This is what is happening to Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victoria and Special Religious Education (SRE) in NSW.
In Victoria the rules around SRI have changed. Schools now have to provide more information about the content and delivery of SRI. Parents need to opt their students in each year. As a result the enrolment has fallen, so much so that some schools can’t justify running the program. VIctoria does not have Special Education in Ethics as an option, so when students opt out of SRI they are in non-scripture, doing nothing.
At the same time there has been more examination of what is being taught and rejection of the content. The main provider of SRI in Victoria is Access Ministries, an evangelical group who says they have the right to use public schools to grow their church. Their messages include ones of intolerance, homophobia, and asking children to evangelize.
This is a blog post from a Victorian parent who managed to have SRI dropped at her child’s school. It wasn’t difficult. What she did was build coalition - both inside the school community and with groups who support education over indoctrination. She presented a letter to School Council outlining what she wanted and why. It was passed. Done.
In NSW things are happening too. A state review in SRE is being started.
The issue isn’t only a problem in primary schools. High schools are part of the story too. Most high schools abide by the policy by running SRE. They schedule it at the end of the school day so most students just go home. The problem in high schools is the Scripture Union position. This group is authorised to run a voluntary lunchtime religious club called Inter School Christian Fellowship (ISCF). In practice, the person holding this position is removing students from their mainstream classes. In one school, teachers have been told that when this happens they are to cease giving any new information to the remaining students. Obviously, this is not OK. As much as one can argue about how many ways this is wrong, the only thing that matters is how it breaches policies. Which it does in various ways. Scripture Union is not an authorised SRE provider. It is not exempt from Department of Education policies. These policies include ones about values, homophobia in schools, respect for diversity, teaching controversial issues in schools, and the general capabilities of the new Australian curriculum. One school website says the club contains about 120 students with extensive activities listed.
I’ve been looking at the relevant policies and finding out what is happening in local schools. What I’m finding is lots of breaching of policy. In fact, I haven’t found one yet that abides by the policies. I’ve been writing to schools, stating what is happening, what the policy is and asking principals to ‘please explain’. I’ve successfully taken a case to P&C.
I’m surprised that principals have been permitting these policy breaches for years. All they needed to do was call the Department of Education or to check with their local directors. I do understand that principals can feel bullied by the religious groups. (And principals are busy people with many serious matters to deal with.)
I’ve been talking to other action groups including Human Rights Advocacy Australia and The Greens (who have a policy of removing SRE from schools, but will be satisfied for now with closing the door on evangelists in public schools). I’ll also be talking to Marion Maddox.
I have written to the NSW Minister for Education and the Secretary for the Department of Education.
I know what I’ll be asking for in the review.
I’ll ask that these rules be implemented.
- that parents are given information about the content of all SRE options
- that parents are given information about who delivers each SRE, including links to websites
- that food, lollies and other tangible enticements are banned from SRE
- that students opt in rather than opt out, and this decision is made each year
- that the school seeks to have authorised providers deliver SRE based on student and parent interest rather than to deliver students to interested SRE providers
- that parents are told they have the right to complain to the school about the content and delivery of SRE, in accordance with Department of Education policy
- that the school run an inclusive, non-denominational, non-faith based end of year celebration, or none at all in SRE time
- that members of church groups who deliver SRE sign an agreement akin to the Access Ministries CRE one in Victoria, which states that teachers do not evangelise; do not teach faith as fact; do not express views which are derogatory, biased or discriminatory on the grounds of lifestyle, culture, religion, family structure or sexuality; do not pressure students to participate in faith responses such as in prayer or singing; and do not ask students to proselytize or evangelise within their school.
These are all reasonable requests which should be implemented. They bring SRE into compliance with other Department of Education policies. These policies are about values in schools, about controversial issues in schools, about respecting diversity and about the general capabilities in the national curriculum. Currently SRE instructors during SRE time are exempt from these policies. That means that currently in public schools there is about 40 minutes a week for each student in which all these policies are suspended.
I’ll also be asking that schools have the option of running their SRE programs on four days a year - teacher development days which are otherwise pupil free days. In this way SRE students can opt -in and no-one else’s teaching and learning is disrupted. This would fulfil the current school year time requirement for SRE.
I expect there will be many media stories coming out of the review.
I am confident that things will be changed in NSW as a result of the review. My only reservation is the possibility that SRE remains in NSW schools on the basis of the availability of the Primary Ethics program. Wouldn’t that be ironic.
If you want to know more, ask me.
Links to relevant documents here:
Department of Education SRE Policyhttps://www.det.nsw.edu.au/policies/curriculum/schools/spec_religious/implementation_1_PD20020074.shtml?query=special+religious+education
Controversial Issues in schoolshttps://www.det.nsw.edu.au/policies/curriculum/schools/cont_issue/implementation_1_PD20020045.shtml?level=
Homophobia in schools
Human Rights Advocacy Australia
Fairness in Religion in Schools (Victoria)
The list of authorised providers of SRE in NSW
The list of schools that have a Scripture Union person at their school for ISCF