by: Sophie Aitken

There has been considerable discussion in recent times about the current practices in Victoria in relation to religious instruction in our State school system.  In a majority of State primary schools normal curriculum classes cease for half an hour each week so that Christian Scripture classes can be run by volunteers from ACCESS ministries.  Children who do not attend these Scripture classes are separated from their classmates (variously put at the back of the room, in another classroom or in the corridor).

Although 96% of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) are Christian, occasionally another faith group will run SRI classes (such as Jewish, Baha’i or Muslim). When these alternatives are offered they are often run at the same time as normal curriculum classes, so to access them the children have to miss out on other school lessons. This is in contrast to the arrangements for the Christian lessons, when all other lessons must cease, so that the Christian children are not disadvantaged.

Apart from the clearly discriminatory nature of the current practice, where those who opt out of Scripture classes miss out on well over 100 hours of their primary education, another issue of concern is the impact that segregating children based on their religion has in promoting stereotypes and fuelling prejudice.

Insights from the social psychology literature inform us that from a very young age children are motivated to see the groups to which they belong as positive, and as distinct from the groups to which they do not belong.  This preference for their own group members can lead to prejudice and stereotyping of the out-group, when certain conditions are present.

One such condition occurs when adults organise the environment around the group status.  That is, by separating children based on these differences, the adults highlight the group differences and create an environment in which prejudice is more likely to occur.  By allowing our schools to visibly separate children based on their religious beliefs we are creating just such an environment.

Further, if adults imply that certain characteristics are associated with certain groups, stereotyping becomes more likely.  The implication for the children sitting in Scripture classes learning about how Christians are good, and God loves them, while their non-Christian classmates sit visibly apart, is that non Christians are no ‘good’. We hear stories of school children being told by classmates that they will not go to Heaven if they do not believe in God, highlighting the beginnings of this stereotyping as a result of SRI.

Finally, young children have been shown to develop prejudice when members of the “other” group are noticeably excluded by adults. By excluding non-Christian children from classes (which often involve colouring, singing and lollies) in such an obvious way, we are teaching children that exclusion based on religion is justified.

So, those conditions which have been found to promote stereotyping and prejudice in children are precisely those that we allow to occur during SRI in our State Primary Schools.

The solution to this problem is simple. If we cease the practice of separating young children based on their family’s religion we can reduce the potential for such destructive attitudes to develop. By keeping all children in the class together we provide them with a common in-group and provide them with the message that they are all of equal value, regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds. Education about different religions should be taught to the class group as a whole, so developing understanding between groups without creating division.

As we move towards a more multi-cultural society we must ensure that our primary schools provide an environment which promotes cohesion rather than prejudice, and so pave the way towards a more harmonious society in the future.

Ref: Dweck, C.S. (2009) Prejudice: How it Develops and How it Can Be Undone Human Development, Vol 52, pp.371-376.