Media Release – 7 November 2012

Reforming religious education in State primary schools

Photo of reforming religious education forum in MelbourneOn Sunday 4th November 2012, a public forum convened in Melbourne to examine religious education in State primary schools. Parents, school councillors and principals, educators and lawyers came together with those who had personal experience of delivering Christian religious instruction. There was definite dissatisfaction with the conduct of special religious instruction (SRI) and concern that students should acquire an impartial understanding of diverse religions and beliefs. Discussion was led by Lyn Allison, former Senator and an Australian Humanist of the Year.

The key points expressed were as follows.

  1. The recent VCAT decision, in the case of Aitken and others v. Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD), is disappointingly conservative and inadequate to the challenge of public education today.
  2. SRI programs focus on induction into a particular faith tradition, instead of being education about diverse community beliefs.
  3. The admitted mission of ACCESS ministries, to ‘make disciples’ of State school students, is misguided and misplaced.
  4. The present system of SRI is unaccountable, and parents cannot be sure of making a properly informed choice.
  5. Public awareness should be raised to demand an independent review of SRI.
  6. General religious education (GRE), inclusive of non-theistic world-views and taught by professional teachers, would be greatly preferable to SRI, and would not require the amendment of existing legislation.

The panel of five invited speakers gave different perspectives on the current system of SRI prevailing in Victorian State primary schools.

Barrister Anna Forsyth gave an overview of the VCAT case, in which parents complained that the administration of SRI constituted discrimination for the purposes of Victorian equal opportunity legislation. The tribunal dismissed the claim. But the case has raised public awareness of the issue, and there may be grounds for an appeal against the decision.

Georgia Morrissey and Lisel Thomas summarized experience of the parents’ group, Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS). FIRIS believes that schools are entitled to control their SRI. The goal of FIRIS is to move SRI out of school time.

Rev. Dr Paul Tonson, a minister in the Uniting Church and member of the interfaith organization, Jews, Christians and Muslims Australia, talked about the role that progressive religious individuals and groups could play, collaborating with secular organizations, towards introducing a broad-based GRE which would celebrate culturally diverse religions, philosophies and ethical systems.

Dr Anna Halafoff, a research fellow of Deakin University and co-ordinator of Religions and Ethics Education Network Australia (REENA), raised questions about the inequitable funding of SRI in Victoria, the lack of funding for GRE and the need for an independent review of SRI taking diverse views into account. She cited a wealth of academic research establishing the benefits of religions and ethics education, and was optimistic about the development of the new National Curriculum which will include a variety of diverse, inter-cultural studies.

After the audience had offered insights and suggestions, a number of actions were recommended.

  1. DEECD should be challenged on its continued policy which instructs school principals to accommodate every accredited SRI provider that presents itself. In particular, evangelical activity in State schools needs to be withdrawn.
  2. A meeting of school principals should be convened to discuss possible joint action over their unreasonable difficulties in managing SRI. Such issues should also be referred directly to school councils.
  3. Teachers should be made aware that existing rules governing ‘supervision’ of SRI are limited to behaviour and safety. In this way, teachers could be brought on-side and encouraged to raise awareness of the problems imposed on them by SRI.
  4. Educational authorities should compile teaching resources for GRE, and teachers should be allowed and urged to qualify for GRE, with support from the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship (OMAC) as well as DEECD.

Contact Stephen Stuart, President, Humanist Society of Victoria at victorianhumanist@gmail.com
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