Denise Nicholls of ACCESS ministries assesses the current state of ‘Religious Instruction’ in public schools
Each week across Victoria, from Mildura to Malacoota, from Warrnambool to Wodonga, around 3200 ACCESS ministries volunteers from churches representing the spectrum of Christian denominations venture into government primary school classrooms to tell stories, sing and play games with the children in their classes. Around 125,000 students participate in these voluntary lessons each, and in so doing learn about the Christian faith. These lessons are voluntary, open to all students whose parent/s have not withdrawn them from Religious Instruction, and are conducted under the Education training and Reform Act (2006). We call it Christian religious education (CRE); under the Act, such lessons are known as Religious Instruction.
What is often overlooked by opponents is that the legislation provides for “Religious Instruction” but does not specify a particular faith; so in our Victorian context, RI classes and seminars are also conducted by Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu instructors. This is right and proper in our Australian multicultural context.
However, it remains true that the vast majority of RI is Christian religious instruction. Most Christian RI is overseen by ACCESS ministries, and conducted inter-denominationally; but there is also some Roman Catholic and Orthodox Instruction which occurs separately from CRE. In CRE classes, all ACCESS ministries volunteers commit to using only the Agreed Syllabus, which is written and designed by Australian writers with tertiary qualifications and experience in both Education and also Theology.
Of late, there have been moves both in NSW and Victoria by non faith-based groups to provide an “alternative”, non-faith based instruction during RI time; sometimes referred to as values-based, or ethical instruction. In NSW there was a trial of ethics classes which ran alongside Religious Instruction classes (Special Religious Education – SRE – or “scripture classes”).
In the Victorian context, it is the Minister of Education and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development that accredits all Religious Instructors; and the decision as to who is accredited is rightly their domain.
If the various state governments were to decide to accredit Instructors from non-faith based groups, the challenge for these groups would be, like those of the faith-based Religious providers, to secure the commitment of volunteer Instructors. It is a great commitment to undertake the preparation of curriculum and delivery of lessons each week, for each grade, and across the breadth of the state.
This is an ongoing challenge for us as well. For there are children in suburbs and towns across our state, and indeed our nation, who could be receiving CRE, whose parents would be happy for them to learn of God’s love and the values which come from our Judeo-Christian heritage… if only there were people to take the message to them. In Victoria in 2011, we now have 40% fewer people who are accredited CRE teachers than we had 20 years ago.
It is one thing for individuals to challenge the right of non faith-based groups to provide an alternative to Religious Instruction; but such objections may sound very hollow if the Church cannot provide the people needed for this vital ministry and service to our community.
In all, we do need to trust God and continue to persevere at this God-given opportunity to share with our children that they are precious, and loved by God.
Rev Denise Nicholls is Director, Christian Education Services, ACCESS ministries
To find out more about teaching CRE in Victoria,
please go to www.accessministries.org.au/cre or call 1800 063 341