News – 16 May 2014
New rules for SRI in Victorian government schools
The Victorian minister of education has announced a ministerial direction about Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in government schools (MD141, 1 May), intending to clarify his Department’s policy. Unlike the previous departmental advice to school principals, it has the force of law and comes into effect on 14 July, 2014.
Regarding the school’s power of discretion to offer SRI, where the Act said ‘may’ and the Department said ‘must’, the minister has ruled in favour of the Department, as follows:
If a principal receives notification from an accredited and approved instructor that the instructor is available to deliver SRI at the school, the principal must offer parents of children enrolled at the school the opportunity for their children to be provided with SRI.
The school may dismiss such a proposition only if it is without adequate resources, such as suitable space or supervising staff: it may not dismiss it purely on principle [s. 6(7)].
A principal who offers SRI must obtain written advice from all the school parents about their choice, using the Department’s form, each year [s. 11(3), (4), (6)]. But, suggestively, this ‘must’ is modified by s. 11(7): in default of parental advice, the student is not to receive SRI. So SRI clearly depends on opting-in.
Parents must be provided with an overview of the program to be taught [s. 11(5)], and the whole program must be made available on the internet [s. 8(1)(b)].
SRI instructors are officially required to promote freedom of religion and forbidden to offer inducements to convert to a particular religion [s. 10(1), (2)]; and the teachers who supervise the SRI classes are made responsible for reporting any inappropriate conduct by the instructor [s. 10(3)].
These last points will help parents when they make their choice, and the accountability provision should obviate the more unconscionable abuses that have occurred in recent times.
Report by Stephen Stuart