Schools must adopt ‘Australian values’ minister says
New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes has urged schools to begin teaching Australian values, in response to controversy over a Sydney Islamic school’s handbook.
The 2012 handbook instructed teachers to condemn secularism and tell students that “peace, stability and justice can only be achieved through the establishment of Islam”.
Speaking at a recent education law conference, Stokes called for schools to adopt a core set of Australian values.
“I am challenging educators to think about how it would look.
“I am asking what are Australian values and why it is important that they should be upheld,” he said.
“In recent years the inherent tension between a liberal democratic society that encourages freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of expression and schools subscribing religious doctrine that preach the opposite has become pronounced.”
Andrew Houghton is the principal of the Islamic Al Siraat College in Victoria, and the 2016 EducationHQ Unsung Heroes award winner for leadership.
He says that there is not necessarily any conflict between Australian and Islamic values, and that in his experience the two complement each other.
“It depends on the interpretation I suppose, but no different to conflict with many other faiths and traditions in my view, it depends on a person’s interpretation of those, so, no, from my understanding and my working for four years in an Islamic school, in a community, no there’s been no conflict at all,” he says.
“We adhere to the values of Australian schooling and openly promote and support those and we want our students to understand that they live in, the context is Australia, but they’re not to be embarrassed about their faith or their tradition.”
This sentiment is echoed by prominent Islamic education academic Dylan Chown, a program director at the Centre for Islamic Thought and Education (CITE) at the University of South Australia.
“I do not perceive a conflict between the secular and the sacred,” he says.
“In the Islamic tradition, it doesn’t see the world via such a split or dichotomy and we would want to empower our students such that a dichotomy is not created in their minds between the sacred and secular.
“This would be debilitating to Australian Muslim students and their embracing of their multiple positive identities,” he says.
“This does not in any way diminish the importance of the rule of law, active and positive citizenship or the embracing of civic values that are for the common good and shared by all.
“Nor does it preclude values that may be termed ‘Islamic’, or better said, values reinforced within the Islamic tradition.
“Typically, in schooling contexts, such values relate to virtues and character traits which many faith traditions would recognise and promote.”
Influential libertarian think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), has come out in favour of Stokes’ proposal.
Bella d’Abrera, director of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, argues that the proposal addresses a genuine need.
“If you look at the values that are being taught in Islamic schools, the ones that Rob Stokes has basically responded to, if you just go by comparing those to the values of the west then they certainly don’t complement the values of the west,” she says.
“They don’t complement the values that Mr Stokes is saying that we need to enshrine in our society.
“So things like equality and mutual respect and individual liberty, what he’s responding to is the fact that they’re not being taught in Islamic schools.”
D’Abrera says that the issue is likely to extend beyond one individual school.
“If there’s one I don’t see why there wouldn’t be more.
“Again, I’m not an expert in what’s being taught in Islamic schools in New South Wales, but it’s certainly not surprising that there is a handbook like this, I know it’s a very common thing in the UK.”
D’Abrera says that, as well as teaching the importance of Australian values, schools should teach students about their Christian origins.
“There’s no point in teaching people about something like tolerance, or fairness or democracy and not giving the background.
“They’ve got to understand at least at a very basic level where these ideas come from, and these ideas are from western civilisation, they come from a Judaeo-Christian inheritance, from the last 2000 years you know, the idea of human rights is basically a Christian idea … so it’s important to teach them where these ideas come from, where these values come from, and then they’ll have a greater understanding of why they need to be preserved,” she says.
Houghton’s school places particular emphasis on the connection between Islamic tradition and Australian schooling, and even created a poster to illustrate how the two intersect.
“It’s because we actually fundamentally believe in the values of Australian schooling and how they connect to our tradition, so we’ve actually created this ourselves, not in response to [Stokes’] statement at all, but I think it certainly speaks nicely to it,” he says.
“I believe in the way we’ve gone about creating our identity statement and connecting our youth, who are growing up with … bombarding of media which often has negative views toward Islam, it’s a difficult job raising kids to be connected to the Australian context and supportive and we just want our kids to be fantastic graduates who contribute to society, and that’s why we value, that’s why we put so much emphasis on, coming back to those core values.”