Education Council Response to Religious Instruction Criticism

Chris Hipkins on inclusiveness & bullying

Chris Hipkins on inclusiveness & bullyingIn a previous blog about an Education Council interview with Chris Hipkins, I questioned the Education Council about religious instruction and when they responded by saying that it “… isn’t an issue we would get involved in…”, I went on to ask them why not but they declined to respond. When the live interview with Chris Hipkins was on, myself and others asked questions of Chris Hipkins about religious instruction but the interviewer chose to skip over them and ignore the issue entirely. This is what I asked…

Why is Labour continuing to support religious instruction in secular state primary schools, when in 2001 the Ministry of Education received Crown Legal advice that it had no defence against a claim of direct discrimination under the Human Rights Act?

After the interview, the Education Council assured me that they were getting an answer to my question from the Minister. I responded;

I very much doubt you will get a straight answer as it undermines the Minister’s own request for the MOE to develop guidelines on continued religious instruction.

Regardless, religious discrimination within secular schools is something that yourselves, the NZEI, MOE, NZSTA, HRC, Children’s Commissioner and other education sector groups should be actively combating, not ignoring or condoning.

Another viewer asked;

Perhaps you can also give the viewpoint of the Education Council given what is written on the home page.
“We are independent so we have a stronger voice in education policy making. We can set our own agenda, commission our own research, lead public discussion about teaching issues, and take a position on important education matters.”
Does that ‘stronger voice in education policy making’ support truly secular state schools?

The Education Council responded…

“… thanks for your comments and questions around this. While we are still working on getting responses from the Minister, I have a response for you from us here at the Education Council. The education matters we get involved in are typically brought to our attention by the profession or are sparked by some proposed policy or legislation change. We don’t get engaged in every issue – we are a small organisation – so we listen to our stakeholders to get a sense of the areas that matter most to teachers. Our viewpoint and voice represents that of the registered teachers who make up our membership – teachers in all settings, including religious, integrated, state schools and early childhood services.

If we were going to pick up an issue such as religious education in state schools, we would bring the profession together and ask what they think and collaborate on what we needed to do about it, rather than give an organisation opinion. A recent example of this is what we have done around the issue of physical restraint in school settings. There was a change in the legislation and many teachers were talking about it and worried about what it meant for them, so we acted on that. We facilitated a workshop with teachers, parents and others from the education sector, set up a way for teachers to directly share their thoughts and experiences, and hosted a podcast. We are also providing our perspectives on what needs to happen next as a result.

All of this isn’t to say religious instruction in schools is an issue we would never get involved with. However, as we approach the end of the school term, we know how busy teachers are. Religious instruction in schools doesn’t appear to be one of those issues that is pressing for everyday teaching and teachers at this time. And in every instance, we make sure that we are acting in accord with our Functions as described in the Education Act. We have a mandate in law. We seek to fulfil that mandate and not go beyond it. This means that some policy issues will be best left for policy agencies.”

While I think the Education Council tried to evade taking any position on the issue of religious instruction, at least they did actually respond!

I appreciate you giving a detailed reply. On this issue, that is in itself a rare thing. However, there are a number of points I’ll raise in response.

1. How issues are brought to your attention normally has no bearing on whether or not this is an issue worth leading on.

2. Teachers are unlikely to ever make religious instruction an issue in large numbers, regardless of how wrong it is, for a number of reasons;

  • the religious instruction time is useful as non-contact time.
  • they would need to oppose their employers (the BOT who approved the classes).
  • they would have to oppose their own principal.
  • they would have to oppose Christian parents.
  • they have no support from their unions.
  • they have no support from the MOE.
  • they have no support from the Human Rights Commission.
  • they have no support from the NZSTA.
  • around 2/3 of secular state schools that teachers work in don’t have religious instruction, which immediately reduces the possible complainants.
  • the issue is poorly understood and so opinions are often lacking facts.
  • teachers with a Christian religious bias are often more outspoken as they perceive they hold a moral high ground. Parents and teachers critical of RI are often intimidated into silence through social and professional pressure.
  • the only thing they have to gain professionally is more teaching time (although I would say professional credibility would be enhanced)

3. It’s not so much an issue that affects teachers as children and families. Religious Instruction is a pressing human rights issue for parents and children. The lack of support and genuine engagement from teachers and education sector bodies is a huge part of the reason that politicians are content to pretend to be doing something instead of actually doing something.

4. If you regard a section of law pushed into legislation over 50 years ago by religious interests to be more important than the weekly religious discrimination (and breach of the Human Rights Act 1993) that is affecting the families and children your profession works *for*, then you need to review your mandate.

I waited two months before publishing this blog because I wanted to see what if any answers might be forthcoming. It appears that Chris Hipkins never did respond to the questions.

What do you think? Please comment below!

2 Comments

  1. After this is removed from schools what do you propose should fill the vacuum in these schools, or do you propose nothing at all?

    With stuff like family violence, child neglect and bullying, I think it’d be important to instill values and morals that would make our society better.

    One could argue that’s up to the parents but I think that undermines and weakens an already weakened sense of community in our modern age. Plus I think we could all agree on some universal values which don’t infringe on religious beliefs.

    On another note perhaps organizing a secular/humanist version of say: ‘Breakfast Club’ or ‘Champions’ that competes and out-does these groups would bring the topic more into the foreground, while offering something of value to these children, i.e. logic, critical thinking and food.

    • Hi there. Thanks for your comment!
      Given that religious instruction is not present in around 65% of NZ Secular State Primary Schools, I’m not sure why you would think there would be a vacuum at all? This seems to be something that isn’t an issue for these schools. Perhaps that you’re unaware that the Ministry of Education already requires values to be taught in school. In fact, the Churches Education Commission go out of their way to link what they teach to these values. However, they miss out one of the official values… diversity.
      In recognising that we have “universal values which don’t infringe on religious beliefs”, you have actually acknowledged that we don’t need religion in order to teach these universal values to children, so clearly, the Bible teachers have an added agenda.
      Regarding competing with the likes of John Cameron’s Arise Church and his Champions club… that is difficult, as Humanists are far smaller in numbers, more diverse in views and also far less financially supported. Arise Church takes in excess of $10million a year in donations and John Cameron tells no one what his take from that is. I’d have no problem with Arise members doing these things if they weren’t also a foothold for promoting their religious beliefs. Regardless, it should be noted that the whole point of secular schooling is that it makes it fair for children from all religious backgrounds as no religious view has access to promote itself or has a position of privilege. To this end it is wrong (and unethical) to “compete” for access to children in these secular schools.

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