Sunday, August 1, 2010

Religious Instruction in NZ Public Schools

A topic that is coming up on a lot of blogs today (including Pharyngula) is Religious Instruction classes in QLD teaching children nonsense. If you read the posts and the comments on said posts you can see the outrage and disgust that you would expect by sceptical type people.

I too, share the outrage and disgust. But what was more shocking to me was the people from Australia and New Zealand commenting on this issue who had no idea that this has been going on for years.

Let me explain what Religious Instruction in New Zealand actually is. Australia has a pretty similar system but I'll let Australian bloggers talk about that. Religious Instruction is NOT the same thing as Religious Education. Learning about religion and its influence on art, history, society, whatever is perfectly fine and is part of a well-rounded education. Religious Instruction is not that. It's purpose is to INSTRUCT pupils. Normally some kind of programme involving ethics, moral guidance, why you're a sinner, that kind of thing.

Religious Instruction is technically not legal in public schools, so for half an hour a week schools are allowed to close down so RI can take place. The RI must not be taken by a teacher or school official, so an interested lay-person approved by the school board takes RI. In practicality this means that only Christian volunteers from the Churches Education Commission have the resources and influence to take RI in NZ schools. So it's not even Religious Instruction, it's Christian Instruction.

Now the school is not obliged to have RI but neither are they obliged to inform parents that they do. Many schools inform parents as a courtesy, but some do not. If you do not want your child to take part in RI you must write to the school Principal to request their withdrawal. That's right, they don't have to get your permission to indoctrinate your child, it's implied by you not withdrawing them from a programme you may not know exists.

Now what happens to those children who are withdrawn from the programme? They must be supervised during this time, so what usually happens is the kids withdrawn sit in the library until they can return to class. In my own son's case, they sit in another part of the classroom and just "don't participate in the bible songs and stories". Now do the kids withdrawn suffer any kind of discrimination from the overwhelming majority of participants? Perhaps. I know I thought the kids who weren't allowed to participate in things to do with 'God and stuff' (like the NZ National Anthem) were weird.

As New Zealand becomes more and more multi-cultural and with more and more people identifying as non-religious (statisticsnz ) RI in public schools is outdated and ridiculous. Christianity is being given privilege by being the only religion taught in schools. Why not Islam? Judaism? Wicca? Everything else? The only fair way to resolve the issue is to get rid of Religious Instruction altogether. Replace that half an hour a week with a secular ethics programme. (Note: they are trialing this in Australia much to certain interest groups' horror).

If you are a parent with kids in a NZ public primary school, ask about RI. Ask what the withdrawn kids do in that time. Ask if only Christianity is taught, or if there's a fair representation of all religious beliefs (including areligious beliefs). Volunteer to teach a class about Secular Humanism, Satanism, or the worship of Zeus. You probably won't get far with the school board but who knows? Maybe you'll alert enough parents to the issue and something will change.

My sources for today's rant are: The Human Rights Commission report on Religion in NZ Schools and the NZARH pamphlet on RI in NZ State Primary Schools.
Advocatus Diaboli

1 comment:

  1. You refer to "Public Schools" but you may need to be clear about what you mean . For instance you can have private schools in NZ that can teach pretty anything (and in some cases like Exclusive Brethen schools, probably teach creationism). I do have issues, in that I believe these schools need more oversight to ensure that they are not teaching kids anti-science nonsense.

    Then there are 'Special Character' schools. These are public, state funded schools that have agreed to meet all state standards, but which have special charters, in which groups contribute extra funding and apply elegiblity rules; Catholic schools are the most common of these. These schools mostly have reasonible education standards and give religious instruction for maybe an hour a week. I don't have a major problem with these schools as I believe in freedom of choice.

    The third groups is mainstream, public schools without a special charter. Again I don't have a particular problem with allowing some RI; on the proviso that:
    a) It is 'opt in' (children and there parents have to choose to take it)
    b) Those not opting in, can use time productively - perhaps listening to skeptoid episodes or critical thinking lessons
    c) Schools must not just choose one religious group; should be pan-religion and belief systems

    I am an atheist who personally found half-hearted RI education at school helped to turn me off religion.

    I think the "Keep Religion out of School" Facebook group needs be the same; the focus should be aimed at the worst schools; i.e. I know a teacher who applied for a job at a local baptist school, and was asked their views on evolution. They clearly understood during the interview process, that being gay or having a sceptical/scientific viewpoint would have ruled them out. All unwritten of course.