Religion in schools under scrutiny in Vic

Melissa Jenkins

“I haven’t got the Pope’s phone number.”

Martin Dixon might have some connections in the church, but they don’t go that far.

Mr Dixon’s first six months as Victoria’s education minister have been punctuated by controversies over the role of religion in the state system.

Before entering politics, the Member for Nepean was a teacher and principal at several Catholic schools and the Catholic Education Office deputy chairman of primary education.

The 55-year-old father of two says it was education, not religion, that drove him to enter politics in 1996.

“My religious background doesn’t enter into my thinking or decisions at all,” Mr Dixon told AAP.

“My experiences at school and my experiences as a teacher, my experiences as a principal – all those things shape me into the education minister that I am.

“I get more hassles in the community because I’m a Liberal or because I barrack for Carlton.”

In the state budget, the coalition allocated $200,000 to Christian group Access Ministries for its school chaplains program.

Access Ministries’ volunteers also deliver religious instruction in Victorian public schools during class time. Parents have to opt their children out of religious instruction if they don’t want them involved.

Two weeks ago, Mr Dixon announced a departmental investigation into Access Ministries after it was revealed its chief executive Evonne Paddison told a conference in 2008 to “go and make disciples” in schools.

The investigation is ongoing.

Calls for a review of the way religious instruction is delivered in schools are coming from a range of quarters, including Melbourne Grammar School senior chaplain the Reverend Ronald Noone, parent group Fairness in Religions in Schools and the Australian Education Union.

Three families that have opted their children out of religious instruction have lodged a discrimination complaint against the Department of Education.

The case is scheduled fora directions hearing before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Complaints Tribunal on June 6, with the families arguing religious instruction should be on an opt in basis and be timetabled outside normal school hours.

In their complaint, which was originally made to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, the parents said their children were not provided with any alternative instruction while sitting out of religion classes and felt excluded from their peers and upset.

One prep student told her mother: “If you don’t believe in God, you’re not real.”

Another was told by a fellow student he would go to hell because he didn’t believe in God.

Mr Dixon said although he acknowledges some parents are concerned, the overwhelming majority are comfortable with the status quo and a review is not on his agenda.

“It’s not a priority – there are a lot of other things that are far more important that are on my plate,” he said.

Along with Catholicism, early education has played a large role in Mr Dixon’s career, as a former teacher and principal at several primary schools.

“I really believe in the early foundations,” he said.

“The earlier years are the really important ones because that’s where the biggest differences can be made and the most proactive work can be done.”

Many of the coalition’s headline education commitments involve primary education, including 150 extra primary welfare officers and 100 extra specialist maths and science teachers.

But the government has yet to lay out a plan for secondary education.

In the state budget, the government delivered on an election promise to boost spending on Catholic and independent schools by $240 million over the next four years.

The move lifts state government funding of students to one quarter of their government school counterparts.

The government also allocated $2.5 million over four years for 25 school specialisation grants for areas including robotics, multi-media and fashion.

Mr Dixon said he wants to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach in secondary education.

He said it was important schools be given the freedom to tailor academic programs to their needs and explore partnerships with local businesses and industry.

“In the last 10 years a lot of the change has been driven from the department into the schools,” Mr Dixon said.

“We’re looking for schools to form true partnerships with business.

“It’s not the token business person on the school council … I mean a real partnership.”

Mr Dixon nominates logistics businesses in Melbourne’s western suburbs as an example where industry could play a larger role in the direction of education.

He said he would explain the government’s “vision” for secondary education to schools, teachers and parents in the second half of this year.

It will be interesting to see how he is received as the government prepares to thrash out a new enterprise bargaining agreement with the union.

Before the election, Premier Ted Baillieu promised to make Victoria’s teachers the highest paid in the nation.

That would require a pay rise of more than eight per cent.

Now, Mr Baillieu says the government won’t offer any increase above 2.5 per cent without increased productivity.

“We want a system where teachers feel they’re valued, where they get professional recognition for the great work that they do,” Mr Dixon said.

“They need to be trusted and they need to feel free to innovate and to achieve excellence.”

Source: AAP News Limited.