Religion is a part of life and continues to play an important role in society. But the way scripture is taught in public schools simply exposes children to segregation at an early age.
Three weeks into her kindy year at primary school my daughter attended her first non-scripture class.
She didn’t like it, of course, as she was taken away from the new friends she’d tentatively been making and put into a room away from them. At the same time, the other children in her class were divided into their respective religious groupings and separated off accordingly. It was probably the first time any of those children experienced segregation based on personal beliefs (or rather, the beliefs of their parents).
Every week, each one of these children will spend 30 minutes in the company of a volunteer from their nominated religious order. What these volunteers teach during that half hour of scripture is generally neither regulated nor observed. They pretty much have free reign to impart whatever belief system they hold true into the minds of the very impressionable and the very young – my daughter and her classmates for example, are only 5 years old.
Joe Kelly, the principal of Cranbourne South Primary school in Victoria said he “blindly supported” the religious curriculum being taught by volunteers at his school, until he decided to closely observe what was actually being taught at these classes. From his observations he concluded, “It is not education. It has no value whatsoever. It is rubbish - hollow and empty rhetoric ... my school teachers are committed to teaching children, not indoctrinating them.”
He made the decision to stop religious instruction at his primary school and is now part of a growing group that is calling on the government to stop making religious education compulsory at schools in Australia.
He’s not the only principal to have made the decision to stop “Special Religious Instruction” (SRI) classes in his school. In 2013 there were 666 schools in Victoria that had an SRI program – down from 940 schools in 2011. Clearly many principals agree with Joe Kelly that scripture classes have no place in our public schools.
In NSW, ethics classes were tentatively introduced in primary schools in 2010, for those parents who didn’t want to send their children to scripture. But volunteers needed to run these classes are high in demand and low in supply. In my daughter’s school there is no one available to run or teach the ethics class in Kindergarten, so my daughter sits in a room with her classmates and has 30 minutes of “do-nothing” time (children are not allowed to be taught anything during this time for fear their classmates might miss out).
The question that occurs to me is that how can I, in 2014, be subjecting my daughter to the same thing that I was subjected to as a child? I remember spending what felt like endless hours in a room with other bored kids not really having anything to do as we waited for our classmates to finish their scripture lessons. Now, here I am with a child of my own and nothing it seems has changed on that front.
Despite believing we are providing a secular education for our kids by sending them to a public school, we are in fact once a week drumming into them that they are different - that because of the beliefs into which they were born, they need to be divided and separated, right from the outset. What sort of values is that teaching them? What sort of message is that sending? That those who don’t hold your religious beliefs can never really be like you? That they are different and therefore should be excluded from your life? Doesn’t this create a sense of alienation and separation? Hasn’t this lead to the sort of problems we are now facing in our society?
Religion is a part of life and continues to play an important role in society. All of us hold our own respective beliefs or non-beliefs, and I feel that there is a place in the classroom for all of these to be discussed together – as a whole. Our children should learn about all religions of the world – about how these religions came to be, what impact they have had historically and how and why they are popular in different parts of our very diverse planet. This sort of teaching should be approached from a perspective of education and not indoctrination.
Religion should not be used as an excuse to inadvertently teach children that the person they sit next to in class is different and not really like them because once a week they get segregated into another room. Impressionable children should not be taught that it is ok to be divided or excluded. Many of the problems we face in our world today are due to this very factor.
The power that the church continues to hold over the government - despite our claims of secularism - means I don’t see scripture classes not being part of our educational system any time soon. I do however hope that perhaps by the time my children are sending their children to school we aren’t still reinforcing the concept that exclusion and division in our public schools, however unintentionally, is acceptable.
Saman Shad is a storyteller and playwright.