COMMENT:

Hats off to the 7-year-old myth-breaker from Stanmore Bay School who got growled at for telling his school mates Santa wasn't real, then followed through by refusing to partake in the school's Christian nativity reenactment on similar grounds.

With teachers having just spent the last month telling us how underpaid and overworked they are, surely there were plenty of more relevant topics to be taught at this secular, state primary school. Like the need to have a driver's licence to ride a Lime e-scooter on the local footpaths perhaps!

As the mum of the young stirrer says, it is hypocritical of the school to try to protect the myth that Santa, the God of Christmas commercialism, is real and not to be doubted, but then claim their reenactment of the "virgin birth" of the son of the Christian God was a historically correct play-acting prelude to a balanced discussion among 7-year olds, about religions in general.

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I can see why the school wanted to avoid being lumbered with any guilt by association for allowing the spread on the playground of the foul heresy that Santa was dead. A posse of grumpy parents and local shopkeepers is the last thing a school needs at year's end.

Though having seen a particularly hairy and scary Santa trying to entice a wailing child on to his knee in a Sydney department store the other day, it is hard to understand why we adults perpetuate this cruel tradition.

As for the nativity scene, the story of a little baby, in a warm manger, surrounded by cuddly sheep, is certainly a less worrying myth than that of a man - or these days a woman, or a Māori warrior with a moko - descending from the North Pole in the dead of night intent on breaking into kids' homes while they sleep, seeking beer and cookies to devour.

The difference is, while we all grow out of the Santa myth and realise it's make-believe, the nativity story becomes, for some, part of people's religious belief system. As such, there are a confusing set of rules and guidelines restricting its dissemination within the public school system.

Under the Education Act, religious instruction of up to 20 hours a year is permitted in state schools. It is up to boards of trustees and principals to decide what sort of instruction is given. If parents don't want their children to attend these classes, the usual procedure is that they have to embarrass themselves and their kids by asking to opt out. These kids often end up sitting alone in the school library, or in some cases, even sweeping the school grounds.

The Ministry of Education doesn't keep a record, but the Church Education Commission, which organises most of the volunteer religious instructors, says 520 primary schools, or more than 25 per cent of the total, currently offer religious instruction. This is down from about 650 in 2016.

After years of complaints about the vagueness of the rules governing this practice, the ministry has finally drawn up guidelines. Public consultation for these ended last Friday. Among the recommendations is that schools adopt a "signed consent" approach in which parents have to opt in to religious instruction, rather than the present opt-out system. It also proposes schools "offer valid education alternatives to religious instruction".

In 2015, after a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal, reform group Secular Education Network raised $80,000 to push for a ban on religious instruction in state schools. The 2014 complaint to the tribunal was transferred to the High Court last July but is not likely to get a hearing until next year.

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With 41.5 per cent of Kiwis ticking the "no religion" box in the 2013 Census and only 49.1 per cent claiming to be Christian, it shouldn't require a fight in the High Court to remove Christian religious instruction from our secular state school system. Results from the 2018 Census are as yet unknown, but past trends suggest we heathens are now in the majority. Our schools should reflect this and leave religious instruction where it belongs. In the church, the mosque or the home.