All posts by Seb

Principals and Ministerial Direction MD141

Here in FIRIS-land we appreciate the lengths the Department of Education has gone to in handing greater autonomy to principals when it comes to making decisions about SRI, even if UJEB and ACCESS Ministries believe that principals are there to serve SRI providers and not students.

Because of Ministerial Direction 141 (MD141) principals now bear full responsibility for the decision to approve SRI.

If you’ve been paying attention you will know that principals can reject SRI if the school cannot meet the various resource requirements. Some scenarios are clearly spelled out in Clause 6(7) of MD141.

But tellingly, principals must ensure that information, ideas, opinions or beliefs communicated to students and written material distributed to students must not contradict the school’s values, curriculum, an applicable law, or Department policies or guidelines (Clause 10(1)).

What this means in practice is that every principal who approves ACCESS Ministries to conduct SRI at their school is saying that there is no contradiction between ACCESS Ministries’ material and the approved school curriculum, the school’s values, or DEECD policies or guidelines. 

This might include ideas such as biological evolution instead of creationism; inclusiveness instead of religious segregation; or ACCESS’ frequently-violated agreement with the DEECD not to proselytise. Or ACCESS volunteers’ contractual agreement not to present statements of belief as fact, an agreement that ACCESS Ministries’ “Religion in Life” SRI materials forces volunteers to contravene, to date with zero Departmental consequences except more annual grants to carry out more transgressions.

FIRIS would like to thank the Department of Education because when we showed you the two independent reviews of ACCESS Ministries curriculum, you listened.

When we showed you that the ACCESS Ministries material is “low level busy work” you heard. When we told you that there is already sufficient “values” education in AusVELS you made sure that any reasonable principal could reject SRI.

Indeed, many such reasonable principals have now exercised their educational judgment and professionalism to put their students first, and have canned SRI.

So what’s the principal’s excuse if they haven’t?

FREE, COMPULSORY AND SECULAR – Peter Garrett, former Education Minister

This week, former Education Minister Bronwyn Pike, reversed her opinion about religion in schools. Now, former Minister of Education Peter Garrett, has done the same thing. FIRIS is feeling like the long slog making the argument that our secular education system is precious, has paid off.

Do you think there could be an outbreak of Higinbotham Awards?

In his recent review “Free, compulsory, and secular” of Prof. Maddox’s book “Taking God to School ”, Garrett says:

Taking God to School also focuses on the schools chaplains program initiated by the Howard government and continued and enlarged by the Rudd/Gillard governments. I became responsible for this program in 2010, and can confirm Maddox’s fear that the line between chaplains acting to support students in the provision of general pastoral care and proselytising was too easily crossed.

The program was voluntary both for schools and for students. It was also extremely popular, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the Queensland floods, where services were stretched and demands increased on schools to provide support for affected students. Nevertheless, the umbilical cord between churches with their mission to evangelise and chaplain providers who shared this same commitment required significant guideline changes to ensure chaplains did not overstep the mark.

The decision I took to open up the program to non-chaplains and lift the qualification requirements was based on concerns around this issue and some few cases of chaplains breaching existing guidelines. But I also wanted to widen the opportunities for non-religious support staff to come into schools and help students and teachers dealing with specific challenges that were holding back their learning, as was the case for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and for kids recently arrived from parts of the world mired in conflict. Again, the recent budget saw this decision reversed, which means that some schools and students will not get the kind of support they deserve, simply because they do not wish to embrace the chaplaincy model.

Read Garrett’s full “Free, compulsory, and secular” review of Maddox’s book and the media coverage here.

A big win in FIRIS campaign: New SRI Policy


FIRIS announces another large gain in our campaign to end SRI in Victoria.

The new policy just released, via Ministerial Direction 141 (linked as PDF) is not everything we wanted, but it has major concessions and amounts to a major defeat for SRI providers, who have depended on bullying schools and tricking parents.

The new policy contains significant clarifications as to what will no longer going to be tolerated as side effects of SRI, namely maltreatment of children not taking SRI, and lying to parents about what SRI consists of. The new policy directs schools to say no to SRI providers if they are not able to meet their obligations to care for our kids. Specifically this policy puts an end to the practice of sitting kids in the hall, putting them in closets and sticking them ‘up the back’, so unless a school has extra teachers to cover the division of the class into religious “factions” the school must stop segregation per this policy, that is a long over due clarification. The other thing this policy does is bring sunshine. In the past no parent could possibly understand that SRI was a devotional exercise run by a volunteer from the local church – now this has to be clearly stated and communicated EVERY YEAR. Not just when you enroll in prep.

FIRIS has found that once parents understand what SRI is, that they “vote with their feet”today’s policy, while not the ideological victory we are seeking, does address complaints and it will reduce the harmful effects that SRI has on our schools because it raises the requirements that schools must comply with, and it brings more transparency. We can and will continue to push our objectives, but today we have further rolled back SRI by getting the Minister to make policy that allows schools much more latitude to say no, and will mean that schools who say yes can not disregarding their duty of care for our kids. These are significant changes brought on by our campaign.

The staff at DEECD are stuck between an cynical political arrangement which is controlled by interests who don’t care about kids … so they are trying their best to make ruled to protect the kids, since the legislature won’t. You can choose to see this as a glass half full, or half empty. We see it as fewer schools with SRI – and therefore a win.

Here is the entire policy:

Here is some questions regarding the new policy:

Some of the key points of new policy:

  • Directs and allows schools to not provide SRI program if the school does not have sufficient resources to meet the obligations, including space and teaching staff resources (clause 6.7).
  • The school must have the resources to provide TWO teachers at the time SRI is delivered: one teacher supervising the students taking the SRI program and another different teacher supervising the group not taking SRI.
  • Principal must ensure that the program delivered for SRI is available for parents to access in online format (clause 8.1.b).
  • Principal must ensure that nothing provided by the SRI program (including material, ideas, information, or opinions or beliefs) do not contradict the school’s values and curriculum (clause 10.1).
  • Teachers are responsible of reporting any suspected breach of policy to the principal.
  • SRI instructors cannot participate as an SRI instructor in any other school activity other than the SRI program.
  • Information must be provided to every parent in relation to SRI, including an overview of the program provided and instructions on how to obtain the material used in SRI program online.

You can read the media coverage in The Age “Future of religious instruction in schools depends on teacher supervision”

That’s Me in the Corner, by Duncan Willis

If you read one essay on Special Religious Instruction, read this one:

That’s me in the Corner – Farrago, University of Melbourne Student Magazine 

It is written by a student, Duncan Willis, who speaks from both his personal experience, and also as a journalist by presenting the arguments of various sides.

Parents slam religious ‘segregation’ – THE AGE, 1ST MARCH 2012, BY JEWEL TOPSFIELD AND CRAIG BUTT.

Read the original article by clicking here

CONTROVERSIAL religious instruction classes are three times more likely to be taught at government primary schools in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs than in the ethnically diverse west.

The Victorian Education Department forces primary schools to run the classes if an accredited religious instructor is available, although parents can choose to opt their children out.

However, a survey by lobby group Fairness in Religions in School reveals only 28 per cent of schools in Melbourne’s west provide special religious instruction, compared with more than 87 per cent of schools in the eastern suburbs.


The survey comes as three parents today commence legal action in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, alleging that the Education Department segregates children on religious grounds and discriminates against those whom parents opt out of the classes.

One of the parents, Sophie Aitken, says in her complaint her children were put in the corridor or given Lego to play with when she opted them out of special religious instruction at Ivanhoe East Primary.

”I am troubled by this segregation and the limitations it causes my children … Once [my son] was told by another child that he would go to hell because he didn’t believe in God,” she says.

Yarraville West Primary is one of 71 state primary schools in Melbourne’s western suburbs that does not offer special religious instruction.

School council president Lisel Thomas says the school is relieved it has never been approached by an accredited instructor and therefore is not compelled to hold the classes under the contentious Victorian legislation. ”We have raised the issue of how we would feel if we were approached and basically told we had to deliver special religious instruction without us having a choice in the matter and that certainly concerned our school council,” Ms Thomas said. ”We have children from a number of different religious backgrounds. We believe it is important for children to stay together and learn together rather than being segregated on the basis of their religious belief.”

About 96 per cent of special religious instruction in Victoria is provided by Christian organisation Access Ministries, whose volunteers run the classes in 850 of the state’s 1300 government primary schools.

Access Ministries CEO Evonne Paddison said the VCAT hearing had been brought on by a ”small, secularist group, predominantly inner-urban, who want to impose their views on the rest of the community”.

”Their claim that special religious instruction forces religion on children is a myth designed to scare the community,” Dr Paddison said. ”Special religious instruction enjoys broad community support.”

The Fairness in Religions in School survey found 311 primary schools in Melbourne held Christian classes, 53 offered a choice of Christianity or another religion, five offered a non-Christian option only and 216 did not hold the classes.

Monash University sociology professor Gary Bouma was unsurprised by the survey’s findings. He said while schools in the eastern suburbs had a long history of providing special religious instruction, the resistance movement, spearheaded by Fairness in Religions in School, was also coming out of the eastern suburbs. ”As British Protestantism recedes in hegemony within Australia, rising in voice are some of the non-religious voices saying this stuff has no place in our schools.”

Access Ministries spokeswoman Denise Nicholls said religious instruction was run by locals. She said she expected programs run by other faith providers to increase in the culturally diverse western suburbs if their communities requested it, which was ”entirely appropriate”.

Lisel newspaper


Let us get God out of the classroom – The Age, 4 April 2011 by Jewel Topsfield

Jewel Topsfield is the education editor for The Age. Her new article ‘Let us get God out of the classroom’ has once again pointed readers to our group. We welcome your stories, feedback and support.

The most telling section of the article was a response from Professor Gary Bouma, an Anglican priest at Saint John’s church in East Malvern and the UNESCO chairman in Interreligious and Intercultural Relations. He described the curriculum developed by Access Ministries as appalling. ”Now, unfortunately, most of the Christians out there trying to train the next generation are putting them off with the kind of crap they serve,” he said.

This is an issue that is not about Humanism, it is about fairness and equality. It is about ensuring our children are not separated according to creed in our public schools. This includes both religious parents and non-religious parents.

And don’t forget to read down to the many comments which are very favourable of our message.


Backlash as God forced into schools – The Age, 27 March 2011 by Michael Bachelard

THE Victorian Education Department is forcing public primary schools to run Christian education classes taught by volunteers, angering parents and schools that do not want to host them.

An email exchange, obtained by The Sunday Age, reveals the department told one parent that his school ”must” keep its Christian religious instructor whether it wanted to or not.

A number of Melbourne primary schools have questioned whether students should be taught about Christianity. But the department and Christian religious education provider Access Ministries says they have no choice.

This comes as the Humanist Society of Victoria takes legal action against the department, claiming children who opt out of ”special religious instruction” are being discriminated against.