Religion in schools not just a matter of faith
Children deserve a multi-belief education.
STUDENTS at independent schools have rarely been described in such terms. ”Those poor independent schoolchildren – I don’t want them to miss out,” declared Evonne Paddison, chief executive of Access Ministries. Of course, Dr Paddison was talking about spiritual needs, rather than monetary. Her Christian group, which teaches the contentious religious education program in government schools, has ambitions to expand into the independent school sector, part of a five-year ”mission” to become the top provider of Christian religious education across all schools. That their students were missing out on religious instruction would come as a surprise to many independent schools, most of which are faith-based. As Michelle Green, head of Independent Schools Victoria rightly noted, the ”mission” by Access Ministries demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is already happening in the independent sector. And parents who have chosen non-church schools have often done so for precisely that reason – a desire for a secular education for their children.
It would be easy to dismiss this latest push by Access Ministries as simply a well-intentioned, if slightly naive venture. Yet it again serves to remind us that there is an important public debate to be had on the place of religious instruction in our schools, and the role that Access Ministries is playing in the education of our children. In recent months, there has been deserved attention on the Christian instruction being provided in government schools by Access Ministries. One of the basic tenets of the Victorian Education Act is that public education should be secular, a sentiment that first emerged in the 19th century, and was reaffirmed in the past decade when the act was reviewed. There are those who have argued that it means there should be no religious content in public schools, although The Age believes that religion and ethics should be part of a rounded understanding of society.
What is of concern is the type of instruction being delivered. In Victoria, 96 per cent of special religious instruction is provided by volunteers from Access Ministries. There are the underlying issues that instruction is by volunteers, rather than professional teachers, and that it is based on a conservative, narrow approach. More disturbing is the suggestion that some volunteers are trying to convert children. In May, The Agereported that Dr Paddison had told a 2008 conference: ”We need to go and make disciples.” Despite that rallying call to proselytise, the group has denied that its volunteers try to convert students. The revelation led to both state and federal governments announcing they would investigate the issue. Yet two months on, there has been no public sign of action. The system in Victoria is deeply flawed. While the act allows for the the provision of special religious education, the Education Department appears to have taken a narrow view that schools must provide religious education if approached by a group such as Access Ministries. There is also the questionable requirement that parents need to have their children ”opt out” of the classes, when the reverse should be the case.
Access Ministries argues that it has been under ”concerted attack”, perhaps an understandable reaction from a faith-based organisation that is being subjected to a public examination. But this discussion is not just about the activities of one group; rather, it is about the wider place of religious instruction in public schools. If the starting point is a secular system, then surely there is a responsibility to ensure students are exposed to a range of beliefs. In a contemporary multi-faith society, a visit to a church should rank alongside a visit to a mosque or synagogue. The end result will be a better informed, more tolerant Australia.