“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.”
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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.”