I want to start this post by saying what I do not want to discuss. I do not want to discuss the general question of religious education in public schools. I am dealing just with the current system.
Now to help international readers make any sense of this post, when the NSW public education system was set up it was strictly secular. However, the system provided for one period a week, I think it was one period a week, in which the various churches (all then Christian) could provide religious instruction. Parents could decline to allow their children to participate. In that case, kids were expected to do ordinary school work.
There were good practical reasons for this approach. Sectarian divides between the Protestant/Anglican majority and the Roman Catholic minority really dictated a secular system. However, the previous public education system had involved a mixed secular/religious school system. If religion was not accommodated in some way, the rival church and state systems might continue. As it happened, the Roman Catholic hierarchy opted to set up a rival system of church schools, but the rationale remained.
Now track forward to NSW in 2009. There are new religions, new in an Australian sense in terms of significant numbers. These have been accommodated.
This is where we come to a problem. An Aboriginal colleague's children are going to a Sydney public school. That school provides opportunity for a variety of religious instruction including Hindu, Muslim and a number of Christian denominations. She did not want her children undertaking conventional religious instruction. Instead, she asked if the period could be used to introduce her children to Aboriginal culture and especially spirituality.
The answer was no. So now the children have to do ordinary school work when their colleagues are doing fun things like colouring in and listening to stories. They are very cranky with their mother as a result.
Now I suspect that there are many things I do not know from this story, including practical difficulties that the school might face. But I do know that she is very upset and resentful of the fact that the school accommodates new faiths but won't recognise the original Australian culture.
At an in-principle level I have to agree with her. I would have thought, given existing policy on religious instruction, that this was an issue that could be accommodated.