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Australia

Aug 17, 2012

Religion in schools: why teachers, parents are powerless to stop it

Religious groups can enter government schools without the permission of parents or even the school. Ben Westcott talks to principals and parents about Christian groups in the classroom and the playground.

“Sometimes we have a chocoholics day and we’d just put up posters containing some good-looking chocolate and say come to this room at lunchtime,” says Christian schools worker Paul Bremner describing one of the ways he advertises his lunchtime “Student Focus” program.

It might surprise parents to learn that religious groups can enter government schools without their permission and, in some cases, without the schools’. Crikey reported on Monday of one teacher’s experience with a Baptist group entering his secondary college and giving kids chocolate while discussing matters of faith. Author Chris Fotinopoulos was shocked with the lack of permission slips and supervision during the event.

However, Crikey has found such groups don’t technically require permission slips in Victoria. Under the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, “attendance for the special religious instruction (SRI) is not to be compulsory for any student whose parents desire that he or she be excused from attending”. So unlike Queensland, where parental permission is required, you can opt out but you don’t have to opt in.

Currently, letters are sent out at the beginning of the school year notifying parents of the SRI, but does this translate to schools asking for permission slips from their students? “It’s the principal’s decision,” Bremner, who is part of Youth Dimension, said. “Occasionally schools ask us to get permission slips, and check them before we allow students into our classrooms. But that’s only happened once or twice.”

Youth Dimension is the provider of Student Focus, the program that Fotinopoulos encountered in his secondary school. The activity session for students in years 7 and 8 features “games and a short talk on relevant youth issues and how the Bible relates to them”.

Bremner says most of the Student Focus programs are run in Victoria, with only a couple in Queensland and none in NSW. “We probably go to about 60 schools, 95% of which are government schools, which is a bit ironic. The Christian schools are harder to get into than the government ones.”

The Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union has campaigned vigorously to change the rules around SRI. “It’s our policy that it should be outside of school hours and totally on an opt-in basis,” state president Mary Blewitt said.

Far from being invited in, she says principals are forced to allow religious groups into their school. “It’s outrageous,” she told Crikey. “The moment they contact the department, they’re basically told they have to allow SRI in their school. There are some situations where it is run in schools against the wishes of the board and staff.”

Dennis Medina, who runs the Student Focus program at Fotinopoulos’ school, disagreed: “We do it under the full permission of the school, we don’t just go in. We’re very open with them that we’re going to give a Christian message and if they don’t want that, then we can cut that out. We’re very open about what we do.”

But a fact sheet from ACCESS ministries, one of the largest providers of SRI in Victoria, says that “schools are required to permit the delivery of SRI if approached by a duly accredited and approved religious instructor … Schools and school councils don’t have any discretion to allow or disallow SRI and must make provision for SRI where an accredited and approved instructor is available.”

ACCESS and Youth Dimension make it very clear that the programs aren’t compulsory. Students who take part in the Student Focus lunchtime program are free to leave at any time. Glenn Fankhauser, principal of Fotinopoulos’ school, says students often stay for the fun and leave before the preaching starts.

“Before this second element of the program is delivered, students are informed of the nature of the five-minute talk and invited to leave if they are not interested. It is my understanding that typically at this time about 75% of those students who are involved do leave,” he said, adding the program has been running at the school for more than 15 years and he hasn’t experienced one complaint.

But Blewitt says the matter is very different for SRI held during class times. Her children found it difficult when they were excused from the class at her request: “Because the teacher has to stay in the classroom with these people, kids who didn’t do it were sent to the library. My son just thought he was excluded from his mates and missed out on getting lollies. In the end I just let him go in.”

From the comments on Crikey’s story on Monday, it seems clear that parents are concerned. One NSW commenter said their year 8 son had been approached by Christian groups at school: “They give out pancakes in the quad and the same mob will give you even better food in a classroom if you talk about Jesus.”

Another agreed, adding: “I was told that if my kindergarten son was to submit a parental notice of recalcitrance that he would be sitting with the naughty kid in the cold, dank corridor, listening to the joyful sounds of his classmates scoffing Jesus candy”.

A Queensland reader told an interesting story about a Christian group using the state of origin rugby league to sell its message: “They stood up on parade decked out in full Queensland colours and got the students to cheer for QLD and boo for NSW … then said, ‘come to Bible school’.”

Fankhauser said he had changed his school’s policy in response: “I believe we will change this practice moving forward so that we use an opt-in slip.”

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20 comments

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20 thoughts on “Religion in schools: why teachers, parents are powerless to stop it

  1. Neil Doody

    Somewhat frightening…my atheist son appears better protected at his Anglican grammar school where they can tell these types to bugger off.

  2. Zjonn

    I would have thought that the chocolate/lolly trick would have been outlawed by the system. Isn’t that one of the strategies pedafiles use in luring kids into cars. Do these people have working with children permits, something I would have thought to be quite difficult to get, for anyone heavily involved with religion, as history tells us that it is usually either parents or religious freaks who are lean this way!

  3. Andrew

    Crikey, you don’t need to run an anti-SRI campaign. The Age is already doing a good enough hatchet job. The bottom line is if your child doesn’t want to attend or you don’t want your child to attend, they don’t have to. Because Christianity is the majority religious group in Australia and has had an enormous role in shaping Australia’s society, it is fair enough to have 30 mins per week where children can learn about its main teachings. If you have an issue with how the school treats children who don’t participate, ask the school to improve that – don’t blame the SRI teacher.
    Zjonn, all ACCESS ministries teachers and chaplains must have working with children checks.

  4. Jobby

    There’s a big difference between ‘learning about religion’ and unquestioning indoctrination, Andrew.

  5. Microseris

    Andrew, as a parent I object to having something for which there is zero evidence presented as fact to my kids. This is the reality. We are supposed to have a secular government school education but the rules are bent to facilitate the wishes of religious groups who lobby the two major parties.

    If you want to believe in your imaginary friend thats all well and good, but in a multicultural country if Christians want this access to the kiddies, then all the other religions and belief systems should get the same.

  6. Bryannai Baillieu

    “The Christian schools are harder to get into than the government ones.”

    Says it all doesn’t it. If the Christian schools don’t trust these people why should people in the public system?
    I presume it would also encourage parents of other faiths not to send their kids to the public system.

  7. Holden Back

    @ Bryannai Baillieu, Let alone those parents who might have a serious Christian faith, and don’t want to see it trivialised by cheap-trick proselytising.

  8. Sam

    Andrew raises an interesting point. Given the important role that the Westminster system has played in Australian history, it would be entirely appropriate for children to spend at least half an hour a week memorising its procedures and operations, all the while proclaiming why it’s so awesome. This should preferrably be done while consuming unhealthy snacks.

  9. Aaron F

    What a disgrace. In a time of childhood obesity where junk food advertising times are questioned religious groups are given access to impressional young minds who will then associate Jesus with a pleasant experience.

    Andrew, if you really want them to learn about what influenced Western Society they should also/really cover the Egyption Book of the Dead, Mithra (and a number of other deities that have the same storyline as Jesus, predating Jesus), the church endorsed slavery in past centuries, the fact that they wouldn’t be reading the Bible in English at all if the Church continued burning people at the stake like they did the first person who translated it into English (for blasphemy), the cruel, indirect and strange ways God punishes people (read punishing the Egyptian Pharoh for not letting Moses and his people go by inflicting plagues and killing first borns – perhaps plagues on the Pharoh himself would have been better), the fact that God is selectively omnipotent (re tests of Abraham and Job). They’d obviously teach intelligent design, but then have to teach how sickly Adam and Eve were considering how many human only viruses etc they would have had to be carrying for the viruses to exist today. They’d obviously teach the kids about Noah’s Arc, including how all the marsupials travelled to Noah’s place. (Though it is the Lord Howe Island stick insect that I really feel sorry for – getting all the way to Noah’s place – family planning / life cycle planning nightmare – survives the flood and gets all the way back to Lord Howe Island (dropped off by their new Kangaroo friends they met on the cruise perhaps), and now it is endangered!). Of course all the girls in the class would be sold into slavery at the end of the class just as it says in the bible.

    Perhaps we should teach the evolution of primates and their social norms etc, and then the Greek and Roman societies (before Emporor Constantine got the Council of Nicea together in 325AD to piece together the error ridden and contradictory book based on brief accounts of people who lived AT LEAST 40 years after Jesus died) instead.

  10. Aaron F

    Unfortunately too many religious people will vote for religious policies first. As an atheist, policies (like the one above) would be a lower priority that which party I agreed with on the more important topics. Not so for many religious people. Hence unfortunately an atheist PM (and in fact all politicians) to have pro-religion policies to have any chance of keeping the votes of many of the religious, no matter how good their other policies.