Lessons from the Bible
One in three Kiwis has no religion. Those who do may be Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim. So why do our schools still teach the Bible? Debrin Foxcroft investigates
When Sarah Wroe walks down the street, children run up to her to say hello.
They smile, wave and turn to their parents to say, "There's our Bible teacher."
That is what she is, at least, on Wednesday mornings at Rutherford Primary School in West Auckland.
Mrs Wroe is a Bible in School teacher for half an hour each week. Every time she enters a classroom, Mrs Wroe steps into a brewing controversy.
Should New Zealand public schools still open their classrooms to Christianity? The Human Rights Commission is on the verge of releasing new guidelines after responding to complaints from parents.
The parental concern is not surprising, given that the rules have not changed in more than 40 years. The Education Act of 1964 says yes, schools can allow 20 hours a year of religious teaching - half an hour every week. During these sessions, the schools are officially closed and children can opt out.
While the law doesn't specify which religion is to be taught, most schools have offered teaching based on Christianity.
FORTY-FOUR years after the Act was written, New Zealand is a different country. The community has become more diverse.
In the 2006 Census, just over two million people - 55.6 percent of those answering the religious affiliation question - identified with a Christian faith. This surged to 80 per cent for Pacific people.
About 9500 identified themselves as Sikh, 65,000 with Hinduism and 36,000 with Islam. In 2006, almost 35 per cent stated they had no religion, compared with less than 30 per cent in 2001.
So, does God still have a place in our classrooms? Mrs Wroe has no doubts.
The Bible in Schools programme is not about evangelism but about building foundations, she argues.
"The classes are to help children make good choices, give them access to a moral code, introduce them to Jesus and give them something they can come back to," she says.
"We try to use stories that cover topics the kids will be coming up against. Joseph and his brothers shows examples of bullying. Forgiveness _ the story of Jesus and Peter."
Over the 20 hours, Mrs Wroe goes beyond traditional biblical fare. She introduces more modern stories about missionaries and leaders.
"Sometimes, we do fictional stories. The class I teach recently covered prejudice," she says. In a room of pupils from around the world, Mrs Wroe finds children as young as seven or eight have experienced "being an outsider".
Mrs Wroe, who's from Ireland, says her class sizes have remained more or less the same over the past two years she has taught.
Other teachers have told her their groups can fluctuate through the school year.
Cedric Wilson manages the Churches Education Commission in Auckland, the education agency of 16 member churches that - in their individual forms such as Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian - have been offering Christian religious education to state schools for more than a century.
It liaises with national and local churches, schools, educational authorities and agencies such as the Ministry of Education and School Trustees Association.
Mr Wilson admits there's been a steady decline of schools willing to accommodate its Bible in Schools programme. The commission is the main provider of the programme and claims to reach 32,000 students a year, or roughly 40 per cent of primary schools.
"THERE IS a plethora of reasons why schools are removing Bible in Schools," according to Mr Wilson.
"Pressure of time in the teaching programme; sometimes they feel school culture has changed or, sometimes, it's one or two staff members who want it gone and they push and push until it's removed."
A handful of schools are looking at reintroducing the programme but boards of trustees must survey parents to see if it is wanted, or at least will be accepted, by the majority.
"We are aware Auckland is a multiethnic, multifaith community so we talk more about values in the programme," he says.
"We have tried to align our teaching with the new values programme from the Ministry of Education."
But they still talk about God: "Christian values come when we use Christian stories, stories from the Bible, teaching with Jesus as an example. Most lessons involve a Bible verse.'
New Zealand has a Christian heritage and this should be remembered, he says.
Owairaka District School principal Diana Tregoweth believes in the value of Bible in Schools - "It teaches solid values," she says - but her school has taken the next step.
It accommodates students from Muslim backgrounds. "Our school has a very diverse population and a high number of Muslim students. Because we offered Bible in Schools, it was important we offered both. We couldn't offer one without the other," she says.
At one time Owairaka offered Maori faith-based classes but the person who taught the class retired.
After a growing number of complaints from parents, the Human Rights Commission held a forum on Religion in Schools in 2007.
There, University of Auckland law school dean Paul Rishworth spoke on the legal context of God in schools.
He told his audience the "intersection of religion and education" is ultimately a legal question because of our Bill of Rights.
Since the conference, the commission has developed a draft guide on religion in schools. The final version has yet to be released.
The guide clarifies what schools can and cannot offer in terms of teaching about God, based on the complaints and concerns put to the commission.
Underlying the document is the fact that New Zealand is a secular nation. Our laws recognise both the right to religious freedom and the right not to be discriminated against.
FOR MRS WROE, trained to teach New Zealand children about God, her classes are not about conversion or pressure. It is, in part, about memories. "I remember the Bible class I went to as a child," she recalls.
"I loved the stories as a young child. It mattered that the teachers of the Good News Club were interested in us.
They opened their home and hearts and they took the time," she says.
In 20 years, she hopes her students hold on to such positive memories.
CROSS PURPOSES While some parents may be worried about religion in state schools, other parents are opting into faith-based education. Phillip Cortesi, principal of St Anne's in Manurewa, says a steady number of non-Catholics try to enrol their children in his integrated Catholic primary school. "By law, we are allowed to take up to five per cent, but we never make it up to that," he says. "Because we have such a large Catholic roll, we have difficulty getting all the Catholic students in." Parents are enrolling their children in the school, despite the difference in faith, because of its reputation, values, expectations and discipline. "They come for the special character of the schools," he says.
CHRISTIANITY IN AUCKLAND STATES PRIMARY SCHOOLS SHORE WAITAK MANUKAU AUCK ALL Total schools 42 43 72 60 217 Survey replies 29 32 57 53 171 Bible in Schools 15 13 30 22 80 No Bible in Schools 14 19 27 31 91
S P R E A D I N G T H E W O R D The US bans religion from public schools. This is often tested in the courts, with questions arising over who students can pray to or whether they should be pledging allegiance to "one nation under God".
In CANADA religious education has a complicated status. Publicly funded Catholic education is allowed by various sections of the Constitution Act 1867, the country's founding document. This is now being questioned in the face of increased multiculturalism.
In the UK, Catholic, Church of England and Jewish schools have long been supported in the state system. All other schools must provide religious education.
AUSTRALIA allows nondenominational religious education in Government schools. Religion is meant to be part of the everyday curriculum taught by teachers.