Who is responsible for religious education in primary schools?

religious control in nz
Knowledge of the divine needs to be installed... apparently.
religious control in nz
Knowledge of the divine needs to be installed… apparently.

My first point of contact was my Daughter’s teachers. I’ll say in advance that teachers are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to religious education in primary schools. They have no authority when it comes to making decisions about it and are bound by their employment contracts and education law, while still having to answer to a boss (the school head) and keep parents and kids happy.

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.

So anyway…. I spoke to my Daughter’s teachers (she had two who worked together in her first year) about the classes and got the distinct impression that they were really uncomfortable discussing it and wanted to terminate the conversation by clarifying that my Daughter could be “opted-out” of the classes and was this what we wanted? End of story… no need for further awkward questions thanks very much! At the time, I didn’t think much of it but now I realise how difficult the situation is that they are in and how the safest option for them is to not offer their personal opinions for fear of a negative impact on their working relationships with the school administrators who allow the classes.

Having said that, I personally don’t think that teachers in general are taking enough of a stand when it comes to religion-based extra curricular activities. I think they’re letting the kids, the parents and their profession down by staying silent to avoid rocking the boat.

My next action was to contact Dean Adams, who was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees who last reviewed the religious education classes in the Maungatapere School community survey of 2014.

Here’s my email to him…

From: Dave Smyth
Sent: Monday, 29 June 2015 4:39 p.m.
To: Dean Adams

Hi Dean,

My daughter goes to Maungatapere primary and the recent publicity around the religious instruction in schools programmes has made me wonder what the situation is here?

I realise they have classes (which we opt out of) but I’ve never understood why the school allows people of any faith to come into the grounds and teach their particular faith as fact to children who don’t have the knowledge or maturity to dispute anything that someone placed in this position of authority tells them?

regards,
Dave Smyth


After his email, I also phoned Dean and spoke to him. I got the distinct impression that he was missing the point I was trying to make. The argument that RE Classes are somehow related to teaching values in the school is a weak and misleading one. Because the school has to be “closed” by law to teach the religious instruction classes (there is a difference) they have at Maungatapere School, the classes are clearly not (just) about values. And because the classes are extra-curricular, they don’t fulfil the schools legal obligation to teach values within the school curriculum.

We also discussed the situation where a child was badly treated when opted out of religious education at Red Beach School in Whangaparaoa.

Here is Deans response…

From: Dean Adams [mailto:adamsdean@xtra.co.nz]
Sent: Monday, 29 June 2015 6:08 p.m.
To: dave@energise.co.nz; Judy Eagles
Subject: Re:

Dave

Thanks for the email. I will forward it on to our school principal Judy Eagles for a more detailed explanation. I also saw the article. I appreciate that some people see it as a faith issue. When my child started at Maungatapere….not being very religious myself…I went along to a session and saw it in action…. on the principle of seek first to understand then to be understood….After that I had no concerns..I rate it more closely to teachings of philosophy and values than faith…. but to each their own. I remember some of my own experiences as a child from these programmes….not much of it stuck.

Please let me know if you would like to discuss further. A significant issue raised in the article appeared to be the school’s handling of the children who opt out. I am not aware of any concerns raised by parents at Maungatapere in regard to this aspect.

Regards
Dean


I thought that Dean’s response was pretty reasonable but having done some research into what sort of things were being taught and the fact that values teaching is already required by the Ministry of Education, I knew that the lessons were ALL about faith with a superficial veneer of values teaching to give the impression that they were something more.

From: Dave Smyth
Sent: Monday, 29 June 2015 8:46 p.m.
To: ‘Dean Adams’
Subject: RE:

Hi Dean,

Yes I know what you mean. I had RE at primary school and then attended Pompallier College and I’m not religious at all. Having said that, I know a couple of parents who have had issues with their kids coming home and saying things like “God made me”.

From what I’ve seen, there is no doubt that the classes are all about religious instruction and not simply about values. I took my daughter into class after the first lesson of the year as all the kids came out carrying colouring in pages with; “God made all the animals”. I fail to see the connection between Creationism and values and morality! Have you actually seen the teaching materials? It’s not publicly available. I have tried to find it. Can you send me them?

Also, If it were really only about values, we wouldn’t need local church members. The teachers are quite capable of teaching kids to be nice and kind and not little monsters with[out] the churches help!

Philosophically, I reject these classes on the basis that the people taking them would not be there is there was no reference to bible stories.

There seems to be an assumption that it is ok for the nice lady from the church down the road to come and teach our kids what to believe using stories from her faith (not mine). I am pretty sure that there is never any reference to the stories they use as being “just a story”, it’s all taught as fact. We could teach values using Disney stories but I don’t think the church would be as interested!

The reason I wrote to you rather than Judy is that it is my understanding that it was the Board of Trustees that were responsible for allowing bible classes into schools. I believe there was a survey last year that asked about whether the school should continue “Religious Studies” (no pretence of it being a values class) but I’m unsure of the final results. There was a “don’t mind” option, which implies a bias toward allowing it to continue.

There’s actually a lot more to the public debate than the “handling of children who opt-out”. The school is technically closed, so our daughter goes swimming instead. Yes, it was appalling how they handled it but the real issue is why this sort of back-door religious indoctrination is allowed in the first place. I am amazed that a church group of any kind can get access to teach children in a secular school.

These classes would not be in the school if it were any non-Christian group taking them, teaching values using stories from their religion.

There were concerns raised by parents in the 2014 survey results I saw. Mostly the comments were about inclusiveness of all religions showing a preference for education and not instruction.

regards,
Dave Smyth


Do you think a school board of trustees should be able to choose a religion for a state school? Even if it is extra-curricular? Please make a comment below!

As promised, Judy Eagles (the Maungatapere School Principal) responded to my email at Dean’s request. Find out what she said…

 

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