Sunday 10 February 2013

Summary of the Religious Education Review

Schools that offer Religious Education reviewed this topic in the fourth term last year. It was reviewed by staff, board, and parents, and it is great to see ever increasing numbers of parents engaging with policy reviews. Good on you schools  that advertise and encourage the review process to parents! As usual, we urge all principals and boards to read their implementation feedback and consider whether you need to take any action. 

The overwhelming theme was that religious education is valuable if it is an objective study of all of the world’s religions (and atheism and agnosticism), but has dubious value when it concentrates on one religion. I’ve made a separate blog entry about this and there’s a lot to discuss about it. 

There were plenty of other themes too. To broadly summarise the rest of the feedback:

The happy reviewers like that:
the children enjoy the programme and talk about it when they get home, and the programme enhances the special times of Easter and Christmas.
the children learn about the bible, and gain a broad awareness and appreciation of the values that are applicable in every day life and which the country holds dear.
the programme teaches children about religion and equips them to decide about their own beliefs later in life.
every child has the opportunity for religious education and think the current default opportunity (that you have to opt out of it, not opt in to it) is valuable.
the programme fosters a strong and caring school community and that the religious education teachers do a great job implementing the policy and the programme.

Concerned reviewers feel that:
the programme is inappropriate and outdated and has no place in a secular state school.
they don’t have the opportunity to see what is being taught and should be invited to attend sessions.
they have never been offered the opportunity to opt in or out, and only knew the programme was running after talking to other parents. It should be discussed at enrolment and parents regularly surveyed about it.
the opt-out system doesn’t work because children see the others who have opted-in having a good time, getting stuff (stickers, nametags, etc), and feel “punished” to not be part of it. Alternative supervision is often unsuitable.
the programme takes up valuable class time, and could be arranged by parents outside school hours.

We don’t intend to change our generic topic but if boards/principals want to change any of the content, let us know and we will action it. There were many school specific feedback comments which should be addressed by the individual schools concerned and some recurring themes to consider. You might consider linking to a document that summarises the programme so parents know what is being taught; and maybe clarifying that it is a non-denominational christian programme. 

Teaching Religion vs Teaching About Religion

As the number of schools that offer Bible in Schools or similar programmes decreases, it is interesting and important for schools to consider and discuss their provision of religious education. The recent review of this topic brought forth much interesting feedback but was only open to schools that actually had the topic in their document set. The blog, however, allows everyone to comment, so comment...

The main recurring theme of the review feedback reflected opinions expressed in the media late last year in the debate about Bible in Schools, namely that it’s fine for children to learn about christianity as part of a wider study of world religions, but it’s not okay for state schools to provide specific christian (or other denomination) instruction. (Or indoctrination, as many people referred to it.) The separation between church and state should be maintained. 

Many reviewers felt that Bible in Schools and similar programmes encourage the development of values that are necessary for everyday life and reflect the values our country is based on. Are these christian values so different from the values stated in the New Zealand Curriculum Framework? "The school curriculum reinforces the commonly held values of individual and collective responsibility...these values include honesty, reliability, respect for others, respect for the law, tolerance, fairness, caring or compassion, non sexism, and non racism."  Okay, nothing about God, but similar values all the same. Do we need a separate religious based programme for this?

Our culture is changing, our communities are more ethnically diverse than ever before and it is surely more inclusive to learn about the many faiths that make up our communities. Maybe learning about the different faiths offers students the chance to understand more about other cultures, and also how it is for people to have a faith – how it affects and shapes their lives. Wouldn’t it be great for our students to hear about their classmates’ lives through visits from representatives of local cultural/religious groups. How cool to visit a marae, a temple, a mosque, a church, etc.

Have a look at this article by Tapu Misa in The New Zealand Herald last December There are too many interesting bits in it for me to summarise here, but the quotes from Helen Bradstock of Otago University capture what many of our policy reviewers said. 

Here (in New Zealand), we've been unable to draw a distinction between teaching religion and teaching about religion. We should be aiming, she writes, for "secular, inter-religious education" that is taught within the curriculum, as in the UK.

It would teach about Christianity and other major world religions, but not endorse any one belief system. It would recognise diversity and respect human rights but wouldn't compromise the secular nature of the education system, since religion would be treated as an aspect of human culture which is a legitimate "form of knowledge" or object of study.
We don't have a choice. In increasingly multicultural New Zealand, as Bradstock argues, inter-religious education in primary schools has a critical role to play in the growth of multicultural awareness and the promotion of social inclusion.

Such education is most effective, studies show, "when difficult questions relating to conflicting world views are grappled with, debated and not avoided in classrooms".

So, what are your thoughts? How does this relate to what your school community has or wants?