Last week the principal of my children’s local, state primary school sent home a letter explaining to parents that the Special Religious Instruction (SRI) program would finish at the end of this semester. This was something I had been working towards for some time and so the news was very welcome.
In this blog, I want to describe the process that led to that letter being sent home. Each school is different – the demographic, the numbers enrolled in SRI, and the support, or lack of it, from the Principal and School Council – but in sharing my experience, I hope to provide some ideas, support and encouragement for other parents to follow suit.
My kids’ school
When I first made enquiries into SRI at our school about 35% of students were enrolled in the program, concentrated in Prep and the lower grades. My sense was that many parents thought they were enrolling their kids in some kind of comparative religious education, or that they were receiving a broad education in Christianity or, at the very least, learning some innocuous moral tales.
I was fairly confident that a number of those parents had no idea what the curriculum actually involved, that the volunteers only had 6-8 hours training, and that the organisation running the program, Access Ministries, wanted their children for disciples. I thought, too, that parents might not know that Access Ministries was a fundamental, evangelical organisation with highly questionable views and motives.
Plus, our school is very diverse with a range of family formations and over thirty different nationalities practicing a dozen different religions. Access Ministries does not support or celebrate diversity; quite the opposite, in fact.
If parents knew all this, I thought, I bet they’d withdraw their kids from the SRI program.
Step 1: Awareness-raising
The first step then was to inform parents. I started by doing some research into Access Ministries and the SRI program and writing a blog, and a follow up. I forwarded those blogs to a number of other parents and asked them to share with their networks. This started the ball rolling and got parents thinking about the issue. Here are the links. Feel free to share.
Later, I wrote another blog about the impact of SRI specifically on our school which I sent to pretty much every parent in my email address book.
Step 2: Playground conversations
The blog kick-started a month of playground conversations; at drop off and pick-up and at coffee mornings and cross-country meets, parents talked about religion and its place in our school. They asked questions and expressed their doubts and concerns one way or the other. A number of other supportive parents provided invaluable help here.
I had many discussions with parents, some of whom had no religious faith, but many who did: mainstream Christian, Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Moslem. These conversations were always respectful on both sides and acknowledged the importance of religious faith in people’s lives. At the same time, I argued that our secular, state school was not the appropriate place for the practice of that faith.
Importantly, many of the religious parents agreed and, even when their kids were enrolled in SRI, said they wouldn’t be devastated if SRI was discontinued. Many of them also felt it was wrong that the other kids couldn’t do anything substantive while their kids were doing SRI.
These conversations generated around fifty families who were willing to support the idea of ending SRI at our school and prompted me to draft a letter to School Council which they were all happy to sign.
Step 3: Key people
At the same time I spoke with some teachers – quietly in the playground – to gauge their feeling. Broadly, they had a number of concerns about the program, hated the disruption to the school day and disliked supervising SRI classes.
Next, I identified all the members of School Council and either I, or one of the other parents, spoke with each member individually to assess whether or not they would support ending SRI. We answered questions, provided information and alleviated concerns before the members had to address the issue at a School Council meeting.
Throughout this time I kept our principal informed of what I was doing. The principal was new to the school and wanted to ensure he was meeting his obligations to the Department of Early Education and Childhood Development (DEECD), but was also prepared to listen to the school community on this issue. He felt that if the numbers of students enrolled in SRI dropped, it would become impossible to administer and he would have no choice but to end the program.
Step 4: School Council
I submitted my letter asking for an end to SRI to the President of the School Council. The letter was tabled and discussed, but no decision made at that stage. However, the principal agreed to monitor the level of enrolment closely and review the schools’ on-going commitment to the program. Here’s the link to the letter. Please feel free to cut, paste, edit and use for your own purposes.
For a few months prior to this meeting, parents had been withdrawing their kids from SRI as those playground conversations spread, and as they read or heard more about the program. At the following School Council meeting – one month later – the principal announced that he would be ending SRI as a result of declining enrolment.
New DEECD guidelines
There are a couple of other things that might be helpful if you are tempted to follow this path. In April this year, DEECD issued a new directive for principals which basically makes it easier for individual schools to discontinue the program for a range of ‘organisational’ reasons. These can include: not having enough teachers to supervise SRI classes, insufficient classroom space, or too few enrolments.
Further, at the beginning of next semester all schools will be required to send out a new letter to parents asking them to re-enrol their children in the SRI program. Principals will be required to send that letter out again at the beginning of the year to make sure parents still want their children to be enrolled.
If there was ever a good time to challenge SRI at your school, it’s now.
At our school, the decision to end the program was based on low enrolment numbers, but the program can also be discontinued where numbers are still high. Joe Kelly, the principal of Cranbourne South Primary School for fifteen years, made the decision to end SRI at his school based on concerns about the educational quality of the curriculum, materials and volunteers. At the time he made that decision, roughly 60% of his school were enrolled in SRI. You can read more about what he did here:
Joe Kelly recently said publically: There’s an increasing number of Principals who believe Access Ministries is an unfit organisation to be in our schools.’
Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS)
Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) is an organisation of parents and interested parties who would like to see an end to the SRI program. Their website has lots of useful information, including media articles about Access Ministries, examples of the materials used in the SRI program and academic reviews of the SRI curriculum.
These two recent TV reports are also helpful.
My kids’ school is an ordinary, local state primary school whose parents could in no way be described as radical or extreme. Once they knew more about SRI and Access Ministries, however, they were keen to get the program out of the school. Our principal was new to his position, keen to ensure he fulfilled his obligations to DEECD, but willing to listen to the school community on this. While our numbers weren’t as high as in some schools, there was still a significant enrolment in the program.
I reckon our experience could be replicated across the state.
Happy to help with that in any way I can.