The following is an essay written by Tal Slome, a university student in a Bachelor of Education (Primary) program in Victoria. The views expressed here are her own and are from her analysis of the policy but also her first-hand observations in the classroom. Tal, like so many young teachers wants to repair this broken system and return education to its rightful place guided by secular principles. We will be hearing more from Tal, and she writes to inform us that she has decided to do her honours thesis on this next semester. Wish her well. We are grateful for her contribution. This essay was first published on the website of Hashomer Hatzair. It is used here by permission; all copyrights belong to the author.
SRI: Segregated Religious Instruction?
by: Tal Slome
Four years ago while on placement in a prep class, I first experienced SRI (School Religious instruction). Never have we discussed religious instruction in public schools throughout my four year Bachelor of Education course, so I was understandably confronted when a Christian religion volunteer entered the classroom. This week, she announced, we will be talking about birthday parties. She gave each of the 15 five and six year olds party hats and proceeded to ask them how they would feel about having a party in which they could only invite 12 of their closest friends, and no one else. That would be very sad, the children expressed, to which the teacher replied: this is what Jesus had to go through at his last party (read: the last supper). I threw a quick glance towards my teacher and could instantly tell that I wasn’t the only one in the room questioning both the seemingly bizarre relevance as well as the impact this type of story might have on a child.
In 1872, Victoria was a world leader in free, secular education, and SRI was only introduced in the classroom due to conservative trends in the 1950s. Teachers have consistently refused to administer SRI, and, subsequently, ACCESS Ministries is the “default” provider of instruction in religion in the state curriculum, by ministerial and statutory authority. It provides a service of Christian religious instruction for 30 minutes per week. The children are instructed by ‘trained’ volunteers – individuals (who are, not necessarily, and generally not, teachers), that undertake training for as little as one day prior to entering the classroom.
Alternatives to Christian SRI do exist in some instances, but these extend only to religious instruction of other faiths. Currently, only Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Baha’i, Greek Orthodox, Hare Krishna and Roman Catholic courses are accredited. It is extremely difficult to qualify for accreditation by the government, with these religious streams not funded by the state, unlike Christian education. Just last week, due to growing criticism expressed through the media and schools, Martin Nixon, the new education Minister pledged an additional $200 000 to assist ACCESS with improving the program. If parents do not subscribe to the above mentioned religions, they have only one choice; they can opt their child out of SRI classes. If a parent fails to respond to the SRI form (for whatever reason), they are automatically assumed to be opting in. When students are opted out by their parents, they are not allowed to use that time to engage in any educational content, such as homework or additional learning. Instead, students are often forced to sit in corridors, quiet rooms, or in the back of the class. The Education Department’s requirements make it abundantly clear that secular instruction may not be scheduled while special religious instruction is taking place.
As parents have the option to remove their child from the class, some argue that SRI is not obligatory. This, however, is not an appropriate approach. An ethical and decent environment is not one where people are forced to seek their way out. Many parents feel that their children will be discriminated against and students are often left feeling isolated and different from their peers.
The core issue with the current model is that it is in stark opposition to the messages which we are trying to promote and instil in our children; hopes for social inclusion, acceptance and respect. Rather than celebrate our multicultural character, we are stifling our children’s abilities to be immersed in the richness and diversity of our society. Having children exposed to only one perspective (whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other religious belief) leaves our children with a limited understanding of religious diversity and the role which religion will play in their future. It encourages segregation amongst the single most impressionable group in society. It does not set the foundations for a vibrant, culturally diverse community.
The Religions, Ethics and Education Network Australia has written to The Prime Minister and respective ministers seeking an urgent review of religious education so changes can be included in the new national curriculum. The notion of religion and its place in the state system needs to undergo a radical overhaul. A widespread debate and inquiries must be undertaken to discuss whether religion ought to even have a role in our public schooling system. Current legislation stipulates that a government school may offer special religion instruction to children; we need to establish if this remains relevant, and even if it does, we must provide some workable alternatives.
If religious education is to continue being taught in state schools, it should be replaced with a holistic course. Fairness In Religion In Schools (FIRIS) argue that ‘schools should teach about religion, not instruct children in religion’. This alternative should be based on a multi faith pillar and incorporate different ethical traditions. It is no secret that we live in a multicultural society, and thus need to encourage religious literacy. Volunteers or teachers should be well trained to thoroughly and confidently teach this course, through professional development opportunities. Even so, an alternative should always be available for parents or students that prefer non religious education. In NSW, for instance, schools offer ‘religion free ethics courses’ alongside traditional religion classes. Another option could be to host religion specific classes prior to or post schooling hours. This way parents can be respected in their rights to have their children educated religiously, without religion classes being taught in the normal school curriculum. This would serve to limit the stigma on both sides of the issue.
By clarifying the intentions and structure of religious instruction in the classroom, we can work together to educate a generation of children that will be proud of their identity, respect others and therefore grow to be citizens, adults and parents who make their own choices and good ones at that.