Letter to School Councils on Religious Instruction

By | 9 Feb 2011

Letter to School Councils on Religious Instruction

Photo of red post boxFrom: HUMANIST SOCIETY OF VICTORIA Inc.
To: The President of the School Council

9 February 2011

Religious instruction in government primary schools

I am writing to all Victorian state primary school councils with some information and suggestions which might assist any school that is finding difficulties connected with religious instruction (RI, for short) or that is even contemplating introducing it.

You possibly know that schools are not required by law to provide any RI. The Education & Train­ing Reform Act 2006 permits, but does not require, religious education in two forms; only one of those (termed ‘special religious instruction’ in section 2.2.11 of the Act and denoted here by RI) is a subject of its own in primary schools and is provided by volunteer instructors coming from outside the school. Under the Act, councils have it in their hands to decide whether RI is appropriate and practicable for their school. Unhelpfully, that question is begged by the Depart­mental guideline, ‘A school principal should make provision for special religious instruction where an accredited and approved instructor is available.’ (Victorian Government Schools Reference Guide, §3.22.)

From the parents’ point of view also, RI is not compulsory. (Act, section 2.2.11(2)(c); Guide, §3.22.) Parents can write to excuse their child from the class. However, the Guide is again unhelpful, because Departmental teachers ‘may not’ teach the excused students anything instead, but only ‘supervise’ them. (Guide, §§3.22.6, 3.22.8.) That is the point at which the young person experiences unjust discrimi­nation. It is not the intention of the Act, as evidenced by the govern­ment white paper which appeared before­hand: ‘Parents who do not want their children to receive religious instruction are able to opt out under the current legislation and schools are required to provide other lessons for these children during the religious instruction time. … The current arrangements … should continue.’ (‘Review of Education and Training Legislation’, September 2005, www.eduweb.vic.gov.au.)

The predominant provider

Although the RI system now accredits several different religions and world-views, it inherits the Christian predominance that permeated the society of sixty years ago. The vast majority of RI classes in Victorian primary schools are Protestant Christian classes, which are provided by ACCESS ministries under the title of Christian Religious Education (or CRE). You will see from their website (www.accessministries.org.au) that they have a missionary intent.

In 2009 ACCESS ran its CRE classes in 901, or 68%, of the 1,325 state primary schools. We are told that, every year, it writes to the remaining schools and offers to establish CRE there. You might be mis­led by the claim on its website, that ‘CRE programs assist Victorian schools to meet legislative require­ment for religious instruction for students.’ There is of course no such requirement, as explained already.

Humanist concerns

The Humanist Society of Victoria is a wholly voluntary organization, founded in 1961, concerned with social questions of ethics and contemporary values. In our democratic and multicultural society we contend that the ascendancy, in our otherwise secular state-school system, of one major religious faith is inappropriate. Church involvement in state schools has accelerated since it began in 1950, and during that time immigration has greatly broadened the complexion of the community. We suggest that families need to have real choices of education programs based on beliefs and values. Another problem is that the system of RI volunteers is poorly regulated and not clearly answerable to either schools or parents.

This Society contributed to the very extensive review, Religious Education in State Schools, the Russell report, in September 1974. That report (see vic.humanist.org.au) recommended a much more flexible approach to the provision of RI, to accommodate changing community views, but it failed to produce legislative action at the time. Census figures since 1974 have shown a continuing decline in religious adherence.

After the 2006 Act was brought in, the Society developed an ethics curriculum to provide an alternative for parents who had opted-out their child from normal RI. This was initiated after receiving complaints from some of our parent members. We duly applied to be accredited to deliver those lessons in parallel with RI classes, but the proposal was rejected by the Minister for Education in August 2009.

Following publication of articles about this unsatisfactory situation, in The Sunday Age of 7 November 2010, the Society received a lot of public support, which showed that many exempted students felt unfairly singled-out and their parents also experienced discrimination. Their main com­plaints and requests are summarized in Appendix 1, for your information. We wish you to know that the Society has decided to take further the matter of discrimination and is preparing a formal complaint on behalf of the parents before the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC).

Risks and suggestions

I have mentioned the unfortunate effects felt by some families who conscientiously elect not to participate in RI. Only a minority of families in a school make that choice – whether because they are of a different religion or because the parents are not believers at all – and not all those that do so suffer by it. But the whole school is affected if a minority is seen to be excluded. In addition some parents consent to RI only reluctantly, because of pressure to conform to the group norm.

This is not a criticism of schools or school councils, however. The constraints of legislation, the penny-pinching of the Government and the unsatisfactory guidelines of the Department make it extremely hard for schools to deal fairly with all their students. This sort of distress in the school community can often be relieved simply by better communication.

In order to make an informed choice for their child, parents need to be told clearly in advance what RI programs are available and what each of them does. They will then appreciate the missionary purpose of CRE, in particular, and not mistake it for general cultural knowledge.

Participation in RI would be more willing if the parents were to give their explicit consent each year – that is, participants having to opt in, rather than non-participants opt out. At year’s end they would welcome some sort of report on the student’s progress.

Where excused students feel excluded from their peer-group and waste time in no constructive activity, there is a problem. It could be solved administratively by scheduling the RI class after the hours of compulsory school attendance, as is practised in the A.C.T. This arrangement appears to be permitted under sections 2.2.11(1), (4) of the Act, and in spite of section 2.2.11(2)(b).

Alternatively, you might consider whether your school community would support a different form of RI in addition to those on offer. How long is it since your school community was surveyed on attitudes to RI? Are your teachers happy with the role of supervising RI and with the Depart­mental guidelines? Appendix 2 summarizes a survey taken in 2007 by one Victorian school council: out of about 400 families, 140 responded, and over 50% of them preferred an alternative to CRE. If your council conducted a survey with similar result, you might wish to convey that message to the Minister.

Two possible alternative courses are worth noting, both of which encourage the growth of moral awareness without theology. 1: The Humanist ethics course is designed with volunteer instructors, or parents themselves, in mind (www.victorianhumanist.com/childrens-ethics-course), but is presently in the bureaucratic doldrums. (A comparable ethics course was authorized last year as an alternative to RI for NSW primary schools.) 2: Moving away from volunteer RI to professional teaching, some of your own teachers might wish to take on philosophical ethics: training is obtainable as professional develop­ment from the Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools (vaps.vic.edu.au) – see Appendix 3.

We believe that, in practi­cally every school that has RI, you will find a number of alienated students and frustrated parents. But with a little extra care, school councils can ensure that all students experience an educative schooling. I hope this letter has given you some information that will help you deal with such difficulties, which might seem minor but loom larger in the eyes of children. We would welcome your response, by E-mail or mail, and would be grateful if you would share with us the results of any opinion survey in your school. We would be happy to supply a speaker at your council or parents’ mee­ting, if requested. If you hear of interested parents who wish to follow or join the forthcoming legal case at VEOHRC, they may be directed to our website (vic.humanist.org.au) and the E-mail address below.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Stuart, president

Appendix 1

Summary of comments, critical of administration of religious instruction (RI), received by HSV from parents, following The Sunday Age articles of 7/11/2010.

A. Main complaints

Negative effects on students nominally excused from RI:

  • Some are kept in at the back of the RI classroom, so are still exposed, inappropriately, to the content of the lesson but excluded from palpable incentives, such as sweets.
  • Others are told to wait in passageways and other inappropriate places.
  • They may be given a range of different activities to undertake, some of which make them feel they are being punished.
  • Some suffer insulting comments and victimization from participating classmates, such as, “You will go to hell because you don’t believe in god!” Such reports were deeply moving.
  • Overall, most of them feel excluded inexplicably and distressed by that: they are therefore discriminated against.

B. Main Requests

Alteration of arrangements for delivering RI:

  • From the largest group of respondents: no religion should be taught at school.
  • From the next largest group: the children should learn about all beliefs and religions, comparatively, not one particular religion.
  • Those parents, who do not return the yearly form giving approval to attend RI, should be assumed NOT to have given approval, rather than to have given it, as at present.
  • RI classes should be held after normal school hours.

Appendix 2

A survey amongst parents in a suburban state school about religious education, 2007.

The school community of about 400 families was informed by circular, beginning as follows.

As part of School Council a working party has been established to explore the options for Religious Education. The Education and Training Reform Act 2006 states that a form of RE must be offered at government schools if there are qualified instructors to deliver the syllabus.* Parents have the choice as to whether or not their child participates in any offered RE. We are seeking community consultation about the type of religious education offered to our students to assist us in planning for 2008 and beyond.

Four different types of religious instruction are as follows:

Values based education, General religious education, Christian religious education, No religious education. [Descriptions of these were given.]

Could you please return this tear off slip indicating your preference and return to the office along with any other feedback you may have. Please remember that at this stage we are only gathering data from the community. This does not guarantee change or otherwise for next year. You will be asked formally to select at the beginning of next year.

Thanking you

Survey Results

Preference Selected No. of responses % of responses
Christian religious education 61 44%
General religious education 31 22%
Values based education 17 12%
General & Values 16 11%
No religious education 11 8%
Christian & General 2 1%
Christian & General & Values 2 1%
TOTAL 140 100%

Written suggestions that accompanied responses to the survey:

  • Perhaps they can be taught at different year levels or half a year of one and half of the other. Perhaps values based education can be incorporated into CLaS groups?
  • I wonder whether there is scope for different education for different age children? Certainly the preps this year have benefited enormously from the outstanding and very age appropriate religious education they have received. However, maybe the team 4 children might benefit from an introduction to other religions. I would also be comfortable with this being left until high school.
  • Am very pleased to see a focus on this as I have been increasingly disillusioned with the dogmatic, inflexible, hard-line approach taken by the RE teachers and have withdrawn the girls this year (at their insistence).
  • I highly appreciate this survey and hope that it will show that we will need a broader outlook on religion education for every child. All of us (parents and students) should have a general knowledge of different belief systems and I think it is imperative to have this “values based education” throughout all the years. This will create open-minded, caring, confident children and is an important building block for a community of understanding and tolerance of different people and their beliefs.
  • Ideas for children not doing RE: Reading; Computers; Completing homework.

* [The requirement for religious education originates in the Department, not the Act. The responses to the survey may have been affected by that misrepresentation. – HSV.]

Appendix 3

The Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools (VAPS)

ABN 77 896 901 691; Incorporation No. A 0028182W

VAPS is a not-for-profit incorporated body with a membership drawn from school teachers, academic philosophers, teacher educators and interested members of the general public.

  • Inspired by the Philosophy for Children movement, VAPS promotes critical and creative thinking among young people.
  • We believe that learning Philosophy opens students’ minds to big ideas.
  • We support teachers in fostering the intellectual and social skills that enable students to think philosophically.
  • Students benefit by learning to reflect deeply, analyse arguments rigorously, and articulate their views with clarity, subtlety and respect.
  • By supporting teachers through training courses, networking and curriculum development, VAPS encourages communities of enquiry to thrive in primary and secondary school classrooms across the state.

We are accredited by the Victorian Institute of Teaching and support the teachers of philosophical ethics at Brunswick East Primary School, Eumemmerring Primary School and The Patch Primary School.

Since philosophy is the art, which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?

Michel de Montaigne

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

Albert Einstein

Contact: Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools
Postal address: PO Box 287, Northcote, Victoria 3070
Telephone: (03) 9410 9469