Religious instruction has no place in our public schools - Education Matters Magazine
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Religious instruction has no place in our public schools

As our primary children have returned to public school throughout the country, they will be joined by a growing legion of workers from para-church groups like ACCESS, Scripture Union, Genr8, YouthWorks, OAC, and the Child Evangelical Fellowship, who exploit various exceptions in State and Territory education acts that have been created to undermine the secular principle of public education.

While it is these groups’ warrant to seek converts among children, the degree to which our department of education colludes to obscure the facts, is troubling. In Victoria for example, principals are directed to distribute a sign up form that solicits parental permission and tells parents that what takes place in such classes is approved by the Department of Education and actually complements “lesson themes and current Departmental policy; builds on the Victorian Essential Learning Standards” and “respects children’s rights to uphold their own opinions”.
None of these statements is an accurate reflection of the reality in our classrooms, nor does it begin to tell the actual story about what these lessons are designed to do.

If principals and school leaders are going to allow volunteers organised by para-church youth ministry organisations into our schools why do we need to obscure the truth about why they are there?

What principals, school councils and parents are told about these programs is far removed from what goes on behind the closed doors of the classroom and it is glaringly at odds with the community’s expectation, that our schools will not promote a particular religion. Though in public the leaders of these groups deny that they seek to proselytize, the lessons themselves are proof that they do.

Most principals are unaware of actually what goes on in these weekly sessions of “religious instruction” and it is only when they actually visit these classes do they realise that their children will be directed to “obey god” and to “have a relationship with god” or that children are instructed to “pray to god and ask for forgiveness for their sins” in the classroom or otherwise they will “deserve punishment”. These practices are all totally inappropriate activities in our secular schools. Moreover, public schools may not ethically engage in such acts – yet, principals are instructed to stand by and organise teachers to supervise such unethical practice.

Joe Kelly has been principal of Cranbourne South Primary School for 15 years, and acknowledged that until two years ago he had been “blindly supporting” Access Ministries’ presence. That was until he took a closer look at the actual classes and curriculum.

“It is not education,” Kelly said. “It has no value whatsoever. It is rubbish – hollow and empty rhetoric… My school teachers are committed to teaching children, not indoctrinating them.” In early 2012, Kelly told Access Ministries they would not be allowed back in his school.

“A lot of principals feel as strongly as I do, but they are not comfortable being as provocative as I am,” he said.

Access Ministries defines its role as “converting” children in a “cross cultural mission”, since “without Jesus, our students are lost.” And it states that the current policy environment is a “God-given open door to…the greatest mission field…for disciple making.”1

The actions of the departments of education across the country undercut and disempower principals, especially with the movement for more principal and school focused autonomy and local decision making. In effect principals are being forced to be complicit with this deception and lie to parents in order to facilitate the interest of groups who seek to proselytise among children. All the denials of such proselytising are negated by the words and actions of Access Ministry representatives in the daily classroom experience of our children.

These programs represent a state endorsed, and state funded religious mission, which presents singular faith perspective in a pedagogically unsound manner by inductees who are encouraged to become “missionaries in their own backyard”.

Departments of Education claim that the CRE syllabus being taught in our public primary schools actually complement “lesson themes and current Departmental policy; and builds on the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS)”. This is inaccurate and misleading. I was asked by Principal Joe Kelly to perform an independent curriculum review of the materials and found that students are not being challenged to think independently as the vast majority of tasks are based on what we in the profession call busy work. The related instructional delivery in the Instructor’s Manual also does not appear to support clear sequencing, clear descriptions and demonstrations of skills to be acquired, nor are the student activities followed by practice and timely feedback – the essence of good pedagogical practice which should focus initially on high levels of teacher involvement. The teaching materials do not support the VELS, nor do they reflect the recommended Victorian teaching and learning principles (POLTs). There is very little evidence that the CRE curriculum supports intellectual quality of learning recommended by the DEECD framework of what constitutes high quality teaching and learning practice in the classroom. Typically these activities minimise student intellectual growth, provide no scaffolding support to guide students through the learning process as there are no explicit or clear statements about the purpose or rationale for the learning.

In Victoria Access Ministries provides almost all of the SRI/SRE in public schools and it recruits its volunteers by encouraging them to “be like Jesus” and “fish for people”2. Though euphemisms such as “present the gospel” abound, the clear intention of the lessons is to bring children to belief in Christ. These are purely religious objectives. Contrary to the assertion that these programs focus on “values” – the “Gospel message” is about salvation, and contains no “values lesson” – it is a religious doctrine, and because of this, belongs to religion – and not in our public school classrooms. There is no place in these lessons for respecting individual opinions.

School leaders need to understand as Principal Kelly finally did, that the practice of religious indoctination can no longer be viewed in any sense to be an educational program, it is merely a missionary exploitation of the executive power we place in schools, and depends on subterfuge, misdirection and deceit. These programs undermine the foundational values of our education system. They lead to discrimination and segregation – and it is an imposition on basic rights that families have to privacy and to choose how they wish to live with regards to religion.
Families are in the best position to provide specific religious education and guidance of and for their children either in the home or through special after school activities or in their own church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Surely these institutions trust families to do the task of looking after the faith education of their own children?

The separation between church and state – a central tenet of Australia’s democracy – is not upheld under the current model. This is at odds with Australian state and federal governments’ commitment to promoting a socially inclusive society and current legislation must be amended as a matter of urgency. Legal opinion here in Australia suggests that the laws as they stand are illegitimate and open to challenge.

Dr David Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy.

1. E. Paddison, “Making Disciples in Evert Generation,” speech to the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion, Melb, 10-13 September, 2008.
2. From a promotional package calling for ACCESS volunteers to become “fishermen for the kingdom”.

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