Catholic schools enforce religion

Perth, Australia - CATHOLIC upper school students in Western Australia will be forced to study religion in preference to other subjects in a bid by the clergy to bring young people back to the church.

Some teachers feared the move - a national first to be implemented in 2008 as part of the state's new outcomes-based education system - would prompt top students to enrol at independent or government schools with less-restrictive subject choices.

Director of Catholic Education in Western Australia Ron Dullard said under the OBE system, the Curriculum Council was creating a religion syllabus, which would be offered as a tertiary entrance examination subject as well as a non-TEE subject.

Although religion is already compulsory in Catholic schools, it is studied in addition to a combination of six TEE and non-TEE subjects a student may choose. From 2008, students will have to study religion as one of their six subjects, forcing them to forgo a more traditional academic course.

Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey refused to be interviewed by The Australian but in a written statement said the move would ensure religious knowledge was taken more seriously.

"It will have the same standing as any other subject and will not be seen as an optional extra," Archbishop Hickey said.

"We insist that the course will cover fully and adequately all that a student would need to know about the Catholic faith and will not be merely comparative religion studies."

But Anglican Schools Commission of Western Australia executive director Peter Laurence said the course would not be made compulsory in Anglican schools because it would restrict subject choice. "By Years 11 and 12, we would see that there are serious academic choices to be made by students and we are very comfortable with that," he said.

Catholic education authorities in Brisbane and Sydney said while it was compulsory for students to study religion they did not have to include it in their tertiary entrance mark.

A Perth Catholic school teacher, who asked not to be named, said his colleagues were concerned many of the brightest students would enrol at a non-Catholic school to study a subject of their choice rather than the compulsory religion course.

West Australian Education Minister Ljiljanna Ravlich and her federal counterpart, Julie Bishop, said the state's Catholic Education Office was free to enforce any mode of study accredited by the Curriculum Council.

Ms Ravlich said parents sent their children to Catholic schools to learn the ethos and traditions of their religion. "The Catholic Education Office has the authority to mandate any course of study in Catholic schools that has been accredited," she said.

"While the course hasn't yet been accredited, I personally would have no problem with the CEO mandating that particular course of study."

Ms Bishop said attending a Catholic school was not compulsory and the decision was in the hands of parents. "Parents will vote with their feet if that is what they want or not," she said.

Under the CEO plan, religion and life would be made a compulsory subject from 2008, leaving students with a maximum of four course choices. It is already mandatory to study either English or English Literature.

Curriculum Council of Western Australia chief executive David Axworthy said government, independent and Catholic school representatives were compiling the syllabus.

He said the course would be accredited by November, with all religions incorporated into the syllabus, not just Catholicism.

"It has to be more global than that," Mr Axworthy said.

"But a particular school may choose to emphasise one religion above any others."