State schools should make individual decisions whether to offer religious education classes, says a Tauranga principal.

Brookfield Primary School principal Robert Hyndman, who is also president of the Western Bay Principals' Association, said it was up to each school to decide how its community felt. "It's something that we value here and nobody has raised any issues."

The comments follow the decision by Auckland's St Heliers School to remove religious classes from its timetable and offer them outside school hours, after several parents complained to the school and Human Rights Commission.

The complainants argued the Christian-based lessons discriminated against non-Christian families and should not be part of a secular programme. A UMR poll showed only 27 per cent of 1000 people surveyed felt New Zealand schools should include classes on Christianity taught from a Christian perspective.


Mr Hyndman said his school offered an interactive programme from an external Christian group "Cool Bananas" twice a term. "The kids look forward to it."

The school also ran weekly sessions from non-religious group Kiwi Can. Some parents chose to withdraw their children from the programme, but all pupils attended the non-religious programme. No parents had ever complained, and were told on enrolment the programmes were voluntary.

"[Some pupils] might be from Jehovah's Witness or Brethren or different groups and we respect that - and they don't go."

Greerton Village School principal Anne Mackintosh said her school had chosen to hold religious education out of class time a few years ago and now did not offer it at all. "We decided, through a combination of talking with parents, to make it a choice thing. It was held at lunch time."

That meant children who wanted to could "opt in" rather than parents feeling like their children were being excluded when they pulled them out of such classes, she said. "The crowded curriculum became a bit of an issue. We wanted to make every lesson count."

Secular Education Network spokesman David Hines said since the news of St Heliers broke, several other parents had asked how to make a complaint about their child's school.

Some religious instruction groups used by schools were "denigrating other sections of society" and "casting a slur" on other religions as part of their lessons, he said.

Mr Hines said it should not be up to a school's board of trustees to decide whether its school offered religious education.


New Zealand Principals' Federation president Philip Harding disagreed, but said boards needed to consult with the community before making a decision. "They've got to act wisely but they also shouldn't be browbeaten by a very vocal minority. There are communities where religious education has been part of [their] school for life."

Mr Harding said some St Heliers parents had complained about the school's decision to remove religious education from class time.