A survey released today has revealed the extent of religious education programmes in state-funded primary and intermediate schools in New Zealand.
The research conducted by David Hines of the Secular Education Network, which sought responses from 1833 schools across the country, questioned principals and Board of Trustees members on the occurrence and content of their religious instruction programmes.
Just over 800 state schools are believed to be running religious instruction classes. 578 schools responding to the survey confirmed the existence of lessons run outside of the New Zealand Curriculum, and inside school hours.
Further, 92 schools are not currently teaching any science subjects, despite being obligated to do so by the New Zealand Curriculum, and 159 are not teaching evolution in their classes.
Over 1000 schools initially failed to respond, prompting one of the largest investigations by the Ombudsman’s Office. 260 schools have still not replied.
These schools must provide reasoning for refusing the request, such as finding the survey questioning vexatious, or if there are concerns over privacy or commercial interests, according to Andrew McCaw of the Ombudsman’s Office.
“In this case it was a survey asking specific questions about information that they should hold about what religious instruction happens in their school, if any, and therefore are captured by the Official Information Act and they need to respond in the terms of that Act,” McCaw says.
A loophole exists in current education law to account for religious instruction in what would otherwise be secular classrooms. Section 79 of the Education Act 1964 allows state schools to ‘close’ for up to 20 hours a year so that religious instruction can take place. The instruction must be approved by the Board of Trustees of the school, and must not be in conflict with the Bill of Rights.
A 2009 Human Rights Commission report sought to clarify differences between ‘religious education’ and ‘religious instruction’. The former can be taught in a wider of context of history and other religions, while the latter is considered to “carry an explicit or implicit endorsement of a particular faith”.
Hines believes the various classes found throughout New Zealand’s supposedly secular state schools are of little educational value, but are there to promote Christianity. Hines believes the ‘Christian Religious Education’ syllabus has “only a tenuous link to curriculum values” and presents “helping children discover God as their friend” as one of its key goals.
Further to this, the ‘Connect’ programme, run by the Wanganui Council for Christian Education and taught in around 57 schools, has been described by Churches Education Commission CEO Simon Greening as “too evangelical”.
The debate around religious education in schools was ignited late last year when Jeff McClintock and his partner opted their six-year-old daughter out of religious instruction classes at Red Beach School in Auckland, reported in the New Zealand Herald.
The child was made to sit by herself, in the same area naughty pupils spend ‘time out’, while other classmates were “singing, doing fun activities and hearing stories."
According to McClintock, the school has been less than open in their handling of the issue.
“The staff have handed out personal information about my partner and I that has appeared on Facebook,” McClintock claims. “They lie to the principal, telling them children who withdraw from the religious classes are treated inclusively. The experience has really jaded my opinion of Christians.”
“We’re concerned that the Board of Trustees are not being made aware of the situation,” his partner Lisa Reynolds says.
Julie Hepburn, principal of Red Beach School, declined to comment on the matter.
Preliminary results of the study were released earlier this year, and David Hines plans to release the information online today for parents to make considered choices.