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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 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.

  11. James K

    You seem to be targeting a fascinating topic for showing “concern for kids” that they not be exploited or manipulated by others who might “harm them”.

    cool. Okay… then how about some articles about the se_ualisation of children; that padded bras are being made and sold for 7 and 8 year old girls; that so called teen magazine (and tweeny magazines) teach girls how to give boys anything they want; that young girls are being manipulated by multinational companies for their profits; that kids as young as 6 and 7 have body image problems; …. We punish ped_aphiles but we do everything else to creat them….

    no.. lets bag out people who give away chocolates in school and teach kids to do good in the world.

    you guys amaze me with your focus. It says more about you than about caring for kids. You blow out a match while ignoring a bush fire.

  12. Bryannai Baillieu

    Having seen a close friend devastated when kicked out of her evangelist church after working out she was gay I would say that these extremists are not just about teaching kids “to do good in the world”.

    And James K, I believe Christianity has done a lot to “teach girls how to give boys anything they want”, it’s part of the basic doctrine if you’ve read any of Paul’s work lately.

  13. floorer

    So who is giving these people the authority to enter schools despite the protestations of headmasters, teachers, unions and parents? Two articles this week and no answer to this question ( not a crit Crikey I’d just like to know).

  14. eric

    There is NO place for any religious groups pushing their particular brand of fairy tales in OUR State Schools.

    If parents want a religious education for their kids there are plenty of religious schools to choose from.

  15. James K

    Bryannai – some parts of the church have very badly handled Paul and other parts of the bible to justify keeping women subject to men. No doubt about it. But it is a very poor reading of both Paul and the rest of the book. This Paul has some sentences that are quoted out of context to support male domination – but the same Paul also said “there is no distinction in Christ: men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, we are all one in Christ”. (Galatians 3). He also said that there must be mutual submission in realationships, not just women to men, but men to women too (eg I Cor 7). There are the “bad verses” that can be used to oppress women, but revisionist theologicans have shown how badly misused they are when used for that purpose. They are torn from their grammatical, historical and cultural context and forced into different contexts.

    It is not a basic doctrine of the church to teach women to give men whatever they want. It is more a basic doctrine to love your neighbour as yourself. Do unto others as you want them to do to you. Love all people. Do not look only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. The two greatest commandments Jesus gave to sum up all religion: love God and love others. Not love God and exploit others!

    Having said all that, you are still right: most of the church for a long time oppressed women.

    Mind you, so did almost every other culture and religion on the face of the earth.

    it is a wonderful thing to live in this time when many women are more liberated and equal than ever before in human history. There is a way to go yet, like defending the rights of young girls not to be treated like s_x objects. and that was my example above.

  16. Darwin

    I would like to encourage the Muslim community to start up a similar program of religious education in schools. The Christian zealots should not object to such a move. What’s good for the goose…

  17. Reuben

    James K, that’s certainly an interesting argument.

    By ‘interesting’, of course, I mean clichéd and fallacious. Simultaneously a ‘Children are Starving in Africa!’ fallacy, a Red Herring fallacy and a Strawman fallacy. Bravo!

    Regardless, no one is forcing seven year-old girls to wear padded bras or their parents to buy them, and the publishers of teen magazines are not allowed to force their way into primary school classrooms to perform Special S_xualisation Instruction. Would you agree that this is a good thing?

    Most certainly “young girls are being manipulated by multinational corporations”. If you have a problem with unbridled capitalism I urge you to express your thoughts on the subject in a relevant discussion. This, however, is an entirely different discussion about an entirely different subject.

    That you have the temerity to even mention the s–xual abuse of children in this context is astonishing.

  18. Edward James

    Stop the presses! Religious intolerance at Crikey. Miranda Divine. I subscribe to Crikey because I may publish my comments on any of the many stories published there in a timely manner. I do not read everything they publish. I think it is a bit rich the Telegraph is calling Crikey a smear sheet! When the biggest smear I have ever copped was written by Richard Noone and published in the Telegraph on May the fifth 2009. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/serial-whingers-cost-nsw-councils-millions-over-complaints/story-e6freuy9-1225715426374 Electronic papers and blogs which are not restrained, by the 24 hour news cycle. As the new way come much closer to servicing and engaging the needs of many more readers. Than the rubbish doled out as media releases by governments, then re worked to be parroted almost word for word by radio shock jocks and TV news. As the new way, sites like Crikey give the peoples an electronic soapbox. They come much closer to servicing and engaging the needs of many more readers. This comment would, except for the link it contains attracting moderation go straight up on the Crikey site but it will probably go stale waiting in moderation at your blog in the Telegraph on line. Edward James

  19. Bryannai Baillieu

    @Darwin, I think the Hari Krishnas might give it a go!

  20. Robert

    Let them come in, let them give their instruction – but ban them from using the same grooming techniques that the child molesters use. Kids should not be bribed or rewarded for attending these classes and others should never be marginalised, ostracised or isolated for not being a part of it.


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