A survey undertaken by a self-described rationalist, David Hines, has found that one in three state primary and intermediate schools teaches religious instruction, but that was not its most pertinent finding. More importantly, 62 schools have abandoned the practice since 2011.
Some of the drop-off may be attributed to a lack of teaching volunteers. Many more classes, however, will have been shut down because of a decline in parent support. That is unsurprising given the increasing diversity and drift from religion in society generally. It is a trend that should finally, and rightly, see the teaching of Christian values and the Bible returned to Sunday schools and the homes of believers.
Religion is taught in state primary and intermediate schools under provisions in the Education Act dating from 1964. The act demands secular teaching but allows schools to offer religious instruction or observance under certain conditions if desired by their boards of trustees. Typically, this involves volunteers from groups such as the Churches Education Commission taking 30-minute sessions.
Several problems have emerged with this, especially over the past few years. One is associated with pupils being able to opt out freely if their parents are not comfortable with the classes. Their choice must be accommodated in a way that does not leave the children feeling isolated or ostracised, as happened at Red Beach School a year ago when the father of a 7-year-old girl found her sitting in a "naughty corner". The school has since created a programme for pupils whose parents do not want them to have religious instruction.
The previous Government was concerned that requiring pupils to opt out could be seen as discriminating against them on the grounds of religious belief or lack of, thereby breaching the Human Rights Act. It did not, however, take the logical step and adopt an opt-in proposal. Some schools, commendably, have taken it upon themselves to do so.
At Campbells Bay School, the outcome was emphatic. When pressed, 79 parents opted in, and 145 elected not to opt in. Religious instruction was dropped. Other schools have followed suit, working their way through a process that Katie Hills, the acting principal of Torbay School, describes as "hurtful".
The schools' resolve is admirable because it acknowledges the most fundamental problem with religious instruction, that of the changing face of society. In the most recent Census for which statistics are available, almost a third of New Zealanders said they had no religion. Many others aligned themselves to religions other than Christianity. That trend will surely be re-emphasised when the data from this year's Census becomes available. In such a context, it is hardly surprising that the teaching of Christianity should rub up against modern concepts of rights.
Religious instruction at a school may remain in tune with the views of its community in some instances. But the experience of many schools that tackle the issue because of the large proportion of pupils opting out is instructive. When parents are required to make a choice, a clear majority do not want their children to have this teaching. Some may have no religion or another religion, some may believe teaching their children about the Bible should be done at home. Others may want this instruction to be done in church Sunday school classes, rather than by untrained volunteers in schools.
Once, that was the normal range of options. That is how it should be again. The increasing number of schools abandoning religious instruction suggests that it will be only a matter of time before it no longer intrudes.
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