Religious education in Australian schools should be scrutinised: most parents do not want children to be taught creationism, or their daughters told that their nipples are a ‘temptation to men’.
A Victorian primary school principal last week described lessons in his school as “rubbish,” “hollow and empty rhetoric” and with “no value whatsoever.” He closed down the special religious instruction (SRI) classes and explained:
I was blindly accepting and approving these activities in my school until I started taking a closer look at the material and an even closer look at the actual sessions that the volunteers were conducting. I concluded that the material and the associated teachers and teaching methods simply do not reach the standard of quality educational practise that this school requires.
A teacher who found her son’s SRI class taught that dinosaurs never existed (God just planted the fossil record), called the lessons “unpalatable,” “offensive” and “unacceptable”.
Another primary school’s principal demanded an apology and is now hosting a departmental investigation after SRI volunteers gave year 6 children a “Biblezine,” advising girls how to avoid making their nipples a “distraction and temptation to men,” explaining that wives must “submit” to husbands and instructing children never to act on homosexual feelings. She called the material “completely inappropriate,” “against fundamental school values” and said it “smacks in the face of everything we do.”
This is hardly new. “The image of religious instruction … is at best a free period and at worst utter chaos,” complained an Anglican clergyman to the church’s Newcastle Synod, as reported in the Newcastle Herald in 1969. The major churches had already pulled out of providing SRI in South Australia, beginning with the Methodists in 1968. During the 1970s, the Tasmanian, Victorian, South Australian and Western Australian governments held inquiries into SRI, and New South Wales followed in 1980.
All registered familiar frustrations: SRI segregated children by religion, when public schools’ essence is inclusion; it created organisational headaches as increasing numbers of families (and churches) opted out; it relied on volunteers, whose main qualifications were faith and enthusiasm, not necessarily teaching ability or knowledge of the subject; it was unfair, since minority religions had trouble finding volunteers, leaving their children ill-served; and short, weekly visits made it hard to build up any meaningful rapport between instructor and class.
The state inquiries advocated replacing or supplementing SRI with “general religious education” (GRE), in which professional teachers (rather than volunteers) teach about different religions (not just one) and non-religious beliefs, as part of the regular curriculum, to their regular classes (not groups segregated by religion).
In the 34 years since the last of the state inquiries, GRE has become standard in England, Ireland, much of western Europe and Québec; but in Australia were implemented minimally or not at all, though some states offer it to years 11 and 12. Worsening the situation, as mainline churches vacated SRI in frustration, hellfire-preachers and evolution-deniers often filled the void.
Conducting surveys and interviews in 23 public schools in NSW and Queensland between 2009 and 2012, education researcher Cathy Byrne found that SRI volunteers “preferred significantly more conservative approaches” to their subject than parents, principals or professional teachers.
For example, asked whether they thought the Bible should be taught “as fact” and therefore “accepted without too much questioning”, parents and education professionals favoured questioning, whereas SRI volunteers tended toward “biblical inerrancy,” the view that the entire text of the Bible is free from error of any kind. In almost a quarter of the schools, Byrne found teaching to the effect that students or their families or friends would “burn in hell” if they did not believe the volunteer’s version.
Written By: Marion Maddox
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