Students who pass on religion win fight
August 26, 2011Comments 43
PARENTS have claimed a victory in the dispute over teaching religion in schools, with the Education Department changing controversial guidelines so that students who opt out of the classes must now be given meaningful activities.
Sophie Aitken, one of three parents who have taken legal action against the department on the grounds the classes are discriminatory, said the changes represented a win for parents.
The new policy says principals must ensure students who do not attend are appropriately supervised by teachers and engaged in “positive, independent learning such as self-study”.
It says this could include revision, community service, peer mentoring, participation in clubs or instruction in areas outside the core curriculum.
The changes come after complaints that children who opted out were not allowed to do other school work and some were forced to sit at the back of the class, or were unsupervised in corridors while religious instruction was taught.
Previously the guidelines simply stated that secular instruction could not be timetabled while students from the class were attending special religious instruction.
Ms Aitken said one of her sons was once forbidden to work on an assignment while the rest of the class did special religious instruction at Ivanhoe East Primary. Another son was put in the corridor and given free time. However, Ms Aitken said the new policy did not address the fundamental problem of children being segregated on the basis of their religious heritage.
“That’s the part I think is really divisive and harmful to kids,” Ms Aitken said.
The changes come midway through Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal proceedings, lodged by parents who claim the Education Department policy discriminates against those who opt out because it segregates children on religious grounds.
Holding Redlich partner Andrea Tsalamandris, who is representing the parents, said the new guidelines were potentially a positive step. However, she said they relied upon significant resources within schools to enable other activities to be offered and for these to be supervised. The parents involved in the VCAT case, to be heard on December 12, will argue that the religious education classes should be moved to outside school hours.
The Education Department has also changed the consent forms which ask parents to indicate whether they wanted their child to participate in religious instruction.
Previously, if a response was not received within 14 days, a child would automatically be put into the class. The form no longer expressly states this.
Fairness in Religions in School spokesman Scott Hedges said the consent form was horribly misleading. “You can’t tell from this form that your child is going to be put in a class run by a religious volunteer who is going to instruct them in how to pray, and sing songs like “God is better than Beer” and “The Lord is My Shepherd”, he said.
Education Minister Martin Dixon said he still hadn’t received a specific complaint about a child running around in the corridor unsupervised.
“There’s no change to the regulations, it’s just making more clear what the responsibilities are to the school,” he said.
“I wanted to reassure parents whose children aren’t taking part and make it crystal clear to schools there is a responsibility for meaningful use of time.”