Special religious instruction (SRI) in state schools has been in the news. The Age reported (17/2) that some principals had objected to volunteer instructors, mostly from Access ministries (AM), coming into their schools. The poor education quality of material used by AM and the disruption to classes were cited as factors. The same paper also told of several parents who had wanted their children excluded from SRI, only to discover later that ‘clerical error’ had placed them in such classes.
Then came a report (Sunday Age 23/2) that parents with children at Torquay College had objected to material handed out by Access ministries which presented sexual stereotyping and anti-gay views.
Permitting volunteers to enter schools to give instruction in religion, mostly Christianity, has been allowed via a section of the Victorian Education Act. Since the 1970s HSV has had a policy of wanting this section of the Act removed and provision made for ‘comparative world-views’ to be taught within the school curriculum by trained teachers. Although the Russell Inquiry into religion in schools made this recommendation in 1974, the practice of permitting outsiders to give weekly classes in religion has continued in Victoria.
Frustrated with the lack of action on this matter, some years ago an HSV member, Harry Gardner, proposed a secular ethics course particularly for the children of parents who have chosen to exclude them from SRI. Harry had years of experience visiting schools to entertain and inform students with simple science experiments, through use of puppets and story-telling. Building on this earlier work Harry put together a week-by-week course on practical ethics, intended as an alternative to SRI.
Although this course was not approved for school use it did cause several parents, who had opted their children out of SRI classes, to take a case to VCAT claiming discrimination. While this case was not upheld it led to the Education Department changing the way parents chose SRI from ‘opt out’ to ‘opt in’. Since this change to ‘opt in’ there has been a decline in children taking SRI by almost a third.
Not surprisingly, with numbers falling, Access ministries has sought clarification, on what it claims are its right to teach their program in schools. Currently AM is the largest provider of SRI (81% of students) and the only religious grouping given government funding for this purpose. Several minority religions, e.g. Baha’i and Buddhism, teach SRI without government funding.
Following media coverage and agitation from Access ministries, the Education Minister, Martin Dixon, plans to issue a directive aimed at clarifying any confusion. This directive, says the Minister, will be based on the relevant section of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006.
Parents Victoria had petitioned the government to remove religious instruction from schools hours without success. Their executive officer said, Parents Victoria ‘believe the teaching of a particular religion should be a family responsibility, not that of the school.’
Meanwhile the president of the Victorian Principal Association has said that with half a grade taking SRI and half not, there ‘can be a difficult logistical challenge’, as schools were not permitted to teach the regular curriculum while some students took part in religious instruction.
A further spin-off from the public discussion on this topic led the Wheeler Centre in partnership with the St James Ethics Centre to co-sponsor a debate, ‘Faith-based religious education has no place in public schools.’ This was held in the Melbourne Town Hall on Wednesday 26 February. The ‘for’ side was led by Marion Maddox, author of God under Howard and Taking God to Schools; ‘against’ was led by journalist Nick Cater.
Although the two sides differed on the value of faith-based SRI, both sides supported a professionally taught course in comparative religion, showing considerable common ground by all speakers.
In summary, with increasing number of parents opting their children out of SRI, Parents Victoria requesting the removal of SRI from school hours, many principal wanting to exclude SRI, and a growing agitation for professionally taught ‘comparative religion/ beliefs’ within the curriculum, the Minister’s directive will be awaited with great interest.