Since I posted my blog (Without Jesus, our students are lost) I’ve found out a little more about Access Ministries, and I’ve had a number of interesting conversations with all sorts of people.
I’ve heard more stories of inappropriate and upsetting content in SRI lessons from teachers and aides. I’ve heard about the divisiveness and distress caused to kids over whether they participate or not, and I’ve heard surprise and consternation expressed at the extremely narrow focus of the SRI ‘curriculum’.
One of the mums at my kids’ school stopped me in the playground last week and told me she was a practicing Christian who sent her kids to Sunday school and that she agreed with everything I said.
She explained that she was a Uniting Church Minister and felt there was no place for SRI at our school.
The problem is those Access Ministries do tend to attract the extreme, evangelical types. They’re meant to stick to their curriculum, but they don’t, and they’re off talking about sin, sin, sin at every opportunity. They just give us all a bad name.
What this confirmed for me once again is that the debate over SRI is not about whether people choose to have a religious faith or not, or whether Australia needs to embrace its multi-faith community or stick with its Christian heritage, or even whether people believe in evolution or creation – although all those things are important. It’s simply that there is no place for specific faith-based religious instruction in a secular school system.
Now, I know there are some parents out there who enrol their children in SRI knowing it’s at the edges of mainstream Christianity and who are perfectly happy with that, but from the discussions I’ve had this week, I don’t think they’re the majority.
I think most parents who enrol their kids in SRI have something in their head which may or may not match what’s happening in those classes. I suspect they’ve never met the SRI volunteer who instructs their child, and know little about what actually goes on in the lesson.
I think if you asked them they’d be a bit vague on the ‘curriculum’ and anyway, SRI volunteers are told they should break from the curriculum in order to minister to children who present with a problem.
This past week, a few parents have told me they’re taking their kids out of SRI, and a few more have told me they’re re-thinking their kids’ enrolment. So, in the spirit of information sharing and informed decision making I’ve developed a Cheat Sheet for all those parents with kids currently enrolled, or contemplating enrolment, in SRI. Here it is:
TEN THINGS TO THINK ABOUT BEFORE ENROLLING YOUR CHILD IN
SPECIAL RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION
- SRI is not education it’s instruction and that’s very different (the Australian concise Oxford dictionary defines instruct as teach, direct, command). SRI isnot education about Christianity, it’s faith based instruction, with prayer, based on the Bible as ‘God’s word’. Nor is it general or comparative religious education, and it’s quite explicitly not about teaching children that there are different religions and beliefs in the world.
- Access Ministries’ volunteers are not teachers and undergo extremely minimal training. In order to becoming accredited, a volunteer must attend two training sessions, usually from 9.30 – 1.00 on one day, and from 9.30 – 3.00 on another, a total of nine hours (minus lunch and morning tea). Volunteers need to observe a lesson in a school and have a working with children check, and their application needs to be endorsed by a religious minister. That’s it.
- Once a year, volunteers are required to undertake one day of ‘Professional Development’. There are a range of workshops available which include the following: Evangelism with children and their parents, Becoming a Difference Maker through Evangelism, Using prayer creatively with children, Children and the Holy Spirit, Best of the Bible, Prime-time prayer and Way to go worship.
- In 2011, Access Ministries received somewhere between $5,000,000-6,000,000 in Federal funding, and an additional $675,000 from the Victorian State Government to support its Chaplaincy and SRI program. Now, I can’t help wondering what else we could do with that money, or that extra half an hour a week. At my school we really need some more Reading Recovery, or some extra help for the kids who are struggling with their maths, or just more time with the regular classroom teacher to get through that crowded curriculum.
- In 2011, close to 120,000 students in 800 Victorian state primary schools (about two thirds) received Special Religious Instruction from around 3,200 Access Ministry volunteers. According to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) policy, Principals must ensure core curriculum is not delivered to non-attendees during the period of SRI. What the kids who aren’t enrolled in SRI actually do during this time seems to vary from school to school; some read a book, some do homework, some play Lego. My youngest – not enrolled in SRI – says she ‘loves religion’ because she ‘gets to watch a movie!’
- Given the current debates around creationism and evolution, I think it’s important to be clear and unambiguous about how Access Ministries deal with this issue. The Access Ministries unit designed for Prep, A wonderful world, states: In this unit God is presented as the creator of the world…Children hear about the creation of the night and day as outlined in Genesis 1:14-19. Children will classify objects seen in the night and the day, hearing that God made the sun, moon and stars, which light up our world…
- This view is also reinforced through the lyrics of a number of songs used by Access Ministries; Creation Rap and Big and Strong, for example:
I was on the bus just the other day. The big bus driver, he had something to say.
God made everything! Everything? Everything.
God made everything. And it was good!
God’s big, big and strong,
Big and strong and mighty,
He’s so big, he created the whole universe,
He’s so mighty that he stopped the biggest storm,
He’s so strong, he parted the Red Sea
How big and strong and mighty is our God!
- Access Ministries is prohibited from proselytising – trying to convert – but their CEO Evonne Paddison told a conference:
In Australia we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel. Our Federal and State governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples…Never before have we had such an open access, such an open door. Christians from other countries envy our opportunities. They can’t believe we have this situation…our greatest field for disciple making. What’s your strategy?
- Special Religious Instruction is not supported by the Australian Education Union, the professional body that represents teachers, nor Parents Victoria, the peak body for parenting organisations. Both organisations have called for SRI to be removed from the curriculum.
- What our kids learn in state schools is governed by the AusVELS (Victorian Education Learning Standards). Below is an extract from the Civics and Citizenship Domain of the AusVELS – the ‘domains’ are the philosophy that underpin the content of what is taught:
Students progressively develop knowledge, skills and behaviours which support…the values which contribute to harmony in a diverse multicultural society…
…The family is the first learning environment for students and provides them with a sense of belonging, basic social skills and experiences, and learning about values such as respect, fairness and care for others – values which underpin a community.
…Students develop their social skills and understanding of norms and values through learning with others. They begin to note the similarities and differences between individuals and groups in the classroom, school and community, and to appreciate that different cultural, language and religious groups make up the Australian nation…
Our kids don’t need SRI to learn about respect, fairness and care for others; values permeate the general curriculum.
So, if you know anyone with kids at a primary school that offers SRI, perhaps you could forward this blog to them. Thanks.
And while you’re doing that, I’m going to write a quick letter to my local MP, and the State and Federal Education Ministers. Oh and while I’m at it, I’ll send one to the regional head of DEECD as well. Please feel free to cut and paste anything from this blog if you’d like to write one too.
I think I’ll also see if someone from our school council wants to sit in on an SRI lesson and ask them to check that the school’s policy is clearly opt in, not opt out. And perhaps I’ll just see if any of the teachers or aides I chat with have observed a lesson. Access Ministries say they receive very few complaints about their classes.
My understanding is that the legalities of all this – the interpretation of the wording of the Education and Training Reform Act (2006) – is being discussed by experts which may result in pressure being brought to bear on the Education Department to change its policy and regulations. In the meantime, it can’t do any harm to bring the issue of religious instruction in our state schools to people’s attention, and keep dissent bubbling quietly on the back-burner.
Thanks for listening.
For more information see Fairness in Religion in School: http://religionsinschool.com