NZSTA Advice on Religious Instruction [May 2019 Review]

NZSTA president Lorraine Kerr
NZSTA President Lorraine Kerr writes about the associations take on the MOE guidelines for religious instruction

The NZSTA have always been reluctant to take any sort of stance when it comes to religious instruction. I have previously asked them about their attitude towards it but they were evasive and refused to answer my questions.

The following is a review of their interpretation of the Ministry of Educations guidelines on religious instruction in the May 2019 edition of their Membership Matters newsletter. The newsletter comments are quoted below.

Religious Instruction (RI) is a perennial source of friction for some school communities. We know that some of you will be rethinking your approach as part of a wider focus on diversity and inclusion in light of recent events.

Presumably, they are referring to the attack on a mosque in Christchurch on 15th March 2019, which killed 51 people. This horrific event gave rise to a new awareness of the importance of valuing inclusiveness and diversity within our society and respecting the right of people to peacefully hold beliefs different from your own.

We recently sent the following response to a member board who asked us for NZSTA’s view about the place of religious instruction in New Zealand’s state schools. We hope it may be useful to others as well.

If your school is a state school that does not have a special character that includes a religious affiliation, then read on.

Some providers refer to their programmes as “religious education” or a “values programme”, but unless what you’re talking about is a study of religion and culture as part of your school curriculum in school time taken by your regular classroom teachers, it’s what we call religious instruction (RI).

This last sentence is important, as religious instruction classes are often referred to by a variety of marketing names and euphemisms such as Values In Action, Life Choices, Discovery Group, Cool Bananas, Champions and of course “Religious Education”, which is academic study of religion and not instruction in religious faith.

In a nutshell, NZSTA’s view is that each board of trustees has the authority and the responsibility to make the decision whether or not to permit RI at their school. The views of the community as a whole should be a key factor in that decision.

Sure… legally, board of trustees currently have the legal right to allow religious instruction into a secular state primary school but this does not mean that it is ethical or fair on families who are not affiliated with that religion. In a “nutshell”, the NZSTA are simply repeating the guidelines that the MOE have been asked to provide based on current law. So this is not “their view”, as it is not their opinion on religious instruction. Do the “views of the community” justify religious instruction? I would say no, as a popular opinion does not make something right.

That said:

  • it is not clear to us that offering RI necessarily enhances student achievement, which is the board’s main responsibility

  • the arguments that may be put forward in favour of offering RI need to be weighed up against the potential damage to the board’s relationship with the school community

  • at least part of the school is being made unavailable for curriculum activity to accommodate RI

  • providing RI should in no way compromise the quality of education being offered to students who do not attend the RI classes while they are on

  • there is a need to be confident that the content of RI programmes is transparent and represented to the school community in a way that is accurate and genuinely promotes informed decision making by parents

  • there is a need to avoid discriminating against other religious groups by offering opportunities to the Churches Education Commission (CEC) or other Christian providers that are not offered to other religious communities

  • if your board does want to offer RI at your school, you may wish to consider making it available outside of class time (for example, at lunchtime or after school) in preference to disrupting your curriculum activity.

These points are more meaningful. But again, I feel that they’re more concerned with how to avoid issues in allowing religious instruction instead of raising the obvious ethical dilemma and hypocrisy of promoting a favoured religious view in a supposedly secular school.

You might think that the divisive nature of religious instruction might be enough on it’s own, to invalidate it as a “good idea”. However, the people in favour of religious instruction can’t seem to separate their religious faith from commonly-held human values that come built into it. Many supporters honestly believe that without Christianity, none of the rest of us would know right from wrong. They are “saving” our children. Boards of Trustees who allow religious instruction are mostly unaware of the level of resentment many parents feel towards this “choice” they make on behalf of us all and are sometimes shocked at how many people are willing to vote against it once they have been provided with accurate, unbiased information.

The NZSTA may have misinterpreted the law about how “part of the school is being made unavailable”, as the law allows the closing of a “class or classes” or the “school as a whole”. So it is not a “classroom” that is closed, it is the class of children, forcing all children not participating to stop curriculum learning.

Transparency, while important, does nothing to justify the discriminatory nature of the lessons. Religious Instruction is inherently discriminatory as it forces groups of people not of the favoured religion to fit in or opt out, when they had chosen a secular school to attend. It is a contradiction of the basis of inclusive secular education and flies in the face of the values of diversity and inclusiveness that the NZSTA drew attention to. Offering access to other religious groups does not improve the situation, it makes it worse. Encouraging competition between different religions for limited access to school children is exactly why the wiser people who created the Education Act 1877, decided to make primary schools secular.

Finally, the NZSTA somewhat hypocritically suggests allowing religious groups into the school during lunchtime, before or after school. This is probably just a repeat of some of the MOE guidelines but it completely ignores the problem, as if it was somehow just a legal issue and that religious proselytising to primary school children was something we should encourage! Why should evangelists be pandered to and given access to children at all? If the NZSTA can’t understand that religion is freely and widely available to those who want it outside our secular state education system, then they’ve rather missed the point of secular education. I think that there is a significant degree of wilful ignorance at play when it comes to the NZSTA. Like most politicians and virtually all education sector bodies, they are unwilling to actually state an opinion about religious instruction and either defend or criticise this indefensible religious privilege. Instead of standing up for the principle of secular education, they continue to stand for nothing.

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