Pippa’s experience sounds very similar to my own. She was prepared to speak up for what she thought was right and managed to initiate some change. The unfortunate thing about these kinds of stories is that not enough parents are prepared to join in and rock the boat a little themselves, even if they agree with the position. If more parents would stand up and say what they thought, a minority of actively evangelical Christians would not be able to impose their religious beliefs on all the kids in our primary schools.
If you have a story to tell, please get in touch. It doesn’t have to be long!
My experience of religious instruction in a state primary school has been a hard one as a parent. Our family moved to a small community keen to fit in, but I was unhappy about my children being given only one view of religion (evangelical Christianity) during school hours. I decided to opt out my children, as the law allows. However, I have two very shy children, who being new, were keen to fit in and leaving the class each week became increasingly uncomfortable for them. My son was one of three children in his class opting out, but after others left the school he was the only child leaving the room to sit with younger kids, effectively being babysat once a fortnight. The peer pressure was too much, so he opted back into the religious instruction class. (The junior classes have closer to 50% opting out, so it is clear peer pressure is involved for older children.) While the volunteers say they are only teaching values, his first class involved inviting all the children to pray to god, affirming my concern that this was not teaching ‘about’ religion, but volunteers trying to convert children to Christianity.
My daughter was told by other children that she was not a good person because she didn’t believe in god – a perfectly reasonable assumption on a child’s behalf when the class is sold as values and called “Champions”. After raising my concerns with the school management, I managed (after a year of frustrating talk) to get a number of changes – the classes are now opt out by default, so the parents have to give permission for children to join, rather than the other way, and the opted out children now receive values lessons rather than being left to do nothing for half an hour. In talking with management I discovered the school was unsure of the legal requirements for closing the school to allow religious instruction, so I became concerned that the board was just following ‘what we’ve always done’ rather than making a decision that suited the community of parents and children in the present day.
I tried to raise the issue by speaking to the school board, but was turned down permission to speak. I tried to raise the issue with the community through a local facebook page, and despite generating much discussion, the post was removed and I was temporarily banned from the page. Feeling frustrated with the lack of engagement, I forwarded my concerns to ERO and the school trustees association, and the board decided to allow me to speak – graciously giving me ten minutes of time. I was very nervous to make the speech as I’m not a confrontational person, and knew that I was now very unpopular for rocking the boat, but felt the board needed to hear the concerns of parents who believe that ethically, allowing one religion access to our children during school hours is divisive in a growing multicultural community.
While I received many private messages of support, parents told me they were reluctant to speak up for fear of how their children would be treated, and of making themselves unpopular with the school management. I believe we need to be brave and speak up for secular education in order to promote a society which is inclusive to children of all beliefs.
Here is a copy of my speech to the board, which I am happy for anyone to share. The board let me know in reply that they are not prepared to move the classes outside of school hours, or look at the issue again until 2017.
Pippa Jinks, Auckland
I am making a stand against RI classes in school… My email to the school… The Principle and Trustees, Papakura Normal School.
As previously discussed, despite my daughters advising you that their children are not to attend the RI “lessons” that are currently being held in the school. This request also coming from the children themselves, your school has continued to have them attend. Based on your reply “this is something that would never happen” and despite a second email, they were still being made to attend these RI classes. Although these children are now kept in a classroom instead of being made to attend RI, this is having an effect on them as they are being made to feel they are doing something wrong by not attending. This is something that effects almost 70% of your students as the RI classes are purely Christian doctrine. My own families experience, as well as other families I have spoken to who are having the same problem, shows me that the school in disregarding parent wishes regarding this area. For this reason my family will withhold all School donations that would have normally been paid until RI classes are removed.
Billy White, Auckland