A couple of weeks ago my kids came home from school (a local state primary) with a letter asking whether I would like them to undertake Special Religious Instruction (SRI). No, I wouldn’t, I told the school – three times in heavily circled biro. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question and every time it really, really annoys me.
So this year I thought I would undertake a little research of my own about SRI; about what goes on in other schools and about how other parents have dealt with this issue. To start with I looked at the legislation that governs this area, the Education and Training Reform Act (2006); section 2.2.10 Education in Government schools to be secular states that:
(1) Except as provided in section 2.2.11, education in Government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect.
(2) Sub-section (1) does not prevent the inclusion of general religious education in the curriculum of a Government school.
(3) A Government school teacher must not provide religious instruction other than the provision of general religious education in any Government school building.
(4) In this section “general religious education” means education about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world.
So, interestingly, the government draws a distinction between general and special religious education. It strikes me – and many people I’ve spoken to in recent weeks – that an understanding and awareness of the world’s major religions might be a very useful thing for our kids to learn, especially given the multi-faith society in which we live and the extent to which many of the world’s conflicts have their basis in religion. That, sadly, is not offered at my kids’ school – nor at many others – because we are required to have Special religious education. Section 2.2.11 of the act states:
(1) Special religious instruction may be given in a Government school in accordance with this section.
(2) If special religious instruction is given in a Government school during the hours set apart for the instruction of the students—
(a) the persons providing the special religious instruction must be persons who are accredited representatives of churches or other religious groups and who are approved by the Minister for the purpose;
(b) the special religious instruction must be given on the basis of the normal class organisation of the school…
(c) attendance for the special religious instruction is not to be compulsory for any student whose parents desire that he or she be excused from attending.
In practice, what all this means is that if an accredited provider – and in almost all cases this is Access Ministries – approaches your school and asks to deliver SRI, the school is legally obliged to comply with that request. Classes are normally half an hour long and must be provided within the normal timetable; they cannot be held before or after school.
Your child doesn’t have to attend those classes. Prior to 2011 the default position regarding SRI was that students undertook the classes unless they opted out. In 2011 DEECD changed its policy so that parents now have to ‘opt in’; specifically they have to complete a form at the beginning of the year and return it to the school stating their preference.
If your child doesn’t attend SRI however, they can only undertake activities that are ‘outside the core curriculum’; they aren’t allowed to do anything substantive because the students taking SRI will miss out. This means that, effectively, the curriculum – which we are regularly told is crammed full already – is suspended for half an hour a week so that some kids can go off and have religious instruction with a volunteer from Access Ministries.
So what do we know about these volunteers? Under the heading Become a Christian Religious Education ‘Teacher’ (my quotations) on the Access Ministries website it states: We regularly hold two day (my emphasis) sessions for Accreditation and Training of new and potential volunteer CRE teachers.
In order to become an accredited ‘teacher’ you have to have your application endorsed by a minister, complete a working with children check, observe a lesson, complete an assignment and familiarise yourself with the Access Ministries curriculum. And when you’ve done that – and attended the two day course – you can provide religious instruction to students in a state school. Hmm…it took me four years to become a qualified teacher.
Now, an entirely random survey of rainbow families in my email address book identified about 30 schools that don’t have SRI, and an article in The Age last week suggested that about a third of Victoria’s 1200 state primary schools don’t offer SRI. So this got me thinking – given that schools are legally obliged to offer it if Access Ministries come calling, why have some schools managed to avoid it, and why am I stuck with it?
I don’t really have any definitive answers to this question; I can only speculate. I presume that Access Ministries doesn’t call on schools where it perceives there will be very little take-up of SRI, either because the school is very multi-faith, or because historically the school has never offered SRI and is unlikely to start now, or because Access Ministries considers that the school community will be very resistant to the idea.
I know those schools that don’t offer it are keen to fly under the radar and it makes sense for them not to draw attention to themselves. And while the parents in those schools don’t have to worry about their own kids, they might well be concerned about what’s going on in the school up the road; it’s a pretty safe bet that SRI teaching doesn’t encompass diversity, openness or respect for difference. Somehow I don’t think rainbow families are getting a good rap.
So given that this system is well-entrenched and supported at both Federal and State level – and that a recent legal challenge was unsuccessful – it looks like we’re stuck with it, for a while at least. Plus, a big public campaign would inevitably draw attention to those schools that are quietly flying under the radar.
And then a few days ago I had an interesting conversation in the playground with one of the other mums that got me thinking. Jenny was brought up Catholic, she explained, and had no interest in passing that on to her kids, but she thought it was important that they have some broad knowledge of Christianity, which is why she’d enrolled them in SRI.
Now, I didn’t go about this intentionally (honestly!) but it was all in my head and it just came out – your kids might get a broad overview of Christianity from SRI, I suggested, but it’s hard to know, isn’t it? because no one’s really got a clue what goes on in those classes, and they’re not actually teachers are they? They’re volunteers who’ve had two days’ training.
I haven’t sat in on a class myself, but I’ve certainly spoken to teachers and aides who have. One told me about a lesson she’d attended where the volunteer described in detail and with sound effects (bang! bang! bang!) how nails were hammered through Jesus’ wrists and ankles as he hung from the cross. It was Easter and it was a Prep class – and the volunteer gave out chocolate eggs at the end of the lesson.
Another told me that the volunteer asked her group of ten year olds whether it was okay to murder unborn babies. And I’ve had half a dozen people tell me that SRI volunteers regularly espouse that ‘evolution is just a theory’.
The idea that SRI is benign, that it’s gentle and harmless, and there’s nothing wrong with a few Bible stories aimed at teaching kids some good basic values is extremely prevalent. I’ve heard it many times. And it’s quite possible that, in some cases, that is what you get – a few songs and some worksheets to colour in, but I’m sceptical and this is why.
The CEO of Access Ministries, Evonne Paddison told a conference in 2011 that both Special Religious Instruction (SRI) and chaplaincy provide an: extraordinary opportunity to reach kids with the good news about Jesus… What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools. Without Jesus, our students are lost…What a commandment. Make disciples. What a responsibility. What a privilege we have been given. Let’s go for it.
Access Ministries want to make disciples of our children and they make no secret of that.
At the end of our playground conversation Jenny was quiet and thoughtful. Hmm… she said, I might just head over to the office and check whether my guys are enrolled or not. I’ll think I’ll take them out.
Then it suddenly occurred to me: I spend hours in this playground and I talk to a lot of parents, and there’s more than one way to run a campaign. So it’s a long shot – especially at my school – but I will count it as time well spent if I can get a few parents to question what they’re actually doing when they enrol their kids in SRI.
If you want your kids to learn some basic Christian principles, why not do it yourself at home where you control exactly what your kids are being told? Why would you expose them to unqualified volunteers teaching a curriculum you know very little about? And do you really believe they’re teaching acceptance, tolerance and open-mindedness – or something else entirely?
If a few other parents, at a few other schools, have the same conversation, we might start to make a dent in the number of kids who are potential disciples for Access Ministries.
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