A Government-sponsored survey questioning the future of religious instruction in state schools is being slammed by both religious and secular groups as "biased".

The survey asks whether "religious instruction" in state primary schools should be replaced by "neutral teaching" about world religions.

It was launched last week by an independent charity, the Religious Diversity Centre, in partnership with the Ministry of Education.

Ministry deputy secretary Andrea Schollmann said the centre "is facilitating a conversation about religion in schools with religious communities and the wider community after Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee agreed to it in October post March 15 mosque attacks".

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The introduction to the survey on the Religious Diversity Centre website distinguishes religious instruction, which it says "is designed to prepare or encourage student participation in the religion", from "faith-neutral" education about religions.

But Launchpad, formerly known as the Churches Education Commission which runs religious instruction in about 550 state schools, denies that it "prepares" or "encourages" students to participate in Christianity.

"The idea of the programmes that we run is to extract values out of those lessons. Values tend to be generic across all religions," said Launchpad chief executive Geoff Burton.

"We definitely use the Bible in terms of the stories. We describe ourselves as storytellers. We use the Bible, and NZ history is a part of those stories as well."

David Hines of the Secular Education Network has also objected to the survey questions. Photo / Supplied
David Hines of the Secular Education Network has also objected to the survey questions. Photo / Supplied

And Secular Education Network (SEN) spokesman David Hines, who has led the fight against religious instruction in state schools, also objected to the questions.

"Members who have read the questionnaire are concerned that it does not distinguish between primary and secondary schools. Some would support religious studies in state secondary schools, but not in state primary schools," he said.

"It also fails to explain the difference between religious studies, such as those used in religious schools, and 'education about religious and non-religious issues' as part of the social studies curriculum."

The criticisms highlight that religion in schools is what Burton calls "a hot potato".

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Although teaching in state schools is required by law to be secular, state primary and intermediate schools are allowed to "close" the school for up to 20 hours a year for religious instruction by voluntary instructors, who usually come in for half an hour a week.

The practice has gradually declined over the years, and Burton said some schools abandoned it after new guidelines were issued last year stating that parents should have to sign a written "opt-in" for their children to attend, rather than asking for an "opt-out" if they objected to it.

The "opt-in" will become a legal requirement under a new Education and Training Bill which passed its second reading in Parliament on June 24.

Betsy Tipping:
Betsy Tipping: "When we finally said just opt out, he was sent to the library and all they were doing was colouring in." Photo / Supplied

Wellsford mother Betsy Tipping pulled her then-8-year-old son Jack Clements out of Wellsford Primary School in 2018 because it kept putting her son into religious instruction even after she asked to withdraw him from it.

"When we finally said just opt out, he was sent to the library and all they were doing was colouring in," she said.

She now drives him 20 minutes each way to Tomarata School, which has dropped religious instruction.

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Education Minister Chris Hipkins signalled in January that he believes all state schools should stop offering religious instruction.

"But we need a bit more of a national conversation about that before we get into that," he said.

He told Cabinet last October that the Religious Diversity Centre "has offered to prepare a report on how teaching about diverse religions happens in other countries and to facilitate a series of hui, first with the national religious leaders and then with religious and inter-faith communities".

"I intend to direct the Ministry of Education to discuss these offers with the centre and to work in partnership with the centre to start a conversation about religion in schools, emphasising a shift from religious instruction to religious education," Hipkins told ministers.

Chris Hipkins:
Chris Hipkins: "We need a bit more of a national conversation about that." Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Religious Diversity Centre was set up in 2015 "to foster appreciation, understanding and deeper relationships among the religious, spiritual and secular communities in Aotearoa New Zealand".

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark is its patron and its trustees include people of Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Sikh faiths.

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Religion in schools survey

Q2. Do you support boards having a choice to close their schools at any time of day for instruction which encourages children to believe in and/or live by a particular religion in Aotearroa NZ schools (religious instruction)?

Q3. Do you support the neutral teaching about the different religions and belief systems found in Aotearoa NZ in schools (religious studies)?

Q4. Do you support changes that would shift the focus of the place of religion in schools from religious instruction to religious studies?

What happens next

The Religious Diversity Centre will report to Hipkins on the survey results and on overseas approaches to religion in schools. Hipkins wants a national "conversation" about the issue.

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