The Facts

Special Religious Instruction (SRI), which includes the ACCESS Ministries’ Christian Religious Education (CRE) program, is offered at many Government (public) schools in Victoria. Parents and schools commonly have misconceptions regarding the Special Religious Instruction objectives and curriculum and how it is delivered.

There are many comprehensive articles on how inappropriate SRI in public schools, including this, this, and this one. The following 15 min. exploration of the issue of Special Religious Instruction in Victoria is also worth watching for a quick introduction to the issue:

This page outlines the FACTS about Special Religious Instruction so that parents can make an informed decision before allowing their children to receive instruction.

Special Religious Instruction DOES NOT teach children about different religions

Special Religious Instruction is not, as many people believe, the teaching of comparative religions or religious history.

Special Religious Instruction DOES NOT educate children about religion or religions and does not help develop understanding about different religious and non-religious traditions. It does not encourage children to question or critique religious beliefs.

Special Religious Instruction is the preaching of the beliefs and tenets of one particular religion to young and impressionable children, away from their families.

Special Religious Instruction is being used by church groups to reach children to promote their religious beliefs. It is a form of indoctrination.

The most common form of Special Religious Instruction is Christian Religious Instruction (CRE) delivered by ACCESS Ministries volunteers.

The CEO of ACCESS Ministries, Evonne Paddison, has said:

In Australia we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples.

Some schools offer Special Religious Instruction in other religions (Catholic, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, Bahá’í or Hare Krishna), but this is much less common. Unlike ACCESS Ministries, organisations offering alternate forms of Special Religious Instruction receive no Government support or funding to help them.

Special Religious Instruction IS NOT needed to teach children values

The purpose of Special Religious Instruction is NOT to educate children in values.

‘Values’ are an integral part of the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS), and are taught to ALL children in Government schools as part of their normal learning.

Our values as a society do not depend on any one religion, and one of the core beliefs of Australia’s society is that anyone, regardless of their religion, can be Australian.

The ‘values’ that are taught to ALL children in Government schools are based upon tolerance and diversity and are universal and accessible, regardless of a child’s cultural or religious background. The assumption that these values originate from a particular religious doctrine, or that children need religion to have values, is wrong.

A secular school system DOES NOT need to outsource ‘values education’ to volunteer religious instructors.

Special Religious Instruction IS NOT taught by teachers

Special Religious Instruction in Victoria is taught by volunteers who receive as little as one day’s training.

Volunteers who deliver the agreed Christian syllabus, ‘Religion in Life’, are accredited through ACCESS Ministries, and are usually members of one of the twelve Churches who support Access Ministries. Many of these people are deeply religious and evangelical.

Special Religious Instruction IS NOT ‘education’

Special Religious Instruction is ‘instruction’, not ‘education’. It preaches to young, impressionable children and encourages them to follow one religion and instructs them in what to believe (not to learn about it, but to FOLLOW it).

Some ACCESS Ministries volunteers see themselves as modern-day missionaries with an assignment to convert children to their beliefs.

Parents have experienced difficulty in finding out exactly what their children are taught by ACCESS Ministries. There is some information on their website, but not much detail.

We do know that children are taught:

  • God made everything – (i.e. Creationism). (Unit 4, Sessions 1-4, Launch Red1)
  • God is strong like a rock. (Unit 3, Session 3, Launch Red1)
  • We can talk to God. (Unit 3, Session 4, Launch Red1)

Children as young as 4 years old are being taught to recite devotional music from the official Access Ministries CD distributed to class volunteers. Songs include My God Is So Big, Creation Rap and God Made Cows. Listen to the songs or read the lyrics and try to identify the educational message.

Another song taught to Prep students from the ACCESS Ministries teacher book is called The Best Book To Read by Colin Buchanan. This song tells children that the best book is the Bible. The lyrics recite:

Oh… The best book to read is the Bible, The best book to read is the Bible, If you read it everyday, It will help you on your way, Oh…. The best book to read is the Bible.

It is possible for children in Government schools to learn about religions. Victorian legislation allows Government school teachers to teach General Religious Education as part of the curriculum. General Religious Education means education about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world. However, it is rarely taught in Government schools.

In contrast, over 120,000 Victorian school children receive instruction in the Christian religion each week.

This is wrong. School is for learning through enquiry, not indoctrination.

Special Religious Instruction DIVIDES our children

Special Religious Instruction imposes an unwelcome element of division and tension in Government schools where none should exist.

Special Religious Instruction in Government schools can be difficult for families of minority religions as well as families that believe that religion is a private and personal issue, and any religious instruction should be a family matter.

Special Religious Instruction takes place during normal class time. If parents do not want their child to participate, the child is removed from the class and separated from their classmates.

Many parents let their child participate in Special Religious Instruction because they don’t want them to feel left out. As a result, it is often only children from families of minority religions that are excluded.

Some schools run Special Religious Instruction sessions in several different religions at the same time. In these schools, students are separated into groups from different religions and from families who are not religious. This encourages division based on religious beliefs and teaches the wrong message to children.

Special Religious Instruction IS NOT compulsory

If a parent does not want their child to participate in Special Religious Instruction, the child can be removed from the class.

Many families feel that removing their children from Special Religious Instruction could effectively punish the child and makes them feel like outsiders.

However, Departmental policy directs that schools that offer Special Religious Instruction must ensure that students who do not attend Special Religious Instruction are appropriately supervised by teachers, and engaged in positive, independent learning such as self-study, including revision or other activities, for example, community service, peer mentoring, participation in clubs or instruction in areas outside the core curriculum.

Some schools are reluctant to make the alternatives known to families as it is more convenient for the school and teachers if all children participate in Special Religious Instruction sessions.

If you choose ‘no’ you have the right to insist that your child is appropriately engaged while their classmates participate in Special Religious Instruction.

96% of Special Religious Instruction is Christian instruction delivered by ACCESS Ministries

ACCESS Ministries is the largest provider of Special Religious Instruction in Victoria. They currently provide 96% of SRI, with ACCESS Ministries volunteers running classes in 850 of the State’s 1300 government primary schools.

They refer to it as Christian Religious Education or CRE.

It is possible for children to receive Catholic, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, Bahá’í and Hare Krishna instruction, however there are few schools that offer anything apart from Christian instruction, and children from minority religion families seldom – if ever – receive instruction in their religion.

There are no instruction options for children from non-religious families.

Special Religious Instruction in its current form is not representative of the multi denominational society in which we live.

ACCESS Ministries’ provision of Special Religious Instruction has been controversial

There have been several recent controversies relating to ACCESS Ministries provision of Special Religious Instruction:

  • Accusations of negligible training to provide education services. Volunteers complete just six hours of initial formal training before teaching CRE to children compared to the one to four years of training required for teachers.
  • A statement by the CEO of Access Ministries that “we need to go and make disciples”, which is directly against government regulations which prohibits evangelising in schools.
  • Providing a comic book for school students which was interpreted as suggesting that teachers were either too lazy or callous to help them unless God intervenes.
  • Christine Burford of ACCESS Ministries gave a speech at Access Sunday on May 2011, and talked about “God’s hand within and across our schools” and declares “it is not always overt, it can be covert”.
  • In December 2012 complaints were made that ACCESS Ministries was teaching children unscientific creationist songs, and that these songs, which had nothing to do with Christmas, were replacing Christmas carols at school Christmas events.
  • Through the years there has been incident after incident with the program offered by ACCESS Ministries and volunteers, from teaching that dinosaurs didn’t exist to providing inappropriate and sex tips for kids to voicing strong homophobic and discriminatory remarks, check some of them herehere, here, and here.

The Wikipedia article on ACCESS Ministries provides more information (except when whitewashed). Also refer to what they have said in their own words.

Not all religious leaders support SRI

The Uniting Church declined to vote on a proposal to continue supporting ACCESS Ministries. Instead, they decided to form a new task group to discuss how to best teach Christian education. The results are not yet known.

Other religious leaders, such as Reverend Dr Ronald Noone the Chaplain at Melbourne Grammar School, Melbourne’s most prestigious Anglican school, have been outspoken in speaking against Special Religious Instruction in its current form. Read  The Age “Chaplain joins religion row” article and his ABC article here on how religious instruction “should be confined to settings like parish churches and confirmation classes” and that “state school classroom is not the place for conversion or proselytising.” Also read

Anglican Father Craig D’Alton, who taught SRI at North Melbourne Primary School, said he felt he was in the classroom under false pretences and argued that “Christianity is not something that’s ever going to work in the community if we are forcing it on people.” Read media coverage on that here.

While Government policy says that schools MUST make curriculum time available to Special Religious Instruction volunteers, since 2013 schools can choose not to

Whereas the EDUCATION AND TRAINING REFORM ACT 2006 states in its clause 2.2.11, item 1, that:

“Special religious instruction may be given in a Government school in accordance with this section”

the Victoria Department of Education and early Childhood Development have mysteriously interpreted “may be given” as “must be given”, thus forcing public primary schools to run SRI (mostly Christian) education classes taught by volunteers. Because of that, under the Department’s SRI guidelines, principals must “arrange for the provision of SRI where an accredited and approved instructor is available”

The only explanation behind this strange interpretation of “may” was provided in a sequence of email exchanges with a parent; a report on this issue and those email exchanges can be found on this article.

HOWEVER, in late 2013, senior executives at the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development stated that they will no longer be enforcing the direction in the Special Religious Instruction guidelines that principals must make curriculum time available to Special Religious Instruction volunteers. This means that schools can refuse to allow ACCESS Ministries or other providers of Special Religious Instruction into the school. As a matter of fact, the number of schools delivering an SRI program have dropped from 940 in 2011 to 666 – a drop of almost 30% in just two years; see articles on this here and here.

The Australian Education Union does not support Special Religious Instruction during school hours

The Australian Education Union has passed a resolution calling for Special Religious Instruction to be run outside of normal school hours.

You can also listen here to then President of AEU on how SRI should be run outside school hours in a proper opt-in basis.

In 2014, the Australian Education Union produced a member advice stating: “We encourage all principals to work with their school communities and school councils to ensure that SRI is not delivered in government.”

Parents Victoria does not support Special Religious Instruction during school hours

Parents Victoria represents parent associations and the collective voice of parents in Victorian Government schools.

At its Annual General Meeting in 2012, Parents Victoria endorsed the motion passed by the Victorian Branch of the Australian Education Union and joined teachers in calling for Special Religious Instruction to be moved outside of the normal school day.

Education in Government schools must not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect

The current system of Special Religious Instruction uses the authority of the Victorian Department of Education to facilitate church ministry in schools.

But it hasn’t always been this way:

  • From 1870 until 1950, Victoria led the western world in offering a comprehensive system of secular education through its Government schools.
  • In 1950, legislation was changed to enable some religious instruction and education in Victoria government schools after an agreement was struck between religious lobbies and a strongly conservative Government with majorities in both houses.

In more recent years, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development adopted a policy that grants ACCESS Ministries privileged official status as an accrediting and administrative body and has made them the default provider of religious instruction in Victoria.

By actively encouraging ACCESS Ministries, the Department is now effectively privileging and promoting a particular group of Protestant Christians over other religious denominations.

There are many parents across Australia actively campaigning against Special Religious Instruction during school hours

FIRIS stands for Fairness In Religions In School.

FIRIS is a parent-driven grassroots campaign, committed to working for inclusive education about religions in school. We believe that churches have no right to set curriculum policy, and that Special Religious Instruction is contrary to the principles of state education. We support education about religion that is consistent with Australia’s multicultural character and believe that families can be trusted to attend to the religious formation of their children. Our goal is to change the way children currently experience religion in Victorian Government schools.

You CAN take a stand against Special Religious Instruction being taught during school hours

  1. Say ‘no’ to your child participating in Special Religious Instruction.
  2. Sign up to the FIRIS email list and receive updates on our campaign.
  3. Share how you feel about Special Religious Instruction with your friends and other families and recommend that they join you in taking a stand.
  4. Write to your school council and/or principal and express your opinion.
  5. Lobby your member of parliament and Martin Dixon, Minister for Education.