One interesting characteristic of an undersea earthquake or a tsunami is that, for the most part, it is silent until it reaches land. Using that as an analogy one could say an undersea earthquake has erupted within the ranks of Victorian school principals and their school councils and has reached land. Its objective: to end the practice of religious education programs in their schools. This earthquake arrived last week when a courageous school principal, Joe Kelly from Cranbourne Primary School, went public on the nature of Christian Religious Education (CRE), being provided by Access Ministries, the organisation providing the service to public schools in Victoria. Mr Kelly’s concerns were the subject of an article by Konrad Marshall in The Age newspaper on 17th February.
Mr Kelly stated that he would no longer allow Access Ministries in his school. “It is not education,” he said. “It has no value whatsoever. It is rubbish – hollow and empty rhetoric … My school teachers are committed to teaching children, not indoctrinating them.” The objection Mr Kelly and other school principals have is that Access Ministries is proselytising rather than informing; instructing rather than educating. Mr Kelly has also questioned the qualifications of the volunteers provided by Access Ministries stating that they are not professional teachers and undergo just six hours training before they are sent into schools. Meanwhile, the response to Konrad Marshall’s article was extraordinary to say the least, recording over 14,000 Facebook likes and 175 comments highlighting the concerns many parents have about faith-based religious education.
The article also brought a quick response from the Victorian Education Minister, Martin Dixon who appeared to give tacit support to the principals’ actions. He said he had “full confidence in school principals making decisions in the interests of their parent body and the school community”.
On Wednesday 26th February, the Wheeler Centre hosted an IQ² debate at the Melbourne Town Hall on the subject, ‘Faith-based Religious Education has no place in Public Schools.’ The debate attracted an audience of around 400 including parents, teachers and a smattering of otherwise unconnected but nevertheless interested people. Going back to the 19th century, education in Australia was to be compulsory, free and secular. By the 1950’s, however, ‘secular’ had disappeared and special religious instruction was taught in all states. Essentially what the Wheeler Centre debate discussed was the merit of the current model of volunteer church-run instruction as opposed to a balanced study of comparative religions which is the preferred model of the school principals and parents. Unavoidably and necessarily intertwined within this discussion was the central tenet of Australia’s democratic principle of the separation of church and state.
Prior to August 2011 Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in public schools operated under an ‘opt-out’ system where the parents were asked to complete a form requesting their child be exempt. The group ‘Fairness in Religion in Schools’ successfully campaigned to have that arrangement changed to function on an ‘opt-in’ basis. The result has meant a huge reduction in the numbers of children receiving CRE with one third of Victorian state schools no longer providing SRI programs at all. Letters to the editors in last weekend’s papers demonstrated overwhelming support for the actions of the school principals.
A few days after Konrad Marshall’s the article in The Age, the UK’s ‘National Secular Society’ picked up the feed contrasting it with their own debate on religious education in public schools with an opening sub-heading, “With widespread apathy about what passes for religious education in schools, our classrooms are increasingly being used by religious groups to carry out their missionary work. Terry Sanderson explains how Australian parents have led the way in removing evangelists from schools.” The story also found favour with the Richard Dawkins Foundation who re-posted it on their UK website attracting more comment.
The following weekend, Jill Stark in The Sunday Age revealed that Access Ministries had presented year 6 students at Torquay College in Victoria with Biblezines which included, “material claiming girls who wear revealing clothes are inviting sexual assault, and homosexuality, masturbation and sex before marriage are sinful.” The biblezines were presented to students who had successfully completed the Access Ministries CRE program.
Jill Stark wrote, “The material, produced by the News Corp-owned Nelson Bibles, America’s largest Christian publishing house, also “exposes the lie of safe sex”, claiming that condoms condone promiscuity, and urges those who think they are gay never to act on it.” Not surprisingly the outcry from parents and teachers was swift and unmistakeable. They called for an urgent overhaul of religious education in public schools.
Naturally enough Joe Kelly felt vindicated as did other school principals who had taken a similar stand. “This kind of material is disgraceful and this is why I strongly call upon the Education Department to instigate an immediate review of the practices of special religious instruction [SRI] providers with a view to having SRI taken out of our great public schools,” he said.
You can listen to an interview with Mr Kelly conducted by Samantha Donovan on the ABC Radio program, ‘The World today’ here.
The great irony in the broader debate on religious education in public schools becomes apparent when we note that a significant number of our political leaders in today’s federal parliament were taught in Catholic schools where Christian Religious Education was a driving force. When one considers the decisions made by this government and the previous two governments on the treatment of asylum seekers, we are entitled to ask if those decisions are a reflection of the Christian religious education they received and which they continue to practice.
Interestingly, the poll taken at the debate at the Melbourne Town Hall, after all the points for and against were presented, was 27% in favour of religious education in public schools, 2% undecided and 71% against. Given that governments generally show a tendency to be poll driven, perhaps they should all take note of that one too.
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