[REVIEW] 2018 Draft Guidelines for Religious Instruction in NZ State Primary Schools

2018 draft guidelines religious instruction
2018 draft guidelines religious instruction
Click the image to download the draft guidelines

The Ministry of Education has finally released draft guidelines for Religious Instruction. Not a bad effort. They were first requested in 2005! It only took 13 years to get something released to the public. Credit for this has to go to Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins who told us back in May 2018 that they would be available within weeks. I am very surprised that any guidelines were released at all, as the MOE have now put themselves in the difficult (and previously avoided) position of having to defend them.

Download the draft guidelines on religious instruction in state primary and intermediate schools [PDF, 683 KB]

Two important points to note are made in the first paragraph of the guidelines.

The guidelines have been produced to help clarify what boards of trustees legal obligations are when allowing religious instruction, and to help boards of trustees develop best practice policies and practices around how to offer religious instruction.

  1. Boards of Trustees have legal obligations regarding religious instruction.
  2. The how is emphasised because the guidelines do not answer the question of the validity of religious instruction under current legislation.

In other words, although the Ministry of Education are offering guidelines, they are continuing to try and avoid responsibility by making it very clear that they consider the legal liability for religious instruction classes rests solely with the schools board of trustees.

The document goes to great pains to point out the relevance of the Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993. The reason they are doing this is that they already know that religious instruction is discriminatory based on legal advice they received back in 2001 that there is no defence against a claim of direct discrimination under the Human Rights Act 1993.

The use the phrase “in practice…” a number of times, which seems to indicate that while they are noting the important of human rights legislation, the guidelines they are suggesting for religious instruction are still inconsistent with this legislation. They virtually say as much on page 5…

In practice, this has a moderating effect on how religious instruction is decided on and delivered within a school. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 does not override a board’s authority to close the school to allow religious instruction to take place.

Here’s a brief overview of the 8 guidelines the Ministry have provided.

1. Use community consultation to inform decision-making

This guideline notes that many school communities have diverse religious views and that consulting the community somehow justifies the promotion of one (or more) religious faiths. Given the fact that our state primary schools were created as secular specifically to avoid competition for access to children between different Christian denominations, I fail to see how consulting the community is supposed to justify closing a non-religious school in order to promote any religion?

Whether a majority is a few people on a board of trustees or a majority vote within the school community, majorities don’t determine what is right. Majorities decide what is popular, not what is fair or reasonable for the school children and their families.

2. Provide full and accurate information to students, families and whānau to help them make informed decisions

While laudable, providing full information on religious instruction rarely happens. The Churches Education Commission refuse to release copies of their teacher guides when parents request them. Schools aren’t often more helpful. What about the substantial case against religious instruction? Will schools offer a class on atheism to give children the “choice” of finding out why so many people in NZ don’t have any religion?

3. Offer valid education alternatives to religious instruction

This guideline again talks about valid alternatives being offered to “…ensure that students are not treated in a discriminatory manner…”. This is absolutely absurd! We can’t close a secular school to promote Christianity and at the same time tell the children from non-Christian families they aren’t being discriminated against because they were offered a “valid alternative”!

The guidelines do suggest the possibility of offering religious instruction outside of school hours… or just go to church on Sundays perhaps?

4. Require signed consent for religious instruction

Much has been made of this guideline but like all the other guidelines, it has no teeth! They “recommend” signed consent and the adoption of a default position of “non-participation” but this is not legislated. The biggest risk schools have is the ever-increasing likelihood of claims of discrimination and there is no way around this, whether or not they seek consent. Requiring consent by opt-out (as it is in law) is inherently coercive. Lack of oversight means that schools are likely to fall down on these guidelines for consent, leaving themselves open to complaints.

5. Use volunteers who are not school staff members to lead religious instruction

This guideline states that teachers should not lead religious instruction;

The Education Act 1964 specifies that all religious instruction be taken by volunteers. When religious instruction is taken by a member of the teaching staff, it may be difficult for students to distinguish between the teaching of the curriculum, and the teaching of a particular faith, outside of the curriculum.

It is referring to section 80 of the Education Act 1964, which allows teachers to be released from their duties  (and become a “technical” volunteer) in order to teach a religious instruction class for 30 minutes a week .

While it is true that children might find it difficult to distinguish between their teacher and the same person offering them faith in gods, the implication that teachers not leading a religious instruction class, removes the conflict of interest. But this is not entirely true, as most teachers remain in the classroom during the religious instruction class;

  1. The presence of the real teacher in the classroom lends authority to the volunteer taking the class.
  2. It devalues the teaching profession by allowing a less-qualified, biased volunteer to replace them.

6. Provide secular school and student support services

Another seemingly good idea but the reality is quite different. How will this work in practice? The guidelines say;

The Ministry also recommends no counselling and support staff be linked to the religious instruction programmes offered at the school.

Does this mean that the office lady can’t go to the same church that the bible teachers come from?

How can they suggest that religious groups can offer secular support services when we already have religious groups promoting their religious faith under the guise of “values classes”. What is to stop a group offering religious instruction at one school and secular support at another school? They still have a stated agenda to get children into their church… just not at the same school!

We see this situation happening in Australia where the government is funding religious groups to the tune of AUS$250 million to offer “chaplaincy” or counselling services.

7. Perform safety checks on volunteers

This is an area that we have always taken for granted. The schools say that the volunteers are checked but I don’t know if they ever actually sight the checks that the providers say they carry out. This guideline also recommends that a staff member be present when a volunteer has not been checked…. lending them authority over the children.

Conclusion

These guidelines do nothing to change the fact that promoting religious faith in non-religious state primary schools is inherently discriminatory. They are inconsistent with secular education, our human rights laws and with the legislation allowing religious instruction. The most valuable thing these guidelines do is make it crystal clear that boards of trustees are “under the gun” for the decisions they make regarding religious instruction and carry the legal liability. I believe that the Ministry is preemptively defending itself against the court case against religious instruction that is proceeding in 2019.

You can make a submission on these draft guidelines to the Ministry of Education by no later than 7 December 2018. It will be interesting to see what the Churches Education Commission and other religious groups make of them!

You can email a submission to RIO.submissions@education.govt.nz or you can post your submission to:

RIO Guideline Submissions
Ministry of Education
PO Box 1666
Wellington 6140

Please comment below and let me know what you think!

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