By Hugh Harris
The recent Queensland government review of the “Connect” Religious Instruction (RI) materials bring to light several reasons why, ultimately, faith-based classes will cease in school hours in the Sunshine state.
Also, given Connect’s lessons are widely used, the New South Wales government would be wise to take note. However, driven by his own Christian faith, Premier Mike Baird has committed to maintaining special religious instruction (SRE) while he’s in office. He’s supported by Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, who stubbornly refuses to release the $300k report by ARTD consultants, investigating various concerns about SRE, despite holding on to it for nine months. A source from ARTD consultants said the report was an objective analysis, which no-one would be happy with.
In contrast, Queensland Education Minister Kate Jones deserves credit for instigating the review and following up its recommendations. Stung into action after Windsor State School principal Matthew Keong scrapped the Connect RI program because he found 39 examples of “soliciting” students to Christianity, the review lists numerous examples of “outdated and inappropriate content”.
Disturbing material includes the “grooming” of seven-year-olds to form “special friendships” and keep secrets with instructors. Also, lessons discussing whether disabled people are being punished by God, using dead animals as sacrifices to God, and using tomato juice to simulate the drinking of blood.
Beset by controversy, recent media reports highlight Youthworks Connect lessons featuring vampires and beheadings. Concerns have been raised by the sin and salvation messaging, which denigrates children as sinners akin to dirty towels, and menaces them that they’ll die if they’re selfish.
A statement from Ms Jones admitted there had previously been “no consistent oversight of materials being used for religious instruction in Queensland state schools”. Consequently, the education department will forthwith exercise greater control over lesson content.
Enrolling in RI will become explicit and opt-in, mitigating a common cause for complaint that many students are placed in RI by default, without parental consent.
Enrolments plummeted by nearly half when it became Opt-in in Victoria, and three years later RI was removed from school hours due to lack of interest and “to focus teachers and students … on the core curriculum”. (It’s still available at school out of hours).
There’s no reason to think this pattern will not repeat itself in Queensland. And the momentum towards change becomes irresistible when we consider some of the other concerns.
Australia’s slipping performance in literacy and numeracy – as noted in our PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and NAPLAN results – reinforce the consistent findings of educational reviews – that the curriculum is overcrowded.
One of the architects of our school curriculum, Professor Ken Wiltshire recently demanded a stop to the “outsourcing’’ of religious instruction and sex education to “ideological interest groups’’.
Furthermore, studies undertaken by Stanford University professor, David Labaree, show that add-on programmes targeting social issues such as alcohol abuse, drug use, and racial equality, have little, or no effect.
Our priorities in education are reflected in how we measure it. If we’re going to measure our education system on literacy and numeracy, then we need to sharpen our focus on those key areas.
But, as our society becomes less religious and more diverse, the push to revive our Christian tradition becomes ever more aggressive and desperate. State school RI programs have become more fundamentalist and proselytising.
The “right” for faith groups to teach religion like “any other subject”, has been championed by Australian Catholic University fellow, and Australian curriculum author, Kevin Donnelly.
But alas, RI is not taught like any other subject.
Instructors are not required to have formal teaching qualifications. According to Queensland Teacher’s Union President, Kevin Bates, classes often become unruly requiring the supervising teacher to step in and retain control.
RI Classes bear scant resemblance to knowledge based classes, such as politics or economics, which provide a comparative reading of competing ideologies. In contrast, these entreat children, (identified as mostly non-Christians by Connect’s lesson materials), to recite prayers and accept the message of Jesus.
Youthworks own website says making disciples of children is “why we exist”. Disturbingly, the publisher of Connect even obtained legal advice to suggest that proselytising is allowable unless aimed at converting a child from one RI approved faith to another. The review agreed with this advice, but disappointingly, failed to make any specific recommendations forbidding proselytising.
And so, in the short term, schools will continue to divide up classrooms for evangelical bible lessons. The project reeks of social engineering and discriminates against nonreligious families and those who do not belong to the faiths on offer. There’s simply no necessity to teach religion in public schools.
Australian parents retain the freedom to bring up their children in whatever faith (or lack thereof) they choose. Under-patronised churches, built for that very purpose, stand within a slingshot of most state schools. We even have independent faith-based schools as an option.
RI allows approved faith groups to co-opt state school classrooms for up to one hour a week. Children who don’t participate must be offered other unspecified non-curricular activities. Wasting time, in other words.
The “Every Day Matters” policy of QLD’s Education department seems startlingly at odds with a curriculum where bible classes take up nearly a full term of a child’s primary school tenure. Rather than continuing with the same policy and praying for a different result, schools will eventually discard contested and non-core courses, and focus on reading, writing and numeracy.
For good reasons, pressure continues to mount on State governments to move faith classes outside of school hours.
Hugh Harris is a freelance writer, board member of the Rationalist Society of Australia, and blogs at rationalrazor.com.
Hugh has written for ABC’s The Drum, The Brisbane Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Courier Mail, The Huffington Post Australia, New Matilda, and The Daily Banter (US).