When my Daughter started at Maungatapere School, we filled in an enrollment form. I was surprised to see that there was a yes/no option for “Religious Education”. I remembered it from my primary school days and since I’m not religious, I objected to people from another religion coming and trying to spread their faith to a group of five year old kids. So I ticked “no” and opted her out.
I hadn’t really given any thought to “RE Classes” since I had left school but now, I was making decisions about the spiritual education of a little girl. Parenting sure is an eventful, ever-changing journey! I started looking into these classes a little more and what I found out was a real surprise. It was a little like a rabbit warren of information that just kept going and going.
Superficially, I found that there is a perception of RE being a kind of gentle, harmless tradition where some nice ladies from the local church come and tell stories and talk about God, teach values and how to be a nice person. However, the more I looked into it, the more questions started to come up and angrier I got about it when I discovered the answers.
NZ state schools are meant to be free of religion, so why are the classes there at all? Doesn’t the Ministry of Education have anything to say about it? Wouldn’t there be some rules? Maybe the Education Act has something to say on the matter?
And who were these people? Who thought that they had a right to come a teach a bunch of little kids that they had no other connection with, about a religion most of the kids have no knowledge of? When I was a kid, the RE Classes seemed quite haphazard. I don’t know if the teachers were representing any particular group or not. There certainly wasn’t much in the way of teaching material. These days, it’s very different. The classes are still run by the same sort of local church volunteers but (most of them) are supported by a very well organised, well funded organisation called the Churches Education Commission who have quite an interesting history.
And what about the RE classes? Are they really “education”? The classes are all taught by people of one particular faith who have no interest in explaining that there are alternatives to them. And the little kids certainly don’t have the knowledge, capacity or even the opportunity to question what they’re being taught. Normally, their real teacher is sitting right there supervising, so it must all be true, right?
How about the parents? Do they know what the kids are learning and how they are being taught? What is the objective of the classes and how well does the school inform the parents? In my case the information provided by the school about the classes almost was non-existent.
Finally, and most importantly, what about the kids? Are their best interests really at the heart of the decision to allow these classes to take place? Or is it really about the religious agendas of the board members and school administrators who give unqualified teachers from a religious group access to our kids?
What I found out when I went in search of the answers to these questions was pretty shocking. The lack of protection from religious influence our primary school children have is appalling. The boards of trustees have too much power and the level of manipulation by religious organisations trying to get access to the children displays an incredible level of cynicism. Furthermore, teachers seemed to have abdicated their responsibility to the kids in the case of RE classes and go along with what the boards or administrators decree, towing the line despite, or because of, their personal beliefs.
Initially, I questioned my Daughter’s teacher. Then I approached the school board of trustees with a proposal for change. And then, frustrated and disappointed with their response, I went through with a complaint about the school to the Senior Adviser to the school from the Ministry of Education and finally to the Secretary for Education, Peter Hughes.
I had a lot of questions once I looked into RE classes but I think most parents aren’t aware of what’s actually happening. Are you? Please comment below and then find out what happened next…