Keeping schools honest when there’s a religious bias

honest ri in primary schools

honest ri in primary schoolsA couple of months ago, there was another notice regarding bible in schools classes in the school newsletter. Yet again, they had tried to present the classes as having some sort of credibility by saying they were following “Ministry of Education Guidelines”. I knew for a fact that this was not the case, because the Secular Education Network have been trying to force the MOE to release draft guidelines that they had started working on in 2015! The MOE have been stalling the release of them, as they have no interest in taking a position on religious instruction. Of course, that is in itself a position, which supports the continuance of the classes despite legal advice they have received that they discriminate.

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.

It is always hard to communicate with the school when you’re one of “those parents” that they have decided are just trouble makers. Many primary schools seem to be run like little feudal kingdoms rather than public services accountable to the parents who entrust their children to them. They rely on parents being too intimidated to ask difficult questions so that they can continue doing whatever it is they do.

I hadn’t asked them any difficult questions about religious instruction for a while, so I emailed the office and asked them to send me the guidelines they were referring to. No reply five days later, so I emailed again. Still no reply after a couple of weeks, so I walked into the office and asked for them. Apparently, they had “forgotten”. The principal came out and rather sheepishly handed me a copy of a page from a Ministry of Education publication. I thought for a moment that I had missed something but a quick read confirmed that I hadn’t. Here’s the email that I followed up with…


To: School Principal
Date: 3rd April 2017
Thanks for sharing the MOE guidelines for religious instruction with me.

While I appreciate that you are trying to follow some guidelines, these ones appear to be around 50 years out of date (referring to an Education Gazette article from the early 1960’s). The Ministry of Education no longer provide any guidelines on religious instruction.

The Human Rights Commission do provide guidelines for RI, which I’ve attached.

Further to my past communications with you and the board, I continue to be disappointed by the ongoing Christian bias at Maungatapere School. As our society becomes more diverse and less Christian, I’d hope that non-Christian families feel welcomed at our school instead of being coerced into “Christian traditions”, such as religious instruction, that are strongly promoted here. Hopefully, the school office no longer phones parents who opt their children out of RI classes to try and change their minds, as they have done in the past.

Another example of this bias, is the way that Christian families who have children in the school council seem to regard the school as a fund-raising opportunity for their religious causes. Last year, the school council raised funds for World Vision, the local church roof and Shoeless Day (among others).

  • World Vision are obviously a Christian charity… who refuse to hire gay people.
  • The local church should pay for their own roof repairs.
  • The Shoeless Day charity claims to be raising money for Cambodian children to go to school. There’s nothing at all about religion on their website but it turns out that they are actually funding private evangelical Christian schools.

I realise that you probably aren’t closely involved in the school council but I think that fund raising for religious causes from secular school kids is highly inappropriate and should be more closely monitored. Especially as this fund raising is supported and promoted by the school in the newsletter. I’m sure that Christian parents would feel the same way if the causes were Islamic.
The school community survey goes out this year and I’d like for parents to be better informed about what religious instruction is, at both enrolment and in the survey question.
Firstly, the school provides no information at all to parents of new entrants about RI classes but expects them to make a choice on the enrolment form. In fact, the form refers to the classes as “religious education”, which they are not. Uninformed consent is not consent at all.

As I’ve said before, the survey question has been appallingly misleading for years and overtly “promotional”. In the 2014 survey responses, parents have complained about the classes in their comments but have been ignored. When I complained in 2015, I was told there had never been any complaints.

  1. It is not Religious Studies as stated, it is faith teaching.
  2. It is not truly interdenominational, as it teaches only Christian beliefs.
  3. It is not approved by the MOE as has been claimed.
  4. The “don’t mind” option should be removed. This appears on no other question.

Let’s do better in 2017.

  • It should be called what it is: Christian Religious Instruction, not “religious studies” or “religious education”, which is academic study. This is the correct legal term for it and the HRC document attached clarifies this.
  • Copies of the syllabus and especially the teacher guides should be freely available to parents. I asked for these twice in my communications with the BOT and was ignored both times.
  • Don’t claim to be teaching “values”. Parents and teachers can (and do) teach values without religion. In fact, it is required as part of the curriculum.
  • There is no need to “promote” the classes by making claims about who approves them, that they have (self) accredited “teachers” or that they are “fun”. I’ve seen other schools do all these things.
  • Offer a decent alternative programme. While the official curriculum can’t be taught while the school is closed for RI, I’m sure it’s possible to do something that is at least as entertaining the RI classes. My Daughter attended the opt out class recently and said that they did “boring maths” while the kids in RI classes were drawing pictures, telling stories and doing plays. They also get given treats such as pencils, books, stickers and Easter eggs while the opt out kids get nothing.

Regardless of details, the obvious question still stands as to why any religious group should be granted access to spread their faith to children, no matter who they are? Promoting Christianity within a secular state school seems like blatant religious bias to me and discrimination against non-Christian families and children.

As always, I appreciate your time and consideration.

regards,
Dave


I got an email back the next day from the Principal. Unfortunately, none of the really important things I mentioned regarding religious instruction were addressed, with most of the emphasis on how character building charity fundraising was.

To: Dave
Date: 4th April 2017

Thank you for your thoughts regarding religious instruction.  I have forwarded it to Dean Adams the Board of Trustees Chairperson also.

Yes the guidelines are from 1963 Education Act and are the same ones referred to in the attachment you sent.   The Board is meeting current legal requirements  but will take your points into consideration when we survey the community.  There still appears to be general support from the school community for the current approach, should that change it would naturally be reviewed.

With regard to your comments about the school council fundraising, the students themselves decide what charities they would like to support from the many approaches we receive, they would have not knowledge relating to the charity links.  Their focus is on being aware that there are many people less fortunate than themselves and caring for others is important.

You may  not be aware but the Maungatapere Memorial Church is one of only two memorial churches in the country and was established with community ownership of those living within a five mile radius of the Church. It is interdenominational and the community values it as a historic War Memorial rather than the vessel of any particular religious organisation. The founding constitution is very tightly worded in terms of use, however the Mangakahia Lions have its restoration as their centenary project over the next year or so.  The school council wanted to assist in fundraising after studying our area and its history a couple of years ago.  It is important that we encourage community values also.

I am not sure where you got your information regarding treats etc  in programmes but other than at the end of the year this is certainly not the norm.  You are welcome to attend the values based programme in R1.  There is generally a values based video followed by values based games including board games, activity sheets etc.

As stated the school Board of Trustees will take your points into consideration.

Regards
Judy Eagles
Principal


Despite the claim in the email above, the guidelines did not come from the Education Act. Legal Acts do not provide “guidelines”. They came from a 50 year old MOE book that is no longer in print.

To: School Principal
Date: 4th April 2017

There are no approved guidelines from the Ministry of Education and therefore the school can’t honestly claim that they are following them. This is misleading parents again. There’s no need to make any claims of approval in a secular, diverse primary school.

As I’ve pointed out previously, it is hard to justify a claim of community support for RI when the school has been misleading parents for years regarding the Ministry of Education approving the lessons, not telling parents that the school is closed for the classes, total lack of information provided and implying that it is part of the official curriculum by including it on the enrolment forms.

When I pointed out the false claims of MOE approval, the school failed to inform parents that this was never the case and simply changed the wording to another false and misleading claim.

If attendance is justification for community support, it completely ignores the fact that some parents (I’ve asked around) only put their children into the RI classes because they want them to “fit in” and not be different to the other kids. There is a degree of coercion in placing the classes within normal teaching time.

I withdraw my Daughter from the school entirely during this time because I don’t see why she should leave her classroom so an unqualified volunteer can come in, displace her (qualified) teacher to preach their religious faith to children who still believe in Santa Claus and haven’t the maturity, knowledge, or status to dispute their claims. This is the definition of indoctrination.

Community support in the 2014 school survey, amounted to a grand total of 10 votes for religious instruction out of a total of 24 submissions from around 170 families. Regardless, a majority vote based on misleading information to impose a favoured religion, thereby discriminating against a minority, is still discrimination.

Given the stated purpose of these classes is to teach “values”, I fail to see how that can be achieved given the way they are imposed. Leave them in Sunday School for truly willing participants.

Regarding the memorial church and fund raising… yes it’s great to encourage caring for others. I suggest charities such as the Red Cross or Unicef, which don’t discriminate against others and have no religious agenda. I would love to see this sort of unbiased consideration for others manifest itself when the BOT next consider how using a secular state primary school to further religious beliefs could be considered appropriate use of our childrens’ class time.

Please also pass this on to all BOT members.

regards,
Dave


Unsurprisingly, there was no response to my last email. No Board of Trustees member has contacted me to find out more or discuss this communication.

UPDATE October 2017: Several weeks after this communication, a school newsletter went out saying that there wasn’t going to be a survey this year and that instead, they would consult with groups within the school community. Given that the church is a group identifiable with promoting religious instruction and that there’s no local group identified as being against it, this did not bode well! I considered pointing this out but quite frankly, didn’t think it would make any difference. Then out of the blue, a survey was sent out asking parents to vote on “Christian Religious Education” classes. It wasn’t everything I’d hoped for but at least it removed some of the obvious biases. However, is it right to vote on religious instruction?

So what can you do?

Parents complaining about religious instruction classes often make the mistake of assuming they will be dealt with fairly. From talking with other parents at various schools, this rarely seems to be the case. Mostly, the parents and people in the school who are behind promoting religious instruction seem dedicated to retaining it at all costs and are not interested in rational discussion, or what is fair for non-Christians. If you do complain, do it in writing and get a written response. Try to get the support of a group of parents and document everything!

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