For State Primary School Boards of Trustees
Boards of Trustees will sometimes approve the introduction of Religious Instruction on the recommendation of a group of well meaning volunteers without a lot of consideration. However, these volunteers are not the ones responsible for the outcome and there is a lot to consider if you are thinking of introducing Religious Instruction. Ultimately the board is accountable for any problems. Here are a few questions you should be able to answer before you introduce Religious Instruction;
- Is it appropriate for the school board to choose one religion for the community or offer multiple religions?
- How will you ensure that you are able to comply with the legal requirement to allow parents to opt their children out?
- How will you communicate with parents? How will you ensure you receive informed consent from parents?
- What steps will you need to take to ensure that the volunteers are suitable to work with children?
- What Alternative Program will you offer to children who are opted-out?
- How will you maintain a “Safe and inclusive” environment while segregating the opt-out children?
- What procedures will be in place to insure individual staff members do not let their personal opinions result in discriminatory behaviour toward opted-out children?
- Could the time be better used by the usual teacher?
- Who will have time to deal with the inevitable complaints about Religious Instruction?
- What impact could negative publicity from human rights groups have on the school staff and yourself?
- If you choose to run this as a values program, how will the opted-out children receive the required values curriculum? and the required science curriculum?
Primary School Board of Trustee Guidelines
The Secular Education Network does not recommend that school boards allow classrooms to be closed so that church volunteers can teach Religious Instruction during school hours. It creates a “Them and Us” attitude and can lead to social problems such as bullying and is contrary to the Ministry of Education’s NAG 5.
Before you make your decision
Before you make your decision, we recommend you take the following steps;
- Survey Parents. Responsible schools survey parents before making a decision about Religious Instruction. The Education Act states“No pupil enrolled at a State primary school shall be required to attend or take part in any such instruction or observances if any parent or guardian of the pupil does not wish the pupil to take part therein…”
A Survey can be an indication of how may families will not want to take part in Religious Instruction and therefore how many you will have to cater for. Here is a Generic Parent Survey that you may like to use.
- Run Religious Instruction as a before or after school activity; this way any demand can be catered for, with no children being disadvantaged.
- Read our guidelines below and consider all of the questions above.
- Familiarise yourself with sections 77 to 79 of the Education Act 1964 which limits when classrooms may be closed for Religious Instruction.
- Read the Human Rights Commission Publication Religion in New Zealand Schools – Questions and Concerns.
- Farmiliarise yourself with the Ministry of educations National Administration Guidelienes 5 & 6. .
- Read the Media coverage on our News Media Page; this will help you to understand the type of media attention you might attract if you choose to allow Religious Instruction.
- Plan your alternative programme for students who will not attend Religious Instruction.
Introducing Religious Instruction – Informed Consent
If you do decide to introduce Religious Instruction, we recommend the following guidelines as a minimum. These recommendations are based on the complaints that we have received and are designed to minimise the complaints that you will have to deal with.
The Secular Education Network has been promoting the practise of schools gaining informed consent from parents prior to including children in Religious Education programmes. There are two aspects to informed consent;
- Accurate information for caregivers.
- Seeking parental consent before including a child in Religious Instruction.
Inform Parents with clear and accurate information
Schools must provide clear and accurate information to both parents and prospective parents about Religious Instruction. We believe this should include information about the curriculum. Including;
- what the goal of the programme is,
- what values and stories will be included,
- which religious group(s) they represent,
- that their child’s classroom will be closed,
- that you have a legal right to opt-out of Religious Instruction,
- instructions on how to opt out,
- who will be in charge during this time (i.e. will their usual teacher be required to stay in the classroom), and
- what the children who are opted out will be doing and who will be supervising them.
Ideally this should be made publicly available;
- in the new parent information pack,
- on the schools web site,
- on the schools Facebook Page, and
- in any other printed materials used to educate parents about the policies of the school.
All communication should meet the advertising standards. In 2007 the advertising standards authority upheld a complaint by parents about communication on Religious Instruction. In this case, the Chairman ruled that the following provisions from the Code of Ethics were relevant:
- Basic Principle 4: All advertisements should be prepared with a due sense of social responsibility to consumers and to society.
- Rule 2: Truthful Presentation - Advertisements should not contain any statement or visual presentation or create an overall impression which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is misleading or deceptive, is likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, makes false and misleading representation, abuses the trust of the consumer or exploits his/her lack of experience or knowledge. (Obvious hyperbole, identifiable as such, is not considered to be misleading).
- Rule 8: Denigration – Advertisements should not denigrate identifiable products or competitors.
The advertising standards authority also covers the omission of information.
Seek Informed Consent
The second aspect of consent is that schools should respect the right of parents to choose what is best for their children. While the current law may permit schools to include children in religious education programmes without parental consent, we support parents rights to know about and provide active consent for their children before they attend these programmes. This means that schools should seek explicit permission from parents rather than including children in Religious Instruction without consent.
Schools should make available an informed consent form that clearly and accurately informs parents that their child’s classroom will be closed for Religious Instruction. Do not use phrases such as;
- Values Programme,
- Values in Action,
- Cool Bananas,
- Champions; or
- Any other phrase without also clearly indicating that the programme is Religious Instruction.
The following opt in form from Sherwood primary school DOES meet the Secular Education Network Guidelines.
The following examples do NOT meet the secular education guidelines;
Permission slips that use misleading terms, such as the following one that mentions learning about religion, or only “stories from the Bible”. Classrooms do not need to be closed to teach about religion. It is only necessary to close to provide Religious Instruction. Therefore, it is misleading to confuse Religious Instruction with learning about religion in general.
Restrict classes to the Senior School
Many of the complaints we receive from parents are about very young children. Parents are much more sensitive about what is taught to their 5 year old, than an older child. If the school feels strongly that it wishes to include Religious Instruction, we recommend it be presented to older children who have developed an appropriate level of critical thinking.
Monitoring of Volunteers
Many of the complaints we receive are about inappropriate communication from Religious Volunteers. These complaints often result in the volunteer denying that they said what the child claims. It is unfair to put young children in this position. If possible the usual teacher should remain in the classroom while Religious Instruction is conducted and schools should communicate with teachers about policies on how to deal with any issues regarding the conduct of these volunteers. UPDATE: Recent NZEI action has highlighted that under NZ employment law, teachers also have the right to be free of compulsion to attend religious instruction or observance. A school may not force a teacher to attend or supervise Religious Instruction. Additionally teachers must avoid the impression of endorsing one particular child’s religion over another’s, so there’s a conflicting need to balance pupils and teacher’s rights in this situation.
Education and Science Select Committee Briefing : Religious Instruction and Observance in State Primary Schools – the legal framework within
which the Boards of Trustees (“Boards”) of state schools may choose
to offer religious instruction and observances and the relevant constraints on
their ability to do this.
Want some help?
If you are a board member and would like some help, please leave a comment, all comments are moderated.
We have support people available in most parts of the country, if you would like a member of SEN to support you, talk to your board or provide any resources. Please let us know.