Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Visit to four schools: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Christian

JANE FIGGIS: This morning, we visit four schools that are in many ways very different from one another, after all one is Muslim, another Greek Orthodox, there's a Jewish School and a Christian one. But there are interesting similarities too. One is that they really dislike being considered somehow strange or other. When I was negotiating the visits and happened to used the word 'ethnic' as perhaps one way to characterise this collection of schools, I got properly chastised.

PETER THEO: I think the way that the word 'ethnic is used at the moment is just to describe people of non-Anglo Saxon backgrounds. It's wrong. I mean, even Anglo Saxon people they are ethnics too.

HARRY HIRAKIS: The reason why we don't like 'ethnic' is, apart from meaning non-English speaking background, it also means 'foreign'. So it means that you've got a foreign background, and in this case we're not foreigners; we've just explained, most of our parents were born here. What we are is Australians of Greek background.

JANE FIGGIS: Or of Lebanese, or Fijian, or Jewish or any of the other backgrounds you'll meet today. We're visiting schools which slice off just that part of the school population which conforms to their particular cultural identity. And what I want particularly to do in this program, is explore what that separateness delivers to the students. Let's start with St Euphemia, a Greek Orthodox K to 10 College in Sydney. Harry Hirakis is the Principal of the High School section, Peter Theo is President of the Bankstown Parish and Community. Mr Hirakis first.

HARRY HIRAKIS: When I went to school, I went to school in a small country town. I can remember one of my first experiences: I went along and they said to me - I don't remember whether this was actually in English or Greek - but at any rate, they said to me, 'What religion are you?' And I said, 'Well I'm Greek Orthodox' and they looked and they said, 'Greek Orthodox?' They said, 'We have Catholic, we have Church of England, but we don't have any Greek Orthodox.' So that dimension that was missing in my life when I was young, and it's something that we try to provide for our children now. But it also helps - how do we say this - it also helps not to create marginal personalities in students. Whereas a lot of students in my age who were confused about who they were, whether they were Greek or whether they were Australian, whether they belonged here, whether they belonged there, it's been very bad. It's very hard to associate with any particular group, so it gives students a chance to see that that's normal, that their Greekness is part of everyday living in Australia. It's not something that's foreign, it's not something to do just with the Acropolis or whatever the case is.

PETER THEO: What I would like to add to this - I think somehow I got the impression - I don't know whether I'm right or wrong - that by teaching our students their Greek cultural background, that we're sort of creating a ghetto. Now, never think of that. The idea is, by teaching our students, which they are of Greek background, 90 per cent of the students, not their parents but their grandparents or their great-grandparents have a Greek background, and by teaching them Greek culture and Orthodox religion, we see that as a bridge between the two cultures.

HARRY HIRAKIS: What the real thing here is, that we provide alternatives for students in terms of their identity. In the past, when students of, say, Greek background or Italian background or other backgrounds other than Anglo backgrounds, when they rejected their background, there were no real alternatives for them. There was nothing positive about being Greek-Australian or Italian-Australian or whatever. Part of this process is to provide those alternatives. So when students say, 'Look, I don't want to be Greek,' at least they do it from a position of strength and not because they feel negative about who they are and they're trying to hide who they are, so they speak in the best of Anglo accents and all that sort of thing, just to make up for the fact that they're Greek Australians. If they don't want to be Greek Australian, that's fine. This school provides the alternative for them to do that, but it's from a position of strength. They can say, 'I know what Greek is; I now understand how it fits in, but I don't like it' or 'I do like it'.

JANE FIGGIS: There are only subtle differences between what you see visiting the classrooms at St Euphemia's and any other school you go into, but there I was particularly taken with the paintings in the kindergarten. There were wonderful ones captioned: 'The dog had an ugly face' and 'The ugliest dog had a bucket on her head', but there was also work displayed there which these same kids had done - drawn and labelled equally enchantingly, but the writing was in Greek. St Euphemia's is typical of all the schools serving a specific cultural group. They're hugely in demand, all expanding into Years 11 and 12, which is a very expensive commitment for these schools to make. But when St Euphemia's started in 1989, it was against some opposition even within the local Greek community, and a lot of opposition from the State and Commonwealth education bureaucrats, as you'll hear.

But the primary school Principal, Miltiades Yiangou remembers that determined band which won in the end.

MILTIADES YIANGOU: I never forget the commitment of the school community in '89 when we started the school. We had only 29 kids, and we had our annual fundraising ball, and we had there 400 people and raised $60,000 from 29 parents. But I'll never forget that, it was an experience for me as well.

JANE FIGGIS: Do they repeat that every year for you?

MILTIADES YIANGOU: Well, gradually .. in comparison with the numbers, probably not, but that shows the commitment of how the school started.

PETER THEO: And also it's been very, very difficult times, then you had difficulties in obtaining registration. We appeal; again rejected. Bankstown is a stable area - no more schools. We had to go politically. Our ex-prime minister, as you know, it's his area - we thank him very much; he was very, very helpful. Through the multicultural point of view, he was able to find a way, sort of thing, you know? Originally we were one storey, then we applied for two storeys, again rejected. Appeal, again rejected. Again, but politically, you know? And for the first three years, it was just one fight after the fight, but thank God now it's all in the past. We haven't got anywhere to put them now, we've got so many and we established a first stream actually this year. We have enrolments for a fourth and a fifth stream, but we just haven't got the facilities to go any further.

JANE FIGGIS: But it's interesting from what you were saying at the beginning, the fact that the Greek community was a bit reticent in the very beginning, so some of those motives and emotions that drive you, you almost had to teach the community.

HARRY HIRAKIS: In a way that's true, but I've found from experience that the Greek community tends to want their children to succeed more so than anything else. So the first criteria is to make sure that success is guaranteed before we change to the school or before we think about a language or we think about religion. Let's ensure the success. So hopefully what we're showing them is that success goes along hand-in-hand with the Greek environment at the same time.

PETER THEO: Some of them compare our discipline code. This school has a firmer discipline code than any government school in the area anyway, and that was one of the criteria I think that made them come to our school. They wanted some more one-ness, if I can use the term, which would really be what they expect from Greek Orthodox children. And say swearing - not that swearing, you don't hear anything like that, but things like that, they tried to .... coming from other nationalities - of course it's not, it's just what they thought. But we do have, I think, a firm discipline code in our

school and that's one important factor.

HARRY HIRAKIS: From the principals down, there are some expectations in the whole of the environment: hard work, and well-behaved. That's what the students expect when they come here, that's what the parents expect of the students, and that's what the teachers expect of the students also. And the other difference that I noticed about the schools that I worked in before and this current school: we used to run, for example, parent-teacher nights in other schools for, say, the whole of the high school, and we would get 20 or 30 parents. Well, we run parent-teacher nights here for, say, Year 7 and we get all the parents.

JANE FIGGIS: That trifecta of reasons for parents choosing St Euphemia's is echoed in all the schools we're visiting today - good educational results first, probably foremost, good manners second and almost taken for granted, and third, that sense of belonging. This is a place that understands us and supports us. The Malek Fahd Islamic School is also in Bankstown. It's a crowded, busy place - the 1,100 students barely contained on this partially unfinished site - the school started only six years ago and is still building. At the moment, in fact, the first thing that greets you as you turn into the school is a big sign saying 'No Vacancies'.

But inside this Year 1 classroom, it's quiet, the children have been taking turns reciting from the Koran.

Chris, these kids are all born in Australia, basically, so what do they speak at home? They speak Arabic?

CHRIS DUNCAN: Generally, they speak Arabic at home, yes, that's their first language, but they're reasonably fluent when they come to school. And they speak English, they all speak English in the playground, but yes, Arabic is mainly their first language, certainly for kids from Arabic background. But the Asian children don't speak Arabic and they tend to speak Indonesian and Ba'Hai and so forth at home, so there's a strong emphasis in the school on English. In a sense, in this school, is pretty much a second language sometimes; there's a very strong emphasis right across the curriculum on teaching English and extra emphasis on literacy.

JANE FIGGIS: At Malek Fahd School, the boys all wear long trousers, and the girls from Year 4 onward, the heejab, although some of the littlest girls also wear it. What is noticeable is that all of the students are Muslim, but many of the teachers are not. Intash Ali (?) is the Principal.

INTASH ALI: Yes, it's true. A big number of our teachers are not Muslims and this is a deliberate policy of the school board, because we want to ensure that we do not have an isolationist approach. In other words, we don't want to develop this ghetto mentality. Our children are going to live in this country and they must know the lifestyle, the cultures of the predominant Australian culture.

JANE FIGGIS: In some ways, the parents have higher expectations for their children's education than their own. I mean, that's always rather difficult to take a generation of students and try and give them things that their parents don't have.

INTASH ALI: Yes, I agree with you. One of the problems I think that some parents faced here when they came here earlier for example, 20, 25 years ago, was that some of the children did not do very well in public schools, and I think they expect our schools to be able to help them retain their culture, but as I've said, at the same time ensure that they do well academically and do well with the rest of the Australian society.

JANE FIGGIS: Now, the parents have to pay fees to come here.

INTASH ALI: Yes, our fees would be comparable to that charged in Catholic schools. For example, the annual fee would be about $1,000 per child.

JANE FIGGIS: But this is a really fairly disadvantaged, depressed area. I mean, most of the parents are migrants. Is that a big commitment for them to put that $1,000 in for each kid?

INTASH ALI: Yes, I think it is. We have most of our parents who are able to pay out the fees, and if there are some who have got financial problems, then we will have a remission of fees.

JANE FIGGIS: The thing with one of the groups of young girls, I guess Year 6 girls, they were involved in quite a complex discussion about whether they should be making decisions for themselves, and I guess one of the things that perhaps outsiders would imagine is that in a religion that has very clear standards and ideas, that there's still a huge amount of space for genuine debate and discussion, indeed even about the Koran.

INTASH ALI: Yes, that is true indeed. And, in fact, the religion itself encourages us to discuss issues, to debate issues; in fact the Koran is very explicit in even how we debate issues, and so this thinking about issues and having a choice is important. It is in fact part of religion, and as you've said, people are surprised that Muslims have these discussions, especially girls have this kind of choice, yes.

JANE FIGGIS: And the kids come from so many different countries. Are the parents fairly united in what they want, or are there big differences amongst the families?

INTASH ALI: Yes, as you've noticed today, the children are from Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia, China, Malaysia - you name them and they're here. But then, I'll say that the parents, all parents, are united in what they want from the school. As I've said again, earlier, that they do want the children to have a good grounding in their own religion, but at the same time they must have good sporting abilities, good academic backgrounds and things like that, yes.

JANE FIGGIS: Very much like any other school, in some respects. In fact, I should say it differently - very much like any other school and any other set of parents.

INTASH ALI: Exactly. That's the point. There's nothing exotic about this place. This is, as you've said very well, like any other school here in Australia, and our children and our parents are normal Aussie people.

JANE FIGGIS: It is, however, something they are very vigilant about.

INTASH ALI: As you've seen today, our children are going out to play sports with other schools, and this is one of the ways that we will ensure that our children, in fact, get on very well with the rest of society, the rest of the children. And in fact in sports, they've been doing very well, and when it comes to any kind of bad behaviour, we are very strict about that. And I think that kind of sportsmanship, that mateship, is developed in our children, by having contact with other schools, other public schools.

JANE FIGGIS: Intash Ali, the Principal of Malek Fahd School. The Deputy Principal is Chris Duncan. You heard him with me earlier, actually. He's an Anglican. Before taking up this present post, he was actually the Principal of a smaller Muslim school, helping to get it on its feet. The school he was Principal at before that? Have a guess: it was a Jewish school. How can an educational leader hop from an Anglican school to a Jewish school to a Muslim school?

CHRIS DUNCAN: Whilst the religion is in a sense very different, what was required to run the school, I think, were fairly generic sort of educational skills and ways in which you could make the school work successfully. I think you can take a range of skills or management approaches or approaches to people, which is essentially what I regard as being professional, and what I mean by professional can override lots of those other barriers - that if you do things properly and well, well the school will function well and allow the ethos of the school to be expressed. If you can run the school reasonably well, the school, the flavour of the school will sort of express itself.

And on the other hand, there is another school of thought which says, 'Well look, a school really can't have a full centre of gravity unless the head of the school can really symbolise the culture of the school.' Now, to some extent, in my position, I've never been able to do that, and that's true up to a point, but it's an interesting school of thought about whether one can sort of transform the school or one can actually just sort of transact it, you know. And so it's a very interesting issue I think in independent schools - about whether the head has to actually symbolise and be the figurehead of the school culture.

JANE FIGGIS: Chris Duncan. You're listening to Radio National. This is the Education report, where we're looking at schools that serve large single cultural groups. The King David Jewish School in Melbourne is one such.

DAVID ZYNGIER: This is a progressive Jewish day school. We therefore ally ourselves to a philosophy of Judaism and a philosophy of life that's based on the notion of Tikun Olan (?) a Hebrew phrase from the Bible which means 'to make the world a better place now', not in the future, not in heaven or in kingdom come, but to make life a better place for human beings now. So all our endeavours are directed towards raising children's consciousness; they have to strive to make their lives better now for all people.

JANE FIGGIS: David Zyngier, the Principal of the King David School. Like the Greek school and the Muslim one you've heard from in the program earlier, this school is increasingly in demand - although walking through it, one realises the demand is not because the school has terribly flash physical resources, it's more the comfortable jumble of a big old house with extra classrooms sort of fitted into the garden. One thing they are insistent about: teaching Jewishness and Jewish culture is knitted into everyday classroom life. It's not an add-on, not an extra course.

DAVID ZYNGIER: We are currently preparing our children right now for the Festival of Passover, of Pasach (?) which commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from Egypt, and from Pharoh and the Exodus from Egypt. And that's done in all sorts of different ways: it's done in maths and it's done in reading and it's done in art, and I'll just give you an example from the art that I saw just yesterday. This year, our theme in art is Aboriginal art. The children yesterday were painting and drawing the Exodus from Egypt, a Jewish theme obviously, and a very important motif, in Aboriginal style. And we are therefore able to indicate to the children very subtly, without stressing the point, that they are part and parcel of both the Australian society and showing respect for our indigenous culture and also they have a Jewish and a very strong Jewish identity, which can be expressed in various forms.

JANE FIGGIS: Now, you've spent your teaching life in the State School, up until you came here last year?


JANE FIGGIS: You must have tried to describe to yourself the difference.

DAVID ZYNGIER: The difference is immense. A school like the King David School is 100 per cent family commitment. When you have a parent-teacher night, you have more than all the parents coming, you have the grandparents coming as well. Whereas in the State School system, very often you have to struggle to get 40 per cent to 50 per cent of parents to be concerned about their children's education. That is one marked difference. The other one is the children in the King David School feel much more part of the school. They are secure in the school, they see it as their place, much more so than children ever did in any of the State schools that I've taught in. I taught in some very, very fine schools, and there are many fine schools in the State School system, as there should be.

JANE FIGGIS: Is there a feeling of anti-Semitism out there? You just gave a hint of it in that last answer of yours.

DAVID ZYNGIER: I didn't think I actually hinted that there's anti-Semitism. There is anti-Semitism in every country, even in countries where there are no Jews. Unfortunately, one of the most virulent anti-Semitic countries in the world is Poland, and Poland just about got rid of all their Jews. Japan also has an anti-Semitic sub-culture and there are very, very few Jews in Japan as far as we're aware. There is anti-Semitism in Australia, unfortunately; there is racism in Australia; there's ignorance in Australia, and we do our best to overcome that. One way we do that is - as I've mentioned before - we're about to celebrate the Passover holidays; we have invited non-Jewish children from a Catholic school to come and participate with us, to facilitate an exchange of ideas. I don't believe our children are aware that there's any anti-Semitism out there, but we don't hide from it, we celebrate and commemorate the festivals and the memorials that are part and parcel of the Jewish calendar. Yam Hashoa (?), the remembrance day of the Holocaust is a very significant day here, and it highlights anti-Semitism in its worst form.

JANE FIGGIS: David Zyngier. On Monday morning, I visited the Kingsway Christian College. This is a big school - 880 students K to 10 - and getting bigger. Kingsway is in the northern suburbs of Perth, very bright and airy, and the bustle at 9 o'clock was impressive - kids being dropped off, parents checking for things in the school office. Also a decidedly multicultural mix too, lots of Anglo kids but also Vietnamese, a few Spanish families. The Director is Neil Rowcroft, who says that it's very hard for outsiders to understand what a Christian education means in their terms - it's actually hard for the insiders. It was hard for him.

NEIL ROWCROFT: During those first four years in Christian education, I certainly grew in my appreciation of what a Christian school was. I had no idea, even though I'd been a Christian for eight years before coming in to Christian education, even longer. I had no idea of what Christian education was, and as just a normal churchgoing member, one who worked as a missionary for some years as well, I had no concept at all of Christian education.

JANE FIGGIS: So what is it that you were learning in those four years?

NEIL ROWCROFT: I think just being challenged in my own understanding of life, being willing to bring everything under the light of scripture, to really explore what is curriculum, how do we approach curriculum from a Christian viewpoint, how do we approach our young people, how do we discipline in love from a Christian viewpoint? Those sorts of things to me are very much where the rubber meets the road in Christian education.

JANE FIGGIS: When people come to enrol their kids here, what are the kinds of questions that you ask them? I mean, are you making demands on the families that they have to believe certain things?

NEIL ROWCROFT: Well, the foundation of our statement of faith would be that we believe in Jesus Christ, and families and parents who come in to our Parent Association take Jesus Christ as their Saviour and as their Lord and seek to serve Him and honour Him on a daily basis. We're on about people, and I believe that's where it comes through - our Christian-ness, our Christianity and the caring and the nurturing, in the seeking to identify needs of students on the one hand, and in seeking to cater for those needs in the practical out-working of the classroom.

JANE FIGGIS: Can you think of examples?

NEIL ROWCROFT: I suppose the biggest example of late has been the development of our what are perhaps incorrectly called 'vocational

programs' in the post-compulsory area. These are programs that are designed to meet the needs of students who may not be aspiring to tertiary level. But we certainly believe that these programs are catering for those students' needs in enabling them to go on to TAFE, go on to employment or further training. Those particular programs originally were very much at the cutting edge; we were an ABC pilot school in '93-94, and we've gone on from there basically in developing a structured work-based learning and those sorts of things.

JANE FIGGIS: If you take something like science education, you don't teach a creationist point of view, or do you?

NEIL ROWCROFT: Yes, we do teach a creationist point of view. But at the same time, I hasten to add, in my parent interview, I make it very clear to parents that we, from pre-primary right through, we hold to a creationist point of view - that's what we believe the scriptures to be saying. However, we do make a point of introducing the theory of evolution as part of our curriculum. We believe that's an important part of our curriculum.

JANE FIGGIS: Because, I was going to say, if you don't do that, you really disadvantage them when there comes the time to do tertiary entrance exams and things like that, where the normal curriculum does teach all those other things.

NEIL ROWCROFT: Yes, we wouldn't want our students to be disadvantaged in any way. But at the same time, we are not just throwing our Christian belief out of the classroom door, out of the science laboratory door, when it comes to teaching evolution. We're wanting to teach evolution and an understanding of the theory of evolution - and I emphasise the word 'theory' - from a Christian viewpoint. In other words, as young Christian people, what should our attitude towards evolution be?

JANE FIGGIS: Give me some examples also then in English classes. I guess, all the way through - the kind of books that kids read and discuss as well as the point of view that they take.

NEIL ROWCROFT: Especially the point of view. We do not use Christian novels - we use some good Christian biographies, that sort of thing. But again, we use secular novels, and quite unashamedly. We don't see the need to change to Christian novels because we believe that secular novels can give us - apart from being very good literary works in their own right, and that's something that we would want to encourage our young people to appreciate - we believe that the concepts brought through in secular novels are still part of life, and we're wanting to work through real life issues with our young people. We wouldn't want to be hiding those things from our young people. We wouldn't succeed in that anyway.

JANE FIGGIS: What do you do with the kids who, when they get to their adolescent years, are going to - I imagine they're going to - question some of this - how do you handle that?

NEIL ROWCROFT: We believe that it's important that students do question. In a particular context, we would encourage students to question. We believe that our role is one of nurture and caring for those young people as they go through those adolescent years, and not to exclude them in any way because they would happen to disagree. Having said all that, the biggest thrill undoubtedly for me is as a Principal, has been to see a graduation - a number of young people who are able to articulate a very strong faith and trust in God. There will always be those who don't and who choose to not follow the Christian faith, but many of them do and have a very mature Christian faith.

JANE FIGGIS: The kids that question, though, and don't come back to your point of view, or their parents', do they comfortably stay in the school through graduation, or do they want to leave? It must be particularly for some of the kids.

NEIL ROWCROFT: They certainly do stay in the school for graduation, and they stay as part of our past students body as well, which is quite interesting, and many of them, during the year after they leave, come back and visit us, so it's not just the Christian young people who do that, it's the non-Christians as well. They've built up some very meaningful relationships with staff and also their peers, but particularly with staff. And I think that is a very precious thing for young people, that they have that security.

JANE FIGGIS: Neil Rowcroft from Kingsway College. In next week's Education report, we examine the relationships between parents and teachers across all schools. One is tempted to name the program: The Undeclared War Between Parents and Teachers - you'll see why.