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The main provider of Christian instruction in Victorian government schools contacted primary principals this week in an attempt to assert its right to deliver religious education.
Faced with general declining interest in special religious instruction, leading chaplaincy organisation Access Ministries sent a ”clarification” email to all schools offering the program, while disputing its decline in popularity.
Education Department figures, based on school census data, show the number of schools taking part in religious instruction dropped by almost a third in two years – from 940 in 2011 to 666 in 2013.
Access Ministries chief executive Evonne Paddison, however, rejects the figures, saying the group taught religion in 780 of the state’s schools last year.
The relevant section of the Education and Training Reform Act of 2006, however, in no way obligates schools to deliver religious instruction. The act notes only that religious instruction ”may” be given in a government school. The confusion for principals arises in conflicting Education Department guidelines that principals ”must” arrange for religious instruction when accredited and approved instructors are available.
Education Minister Martin Dixon acknowledged the confusion on Friday.
”To put the issue beyond doubt I have requested a ministerial direction be drafted, which will be available shortly,” Mr Dixon said. ”This direction will be consistent with the settled understanding of the Parliament in 2006 and the recent clarification that religious instruction is to operate on an opt-in basis. In the interim I trust all principals to work within the long-established guidelines regarding provision of religious instruction in Victorian schools.”
The Education Department contacted all schools on Friday afternoon to point out that the guidelines and prescriptive advice have not changed.
And yet the guidelines offer principals a way out of allowing religious instruction with principals instructed by the department to offer it when they can meet their duty of care: ”i.e. where there are sufficient staff to supervise students who are undertaking religious instruction as well as those who are not.”
How to productively and safely occupy children who do not want religious instruction has been a long-running problem, and one gaining in importance as more students opt out.
Between 2011 and 2013, following introduction of ”opt-in” enrolment forms, the number of children enrolled in religious instruction classes fell by one third, from 130,100 to 92,808.
Gabrielle Leigh, president of the Victorian Principals Association, said this presented a significant problem, because schools were not permitted to teach the regular curriculum to some students while others took part in religious instruction.
”Sometimes, from the principal’s perspective, it’s quite hard to manage if half the grade has permission and half doesn’t,” Ms Leigh said. ”It can be a difficult logistical challenge.”
Gail McHardy, executive officer at Parents Victoria, said her organisation had petitioned the government to remove religious instruction from school hours without success, because of this exact problem. ”We believe the teaching of a particular religion should be a family responsibility, not that of the school,” she said.