School religious instruction 'inappropriate'

Last updated 10:30 18/03/2014

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There has been much discussion in the media of late about the role of religious instruction in our public schools.

I believe that many advocating for it to continue as it currently operates misunderstand how it operates and misunderstand the perspective of those who want to see it change.

There is a significant difference between religious education, being taught about religion, and religious instruction, being taught about religious beliefs as truth.

In section 78 of the Education Act 1964, religious instruction is described as "given by voluntary instructors approved by the school's board".

This legislation allows for the legal closing of classes or school for the purposes of religious instruction or observance, but does not specify religious education.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission defines religious instruction: "religious instruction carries an implicit or explicit endorsement of a particular faith and/or encourages students to engage with and make decisions about accepting it on a personal level".

Many parents and New Zealanders are supportive of education about religion, but that is not what is being conducted.

I am unconvinced that a church representative is able to present Christian stories and beliefs from a critical perspective without representing them as the right and correct way of thinking and living.

Regardless of whether they are, for a school to use that piece of legislation to allow volunteers to come and teach children requires that what happens is religious instruction.

The kind of teaching that happens could not occur in official school hours because section 77 of the Education Act 1964 stipulates that "teaching shall be entirely of a secular character".

It is absolute fallacy to suggest that a religious context is the only way to teach values, morality or history. All can be presented in a secular way without the need for outside representatives coming into the school.

Our schools and curriculum have strong and positive cultures and sets of values that are imparted well to students without any need to instil religious belief.

These values are taught by qualified and registered teachers as part of the curriculum.

Why is there any need for additional values teaching from church volunteers who are frequently neither qualified nor registered to teach children?

Having religious instruction from a Christian-only perspective assumes that this is the dominant and accepted religious background of students and their families.

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In fact, many families in New Zealand now identify themselves as non-religious (41.5 per cent from Statistics New Zealand figures for 2013).

An opt-out system is fundamentally discriminatory towards the student and family that choose this option.

The student is excluded from their class, and what are often fun activities, because of their belief.

In many schools, students that opt out are given activities or put into situations very similar to when being disciplined.

Many parents across the country have formally complained to the Human Rights Commission on this basis.

An opt-out system also requires parents and students to disclose their belief when they may prefer, and have the right to, privacy in regard to this information.

Spiritual or religious instruction is primarily the responsibility of parents and guardians, and should not occur in any public school.

If parents wish their children to have instruction in a particular religion, then that should occur out of normal school hours and not impinge on school time.

Parents and teachers expect children to listen and be receptive to what they are taught in the classroom. To allow church representatives an audience with our children in this situation is inappropriate.

If church volunteers knocked at the door and asked for an unsupervised audience with their children, I doubt many parents would agree to it.

Instead of the current opt-out system, schools could run an out of school hours 'opt-in' option for religious instruction for families who want to take it.

This is what St Heliers school in Auckland currently plans to do in response to formal complaints.

Most extra-curricular activities occur outside of normal school time, religious instruction should be no different.

At an appropriate age children should be given a programme of diverse religious education where many faiths, beliefs, histories and traditions are presented (perhaps with visiting representatives) which the teacher and class discuss from an anthropological and critical perspective.

Other ethical and philosophical ideas could be discussed at the same time to include the beliefs and arguments of historical philosophers.

This is similar to the national education policies in Japan, Ireland, South Africa and France, for example.

This is the belief shared by many who favour secular education.

Often supporters of secular education are represented by their opposition as anti-religion or not wanting any education about religion to occur in schools. This is simply not the case.

Our public schools should operate in a secular way that is non-discriminatory and truly reflects the diversity and rights of students, their families, our country and the wider world.

It is time for the government to review the legislation that allows religious instruction to embed itself in the middle of the school day, and move it to be treated as other extra-curricular activities – out of school hours and entirely voluntary.

If our children are to be truly educated about religion, then they must learn about the multiple faiths and perspectives of our world, not a single faith from an evangelical perspective.

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