After the initial pleasantries, tea, biscuits and chat about the weather and how all schools have the same smell of squashed bananas and kids feet, I got down to the task of presenting my proposal for a review of Bible Classes in Maungatapere School to the room. I understand that there was a lot of information to take in and I tried to present it in a clear, unbiased manner using facts and not personal beliefs. Most of the people in attendance didn’t say much. Dean (the BOT Chairman) and Judy (the Principal) did most of the talking in response to what I said, asking questions or raising their own points at various times. While we were clearly coming from very different perspectives, it was a good, robust discussion. In general, the others in the room only made the odd comment or question but they were often either very telling or very useful to the topic.
This blog is part of a story about my experience with religious education in my Daughter’s school. If you missed the start of it, you can find the beginning here.
While I’m writing this, I’m very conscious of not throwing anyone under the bus. I’m sure that everyone involved is doing their best for Maungatapere School, which has a great record for academic achievement and also a great community spirit.
The school is really well run, with great teachers and I’d recommend it to anyone considering their enrolling their kids.
That doesn’t mean I’m not pissed off about their overall response! Some of the things that were said in that meeting I’m going to repeat here without attributing them to a specific person.
It’s Not Ministry of Education Approved!
As stated in the proposal, the classes are not Ministry of Education (MOE) approved like the school had been telling parents since at least 2011. Judy genuinely thought that the programme had been reviewed by the MOE (it hasn’t) and that there must have been some confusion over the wording. However, this mistake is understandable, because even after the 2007 Advertising Standards Authority ruling against the Churches Education Commission, the CEC were still making public statements that the classes were MOE approved up until at least 2012. The schools have merely been repeating past misinformation that was never corrected by the CEC or the church volunteers teaching the classes.
It’s not about Philosophy and Values
There was some defence using the idea of “starting” kids on learning about religion and philosophy. However, this isn’t a justification for the classes because the whole point is that young kids have no concept of the classes being “one option” for their future spiritual beliefs. The classes are taught as fact, with no objective or opposing viewpoints, when a figure of authority (their real teacher) is present. This is the dictionary definition of indoctrination, and why I hold teachers partly responsible for the classes having such an entrenched position in so many schools. Teachers going along with it are a big part of the problem!
As other parents have repeatedly asked for in the 2011 and 2014 school community surveys, if you’re going to teach “about” religion, then you need to talk about more than one religion! The fact that the classes are inter-denominational (all Christian!) does not make for a diverse education, which is one of the core values that the Ministry of Education require.
What about changing it to a yes/no vote?
This is a really good question that came up from a board member after I finished the proposal. The first thing I said to this is that the community can’t vote on this without being informed that the information they had on the classes previously was false. They would have to be provided the facts and then asked to vote again.I also said that the classes should be changed to opt-in. Why should any board be allowed to choose a religion for the school?
This then shifted into some discussion about whether or not Bible in Schools classes were effective in converting kids to Christianity. To me this is entirely irrelevant and not justification for allowing the classes.
Another point is, should any community be asked to vote on something that will discriminate against a minority? Unfortunately, I didn’t mention this at the time and I’m sure it would have provoked a strong response. However, if you’re asking a community to vote on whether or not to instruct kids in a religion that will either exclude a minority or coerce them to be involved, you’re discriminating. When was the last time a community was asked whether or not we should just have steps because there’s only a couple of kids in wheelchairs? Remember, this is a state school, so religion shouldn’t even be an issue.
The parents selected “yes” on the enrolment form!
I’m not sure how it works at other schools, but at Maungatapere School, the parents select either yes or no on the enrolment form for “Religious Education”. Here’s the section for RE on our Daughter’s enrolment form…
The BOT’s perception is that this is a clear indication that the majority of parents do want RE. When I pointed out to them that the decision is made with NO information at all from the school and when supporting some parents will be under the impression that the classes are Ministry of Education Approved (still not), I was told that I had done a lot of research, that they didn’t have the time to do that and that RE Classes had been a part of the school for a long time. Not sure how this is relevant or any defence.
No one has ever complained about it before!
That old chestnut! I don’t know why, because it is demonstrably false! Parents in both the 2011 and 2014 school community surveys returned negative responses (complaints!) about the classes and I know from talking to other people that there have been complaints in the past. Perhaps they were never documented? The board have also repeated multiple times in that meeting and via email that it has been raised for discussion many times. Why discuss something everyone agrees on?
We teach French and not everyone wants to learn French!
This really doesn’t make sense. The point here is that the Bible in Schools classes do not teach “about” religion. They instruct “in” religion. They tell kids what to believe. In fact, let’s stop calling them RE Classes because it is not religious education, it is religious instruction. Real religious education would be learning about the history and beliefs of Christianity, not being instructed that thinking and believing the same way as a Christian is the best or only way.
I told them that kids were going home to their parents telling them that “God made me”. Sadly, this was cause for much chuckling about how kids get confused. There is no confusion. The classes teach creationism as fact. It’s not just a story. Try telling this to a woman who has gone through 9 months of pregnancy and 30 hours of labour and see what sort of response you get!
But what harm does it do?
This came up a couple of times in the meeting and I have to say, I’m a little perplexed as to what point they thought they were making. At best, it’s a lame defence in the absence of something that has no defence. I told them that it was wrong and unethical. There were comments about how the classes could be “enriching”. I can understand this from a Christian perspective because I’m sure that they see it that way but to me, they are superstitions that undermine children’s ability to think rationally and encourage “magical thinking”.
At one stage, I pointed out that there was a church 100 metres down the road. If parents want to teach their kids religion, there is plenty of opportunity outside of the school. One of the board members said; “But they don’t go, do they?“. To me, this was very telling. The board member had a personal concern that the kids were missing out on Bible classes. I happen to know that they are a practising Christian involved with one of the churches who support the CEC. It’s not a problem that the BOT should be solving for the church!
There was a degree of angst present in some of the responses. Sure, everyone wants to believe that the decisions they are making on behalf of the kids are good ones, fair and not harmful but regardless of their personal beliefs, the classes can’t be justified in any objective way. Given that values are already a part of the school curriculum, in the absence of objective teaching about religion, the only reason the classes exist is to promote faith!
The classes are enriching!
A valid point that was raised is that the classes have aspects of them that are enriching. This is true but misleading. Sure, it’s great that we teach our kids about values such as compassion and the Bible story of “the good Samaritan” displays this but it’s not a justification for teaching belief in God at the same time. We could teach our kids compassion by telling them any number of traditional fairy tales, making up a story, or playing them “Finding Nemo”! Furthermore, these classes don’t teach about hell or sin. So what happens years after the kid have learnt to believe in “God’s love” but then discovers that they and everyone they love has the possibility of burning in hell for all eternity if they sin? That’s quite a betrayal of trust.
Wrapping it up
The presentation and discussion took about 30 minutes. I really felt like they were reluctant to acknowledge a lot of the core points I’d made, such as the difference between education and the instruction (indoctrination) that was taking place. However, I was hopeful that they would take the time to review the proposal I emailed them later on and see where things were going wrong.
Well, they sure took their time! I didn’t hear back from them for two months! I was a little surprised that not one of the board members or school staff contacted me directly during that two months to discuss anything or clarify any of the points I’d made.
Let me know what you think about these points in the comments box below!
I left the meeting feeling like there were some things that needed clarification. In particular, the belief that the classes did no harm. So I explained what harm religious education classes do…