The Victorian Labor Government announced last week that it will be removing the Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes from class time next year and replacing them with “new content on world histories, cultures, faith and ethics”.
The compulsory curriculum for primary and secondary schools will also include classes on domestic violence and respectful relationships.
The SRI classes have been plagued by controversy, with multiple examples of them being used to indoctrinate children into Christianity and teaching children that divorce and sex were shameful acts that could lead to them (or their parents) “being sent to hell”.
While the SRI provisions did allow for instruction in other faiths, 96% of SRI classes were delivered by the protestant group, Access Ministries, which was paid around $700,000 to coordinate the classes and prepare curriculum material.
Professor Gary Bouma, an Anglican priest and the UNESCO chairman of Interreligious and Intercultural Relations, described the Access Ministries curriculum as ''just appalling''.
Joel Pittman was a Pentecostal youth pastor, and was involved in delivering SRI to high schools in NSW. He said the classes scared children (12 to 13 year olds) with talk of sin, burning in hell and taught them that “giving your life to God” as the only solution.
I went from having a youth group which had maybe 5 or 6 kids in it at the start of term, by the end of the term I had 90 kids in my tiny little group.
He also described how the children were encouraged to attend a youth camp run by Pentecostal churches, where once again they were frightened with talk of sin and “impure thoughts” and further indoctrinated into Christianity. Pittman said all of this happened without ever having any oversight or observation from anyone at the schools they were going into. He also said that while the youth camps were nothing to do with the schools, they were mostly funded by the “cashed up” evangelical churches.
Chrys Stevenson, writing for the ABC, quoted other sources confirming this as widespread occurrence in the SRI classes:
Catherine Byrne, whose post-doctoral research focuses on religion in education, such horror stories are not uncommon. She spoke of RI students in state schools being shown "graphic crucifixion material" and children being told they would "burn in hell" if they failed to adhere to particular tenets of fundamentalist Christianity. One parent told Byrne that, after being shown the movie The Prince of Egypt (an animated adaptation of the Book of Exodus), their seven year old child was told, "The Jews had it coming."
In one of many incidents reported to the Board of Education, Access Ministries was investigated last year after one of its instructors was handing out Bibleszines to primary school children. The Biblezines claimed that girls who wear revealing clothes are inviting sexual assault, that homosexuality, masturbation and sex before marriage are sins.
The Victorian Board of Education laid out very clear guidelines for SRI:
All persons employed or engaged in the provision of Government education must have regard to the principle that government schools will provide a secular education and will not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect; and are open to adherents of any philosophy, religion or faith. (section 1.2.2 of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 (the Act)).
The only exception to secular education in government schools is special religious instruction which may be given in a government school during the hours of instruction in accordance with section 2.2.11 of the Act. This section sets out a number of requirements regarding the delivery of SRI.
Principals must ensure that an accredited instructor does not:
- provide or offer to students who attend SRI any enticement or other benefit of a tangible nature,
- induce or attempt to induce any student to convert to a particular religion
- invite or encourage any student to attend religious events held outside of school.
The SRI classes, which initially required parents to opt out, found their enrolments dropped by 42% in Victoria after the state government moved to an opt in policy. This latest move, taking the classes out of the regular school curriculum and having them only available outside school hours will almost certainly drop the numbers even further.
On hearing the news of the change, Access Ministries spokesman Rob Ward said:
We would applaud any effort to educate children around the issues of family violence and healthy relationships, but we don’t see why that should come at the expense of spiritual education.
While Access Ministries may not have seen the need, more than 100,000 people did see it when they responded to a petition from a 14 year old girl who’s mother committed suicide after years of living with domestic violence.
"If domestic violence was addressed within the public schools educational criteria, I could have gotten help and saved my mum," she said, adding that if the NSW education system teaches students to recognise what is wrong, they "will begin to speak up and get the help their family needs."
Deanne Carson has taught sexuality education to thousands of children across Victoria, she greeted the announcement of respectful relationships education with relief:
When you are young and being raised in an abusive household, you believe this to be normal unless someone tells you otherwise. This program will give so many young people permission to reach out for help.
Many of the teenagers I speak with are unable to tell the difference between romantic gestures and controlling behaviours. They don't differentiate between being told by a partner that they are wearing their favourite outfit, for instance, or being told that they *must* wear a particular outfit if they want to be taken on a date.
Catherine Manning, CEO of Seed Workshops, agreed:
I've been delivering our Respectful Relationships/Gender Bender program in schools for a few years, and the information is always very well received by students (and teachers!). In our media saturated society, never has it been more necessary for kids to learn media and gender literacy, and we find they're always grateful to be given the tools to recognise and address problematic behaviour. This is a welcome addition to the curriculum!
We know more about the level of domestic and sexual violence occurring in Australia than we ever have before, and any long term solution has to include help and education for the adults of the future, not just the adults of today. Parents who want their children to learn more about religion are well able to provide that instruction, but the children who need domestic violence and respectful relationship education the most are the ones least likely to receive such information at home. This move will save lives and reduce trauma, and that matters far more than any benefits Access Ministries thinks it is owed by the Victorian taxpayers.