriculum standards required by the states and territories of non-government schools, then it has the power to withhold its funding from those schools until they meet the accepted standards. The government should also withhold public funds that finance teacher salaries where states’ registration requirements fail to distinguish adequately between qualified teachers and missionaries or clerics with no professional training in education or knowledge of curriculum requirements.

This should hardly be a problem given that Brendan Nelson has shown no compunction with using financial sanctions to bully state and territory governments into line with his own priorities in relation to public schools.

Public schools, which must accept all-comers, cannot opt out of the challenges that are part of living in a human society. These schools have to teach how our many differences can be managed in practice.

In one public primary school in Sydney a few years ago, I noticed a small group of young boys heading off towards the school hall at lunchtime each day. The principal explained that one of the group was a young Islamic boy who had been given permission to use the school hall to pray. His mates routinely waited for him, before returning to their playground games.

Governments must reinforce the message to the community as a whole that, unless children from minorities can feel safe and welcome, no one should feel surprised if they choose to retreat into their own ethnic or religious community schools.

In public schools, the issue of appropriate dress is being continually negotiated. This creates an environment more conducive to learning than in those schools where students who do not wear or wish to wear the school uniform for understandable reasons are simply told to ‘clear off’.

In the past week, Liberals Sophie Panopoulos and Bronwyn Bishop have called for a ban on girls wearing Moslem headscarfs in public schools. They have said that they are more about rebellion than religion. Their argument suggests that they have seized the opportunity offered by the terrorism related tensions in the community to argue for the merits of enforcing mindless conformity among the young, rather than to suggest that the wearing of the hijab to school by Islamic girls in Australia offers a serious terrorist threat.

They also argued that France has recently legislated to ban the hijab in public schools. But while Islam may have been the target there, the legislative bans apply to all similar forms of religious dress and emblem.

Without necessarily agreeing with the bans, they were the outcome of a debate about the secular and civic purposes of public schools and the need to emphasise the values held in common by all citizens of the French republic. It was a rational debate about the relationship between the public and private spheres, between church and state, between faith and reason.

How can Bronwyn Bishop argue to ban a girl from wearing the Moslem headscarf or another such forms of religious expression in a public school, while the government offers her a public funding subsidy to attend a private school whose primary mission is to foster Islam; whose school uniform is a form of traditional Islamic dress; and which is not required to adhere to the student admission and exclusion procedures of public schools or with planning requirements?

And any suggestion that the headscarf should be banned because it signifies the oppression of women sits oddly in a country where such a significant proportion of adults were educated by Catholic nuns who were also almost completely shrouded. It should be remembered that the decision about what they would wear was left to their religious orders – not banned by government.

If the kind of thinking that seems to be motivating Bishop and Panopoulos takes hold, how long will it be before we see a proposal that, as a safeguard against terrorism, all members of the Moslem faith be required to wear religious insignia, so that they can be easily distinguished from ‘other’ Australians?

All this appears to have begun with Brendan Nelson defending Australian values and promoting Simpson’s donkey. Next time he speaks of values someone should ask him about his commitment to equality of treatment when he is prepared to exempt certain schools from our sex discrimination laws to allow the provision of teaching scholarships for males only.

The Howard Government is now having trouble working out what its mantra of ‘freedom of choice’ for parents in education actually means. Which parents should have what choice?

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