School claims bullying over religious education

Michael Bachelard
June 19, 2011 – 12:00AM

THE Education Department has warned a Hawthorn primary school council not to survey parents about religious instruction because to do so would be “provocative”.

The department’s student well-being division, which enforces the law requiring schools to run “special religious instruction” where it is offered, last week tried to clamp down on debate at Hawthorn West Primary School.

It also sent schools in the eastern region a suggested statement for their newsletters, urging school councils not to seek parents’ views on the subject.

Whether parents liked it or not, the requirement to offer religious instruction would not change ”unless there is a change to the act,” the statement said.

The council of Hawthorn West Primary School has been running a review trying to assess parents’ views of the 30 minutes of religious instruction offered by church volunteers on Wednesday afternoons. The final part of the review was a survey of parents.

School council member John Bornas said the department’s eastern region director, Jeremy Beard, phoned the night before the survey was to be published and asked the council to delay it.

Council members were then called to a meeting last week during which Mr Beard and the head of the student well-being division, Denis Torpy, told them that issuing the survey would be ”provocative”, and that it seemed to be part of a political campaign against religious education. They said the survey was beyond the powers of a school council.

“Their main concern was that the school was being used as a vehicle for lobbying for legislative change, which is not true,” Mr Bornas said.

“We have not at any stage said that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to garner opinion of our school community to see what the options are. At the moment, from the department’s point of view, we’re not able to ask that, which is what I find astounding.”

At the same time, without the school council’s knowledge, the department put a notice in the school newsletter saying parents and community members could only canvass opinions “independent of the school”, and they were then ”free to express these [views] directly to members of Parliament”.

School council co-president Tim Heasley said the department was “bullying the school and the school council” and “riding roughshod over all the legislative power and rights a school council has”. The council still planned to issue the survey next week.

A department spokeswoman said the council had not been prevented from issuing its survey but added that ”the department does not endorse it”.

”The survey withheld the fact that under the present legislation schools are obligated to offer special religious instruction when it is made available by providers,” she said. ”What we have asked is that the school council remember its obligation to ensure the school complies with the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 … and that it respects the views of the entire school community and maintains a constructive working relationship with the department.”

The spokeswoman did not answer questions about whether the department was acting under instructions from the minister or under pressure from Christian religious education provider Access Ministries.

Access Ministries declined to comment.

The Education Act empowers a school council “to inform itself and take into account any views of the school community for the purpose of making decisions,” Mr Heasley said.

Education union secretary Mary Bluett said she was “amazed at the interference of the department in the operations of the school council”.

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