Why Should Religious Instruction Go? A Letter To Boards Of Trustees

Tanya Jacob being interviewed by NewsHub
Tanya Jacob being interviewed by NewsHub

The following letter was written by Tanya Jacob of the Secular Education Network to a board of trustees to explain why religious instruction in secular state primary schools is not just a bad idea but discriminatory and harmful to the school. Please feel free to use content from this letter to petition your own school for a change. Religious instruction classes are normally reviewed at least every three years by school boards and more often if there are complaints. Note that links to other pages on this website have been added by me.

Dear Board of Trustees,

I understand that in September Religious Instruction will be due for review at your school. I’d like to offer some resources that may help in your deliberations. You perhaps already have correspondence from parents since the last review, as most schools do. I would add to that information both from the Ministry of Education, and principals from around the country that is straightforward and, I hope, helpful.

To explain where I’m coming from, I am a member of the Secular Education Network (SEN). SEN is an initiative started by the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists in 2012 in response to increasing complaints from parents about religious instruction. SEN is a Facebook group and exists to help families adversely affected by religious instruction (RI), as well as to work towards removing religious discrimination in schools. We attempt to counter misinformation and address the lack of information around RI. We are a varied group of mostly parents, but also grandparents, teachers and concerned citizens. We have supporters who are non-religious, but also those who identify with minority religions, as well as Christians who do not support imposing their religion on others. Many of our members support neutral religious education by trained teachers, for example within history or social studies, or as a separate subject at high school. What we object to is single-faith religious instruction (as per Sunday School classes) within our secular state schools. You can find out more on our website http://religioninschools.co.nz

A parent in SEN put together an excellent list of questions which she sent to her child’s school. These make a good starting point. (These already appear in another article here, so I won’t repeat them in Tanya’s letter)

The Board may also be interested to know that the Ministry of Education knows that Religious Instruction is discriminatory under the Human Rights Act, 1993. They were advised of this by Crown Legal in February 2001 as part of a review of all their legislation and policy to see if there were inconsistencies with the Human Rights legislation. All government departments had to go through this process, called “Consistency 2000”. I requested the report and it took 2 years to get. This document was released to me through the Office of the Ombudsman.

When I say that RI is discriminatory, I’m referring to children having to be removed from their own class and friends to avoid evangelism in their own non-religious state school. This places pressure on parents to leave their kids in religious instruction in order to avoid standing out and negative consequences socially for their child or themselves, even though this may go against their beliefs or conscience.

  • Those parents are forced to reveal their privately held beliefs in contrast to the RI supported by the school.
  • A single faith is being chosen for promotion by the school, lending the authority of the school, and school culture towards supporting one religious group, and in so doing creating a less friendly school culture for non-adherents to that religion.
  • Access to education is stopped for all children, but especially those who opt out just because one religious group wishes to have the school make way for promotion of their beliefs.
  • Despite claims of “values” being promoted in RI, parents often report that their opted-out children are bullied for not believing, or made to feel left out by all the treats (lollies, games etc) that RI children get, upsetting both the child and further pressuring the parents to relent and let them attend.

RI can also lead to anxiety in children depending on the person taking it, the material used, and the sensitivities of the child etc, because of particular supernatural claims. By way of example, a young girl was told that if you pray hard enough, an ill family member will get better. This was after one of her parents died. This new “information” left her feeling responsible because she thought she could have done something to prevent her parent’s death. This sort of situation would not arise with professional teaching *about* religion but taught from the perspective of a believer, children are open to any beliefs taught as fact.

Other children have been told that they or their loved ones will go to hell because they don’t go to church or parents are unmarried etc. These are things that the Churches Education Commission (CEC) try very hard to convince people don’t happen. Unfortunately, parents still report these sorts of experiences.

I would add that parents of autistic children report that RI can be particularly difficult for their children to deal with. This is usually a clash with their very literal way of interpreting things and not helped by the lack of any professional teaching qualification on the part of the volunteer.

So that’s a quick run through of the main arguments against RI. I think it’s worth a quick look at the syllabus used for RI at your school. “Life Choices” has been reviewed for us by Professor of Religious Studies and UNESCO Chair in Interreligious Understanding and Relations in NZ and the Pacific, Paul Morris. The following are excerpts from that review:

“it is my considered and professional conclusion that collective Christian prayer to God and Jesus is inappropriate and likely objectionable to secular, non-Christian, and non-evangelical, conservative Christian parents and students. The normative Christian elements of the courses whereby views, scriptures, stories, heroes and practices identified explicitly as Christian are given prominence and priority as desirable norms are not at all suitable for non-Christian students. Parents and trustees are assured that the teaching is appropriate for a multicultural and multi-religious context (e.g. Launch 1, Teacher Book, page 4; Life Choice, Teacher’s Manual, page 3, “while all sessions are unashamedly Christian the teaching is open, non-judgemental and very appropriate for non-Christian children in a school environment”.) but a review of the texts and teachers’ manuals makes it clear that this is not so. ”

“In conclusion: (a) I do not consider that the CEC’s CRE teaching materials that I have examined are at all suitable for non-Christian, non-evangelical students; (b) I do not consider that the assurances to parents and trustees are sufficient to make the content clear or honestly reflect their minority viewpoints; and, (c) I do not view the CEC’s selectivity in relation to the New Zealand curriculum’s competencies and values to validate the claim that Life Choices does support the National Curriculum and it might well be at odds with it, particularly by excluding diversity and critical textual learning.”

Life Choices is the syllabus that the CEC came up with, in what appeared to be a response to criticisms of other materials they used. It was meant to be more “relevant” to NZ and easier to ‘sell’ to school boards as matching up with the NZ curriculum, rather than an Australian import.

Back to a practical matter, I realise that there is often a values class for the opted out kids run at the same time as RI. I suspect these are in response to parents asking for something productive for their children to do during the opt-out time. It’s tricky, because if the school is running religious instruction, particularly at all year levels, then the whole school must be legally closed (section 78, Education Act 1964), and cannot be delivering the curriculum.

Certain classes can be closed, which happens when only 1 or 2 year levels have RI, and opted out children can go and join another class, but they aren’t supposed to be doing work at that time because their class is closed. It annoys parents, to be sure. But then parents of ‘bible’ kids will complain if the opted out children are getting tuition or study time that their children are not. So it levels the playing field. Per year, it equates to 4.5 days. Over 8 years, that’s 36 days missed curriculum teaching.

You may want to contact the Ministry of Education to follow this up, as I would question any advice that school could be “open” or new classes made with opt-out children doing curriculum based things. See the relevant section of the Education Act, 1964 below:

s78 Religious instruction and observances in State primary schools
Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in section 77 or in section 65B of the Education Act 1989, if the school’s board for the school district in which the school is situated, after consultation with the principal, so determines, any class or classes at the school, or the school as a whole, may be closed at any time or times of the school day for any period or periods exceeding in the aggregate neither 60 minutes in any week nor 20 hours in any school year, for any class, for the purposes of religious instruction given by voluntary instructors approved by the school’s board and of religious observances conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board or for either of those purposes; and the school buildings may be used for those purposes or for either of them.

Actually, it’s interesting to note how little of the 1964 Education Act remains. It’s almost entirely repealed except for the section on religious instruction. As a sign o,f the times it was written in it dealt with such important things as “married women as teachers”.

You may have noticed a survey we sent out in 2017. This was the second we have done, and the only information ever collected on schools offering religious instruction, as the Ministry of Education doesn’t keep any. Back in 2013 around 40% of state schools up to year 8 ran RI. That number appears to have dropped slightly although we are still chasing up some schools that have not responded.

Ringing schools has given me a chance to talk to numerous principals up and down the country about why they have stopped RI. The main reasons they give every time is “it’s not suitable for our multicultural school”, and “we needed that time back for the curriculum”. So it’s seen as a positive step in these schools. They usually acknowledge the contribution of the people involved in providing RI over the years, acknowledge that people will have differing opinions about it. Sometimes they will hold a meeting to explain their process and thinking to parents who are invested emotionally in the programme and focus on the gains for the school as a whole, by reclaiming curriculum time and being truly inclusive.

I hope this is helpful. Though it is long, I have tried to distil out the stuff that gets to the point quickly. Please feel free to contact me to discuss any of this.

Thank you for your time and attention. A lot of parents at your school may be looking forward to this review and though it’s easier to let the status quo go on year after year, I hope you feel that it’s worth considering action.

Yours sincerely,

Tanya Jacob.

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