Wednesday, July 29, 2009

CRIKEY: Costello shows little faith in the possibilities of education ...

In 1980, I started grade five at Sydney’s only Anglican cathedral school. My parents wanted to send me to a school which taught their values. But my parents are not Anglican. They are South Asian Sunni Muslims. Among my closest friends at school were a Jew, a Mormon and an atheist brought up in a nominally Catholic family. Their parents may have sent them to the school for similar reasons.

But Peter Costello thinks the main reason parents send their kids to a Christian school is this:

Parents who choose to send their children to a Christian school have a reasonable expectation that the child will get a Christian education. How could the school fulfil its obligation to the parents if it is required by law to employ non-Christian or anti-Christian teachers to provide it?

Perhaps Mr Costello should consult his well-heeled constituents of Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and other non-Christian faiths to find out why they choose to send their kids to exclusive (often selective) Christian schools. Perhaps having a name like Sydney Grammar or St Andrews on one’s resume can help overcome the prejudice of employers at allegedly unpronounceable surnames.

Presently religious institutions and faith schools are exempt from the provisions of anti-discrimination legislation which forbid discrimination in employment on the basis of religion. This could change in Victoria, and Costello writes in both The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald expressing his opposition ...

... to restrict the freedom of religious schools to choose their employees on the basis of their religious faith.

I’ve acted for both Muslim and non-denominational independent schools in workplace relations matters. Muslim schools employ non-Muslim teachers, only requiring them to display respect and empathy to Muslim religious values. Female teachers aren’t required to cover their hair. School principals told me that they had to hire non-Muslim staff as there weren’t enough Muslim teachers.

This presumably means these schools would take advantage of discrimination exemptions and employ only Muslim teachers if they had half a chance. Would Costello support Muslim schools insisting Muslim kids only be taught by Muslim teachers? Perish the thought! This kind of non-integration and breach of Australian values is what Costello so often pontificated on when he was treasurer.

I’d be appalled by the idea of kids from Islamic schools not having non-Muslim teachers. Hopefully by the time there are enough Muslim teachers, the law will have changed so that neither Muslim nor any other faith schools can discriminate. Religious and cultural cocoons aren’t healthy for children or for social cohesion.

Then again, Anglican cocoons didn’t harm me. Back when I was at school, to be employed at St Andrews as a teacher, you had to show some kind of commitment to Christianity. Some teachers evidenced this by a letter from their parish priest. We’re not sure exactly how my popular Year 11 English Teacher, Mr Scott, evidenced his Christian commitment. But at the last St Andrews’ Class of ’87 reunion, one of the lads recalled Scott had a habit of wearing polka-dotted ties. I’m not sure if he still wears them to work.

First published in Crikey on 29 July 2009.