Letter to Secretary for Education & Chief Executive

The Secretary for Education & Chief Executive is the person incharge of the Ministry of Education.  It is important for them to be aware of this issue.  You may like to use the following letter as a starting point for your own letter.  If you are short on time, you can try sending them an email linking to and supporting the content of this page.  The Ministry of Education’s general inquiries email address is info@minedu.govt.nz

OPEN LETTER TO ACTING SECRETARY FOR EDUCATION:  PETER  HUGHES

Acting Secretary for Education & Chief Executive:  Peter Hughes CNZM

Ministry of Education

PO Box:  1666

Wellington  6140

 

Dear Mr Hughes,

 

I am writing to you to express my deep concern regarding religious instruction in our secular state primary schools.  The ‘Nelson Clause’ (section 78 of the Education Act 1964) is creating a systemic and very worrying situation whereby children are segregated by faith, leading directly to discrimination and the routine disregard of human rights.  This clause enables religious groups to erode the secular nature of our schools through fictitious “closure” whilst classes in religious instruction are held.  In contrast, secularism, originally chosen for NZ schools because of religious tensions, helps foster tolerance and protects religious freedom by providing children with a religiously neutral place where they can learn side by side.  Religious instruction (RI) presents a narrow Christian perspective and requires parents to declare their personal religious views in relation to it.  Parents then have to make the unenviable choice between setting their children apart from their peers or allowing volunteers to proselytise to their children.  It is of growing concern that our ever more multicultural society is poorly served by this.  I propose that the Nelson Clause be repealed to protect children from discrimination and proselytising, as well as preserve religious freedom.

 

My family’s introduction to the issue of RI in state primary schools was atypical in that our children’s school actually informed us there were bible classes each week.  All children are automatically included in RI and schools are not required to inform parents or let them know that opting out is an option.  We opted out from the beginning and were perhaps a little naive to accept the assurances of the principal that the school would respect this.  It turned out the school was heavily religious, and like a lot of parents throughout the country, we found ourselves in a very difficult situation – trying to advocate for our children with a school that has close ties with the local church and a principal and Board that were unwilling to address the issues raised by concerned parents re Bible in Schools (BiS).

 

What I was to find was that it is typical for those children who are opted out to be repeatedly put back in these classes against the parent’s wishes.  Be it a “mistake” or “misunderstanding” this happens far too often to be credible as either.  This happened to us several times, as our children were made to sort books and the like at the back of the room whilst the classes were held.  Then the detention-like work started, as our son was put to washing dishes in the staffroom.  We put a stop to this but found the most troubling developments were still to come.  The repeated badgering of our son for not believing what some of his classmates believed got worse and worse.  He was told he would go to hell.  He was subjected to bullying that would not have occurred if those children were not having their beliefs endorsed by the school, and by not participating in RI, our children were set up for discrimination.  The anxiety that he was suffering and the prospect of ongoing discrimination from children and staff prompted to us change schools.  Fortunately, our children are both settling in well now that RI is out of the picture; however, I dread that RI will follow us to our new school as the Churches Education Commission (CEC), who runs BiS, seeks to spread its influence to as many state schools as possible.

 

I have spoken with many other parents who have had a range of negative experiences around the same issue, and examination of the issue from an ethical standpoint compels me to seek the repeal of section 78 of the Education Act – which the CEC’s own website refers to as a “loophole in the law” that grants them access to primary school children.  It is often claimed that the volunteers for BiS are not trying to proselytise.  This is blatantly untrue, as the CEC has celebrated the conversion of an entire family through the child, and refer to our state primary schools as “underexploited mission fields”; when interviewed by a reporter for Stuff.co.nz, however, they claimed that non-christians “misunderstand” the word “mission” as it is used in this example.  On their own website they prefer the language of “sowing seeds” of Christianity in these children.  The sole purpose for the existence of the CEC is promoting Christian religious instruction in schools throughout New Zealand, and the wording of the Education Act does not allow for religious education, only instruction.  The Human Rights Commission’s report, Religion in Schools; Questions and Concerns (2009) defines religious instruction as carrying “an implicit or explicit endorsement of a particular faith and/or encourages students to engage with and make decisions about accepting it on a personal level”.  In contrast, “religious education does not require students to engage with the religions being studied at a personal level or make choices about accepting those beliefs [...and...] can take place as part of the school curriculum”.  The CEC certainly does not present other world views, in a comparative way or otherwise.  It is clearly the “unchurched” children that they are most interested in gaining access to.  This is not teaching values or nurturing tolerance in our communities, it is evangelism.

 

Disingenuous claims that RI is open to every religion denies the fact that Christian groups are all but unrivalled in organisation and interest in evangelising children in state schools.  This presents children with the impression that there is only one endorsed perspective and that it is fact.

 

For approximately the last year, the Keep Religion Out Of Schools (KROOS) facebook page has been a place where issues arising from RI have been debated.  This is the public forum, whilst the Secular Education Network page is an open group providing support for those affected by RI.  The first and most prevalent misconception that people have regarding the proposed removal of the Nelson Clause is that we are seeking to deny children information about religious viewpoints.  This is demonstrably not the case, as secularism does more to protect religious freedom than endorsing one religion over all other religious and non-religious world views.  When a school, as an extension of the state, uses its position of authority to endorse a religion, it is undermining the welfare of the students who are not having their beliefs validated.  This can take the form of discrimination for those who do not conform, or the silence of children and their families hoping to not be singled out for discrimination.  It divides the students unnecessarily and can lead to emotional anguish for children as they realise their beliefs are not welcomed by the school.  Some children find RI classes deeply disturbing; I know of one child who suffered terrible nightmares caused by RI teachings and had to be moved to a different school.  When the parents opt them out the child then becomes the object of discrimination.  This should not be happening.  It is unacceptable that the only place we are required to publicly state our religious position is in our children’s secular state schools.

 

There is much discussion by Secular Education Network (SEN) members on KROOS in favour of education about belief systems, religious and non-religious, in a social studies-type framework at an appropriate age.  Primary school children do not possess the sophistication to critically assess religious material presented to them – after all, many still believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy.  This does not preclude telling children that there are different beliefs and encouraging them to respect others.

The second concern that some people have is that doing away with RI will leave a gap in the promotion of values.  Proponents of RI say that we need to teach Christian values to all children to stave off moral and societal decay.  This kind of scaremongering has precious little to do with factual reference to social indicators, as RI cannot be linked with statistically significant positive outcomes for society.  Claiming that lawlessness and teen pregnancy rates require us to get back to basic Christian values is ridiculous.  A brief perusal of statistics on teen pregnancy rates and crime do not support these assumptions.  Teen pregnancy rates have been at roughly the same level since the 1980s and the NZ Police statistics for the 2010-2012 period, show no escalation of crime in almost all categories.  (It is debatable that RI classes even focus on values. My examination of the material provided in my daughter’s Year 1 and 2 class showed a particular emphasis on “God is really, really powerful” and topics such as rising from the dead).  Being honest, kind, diligent etc hardly requires small children to make a personal decision about accepting Jesus as their “personal saviour”.

 

Many do not realise that values are already part of the NZ Curriculum.  Some RI providers, keen to avoid opposition, trade on the ‘values’ label for their bible-based classes to obscure their religious nature (eg. Values in Action run by the Life In Focus Trust).  This tactic follows the American example, but as values are part of the curriculum here and the Nelson Clause only allows for RI, it is clear that these classes are not about values in a broad ethics sense.

 

It is often pointed out by those in favour of RI that New Zealand has a Christian heritage, and they argue that Christianity deserves a privileged position as a dominant religion in our state schools.  New Zealand is a multicultural society, where we have no state religion and our state schools are nominally secular.  All children are meant to have access to state funded education that does not discriminate on the basis of religion (or anything else).

 

All of the above reasons do not even begin to address the workload that teachers are trying to get through in teaching what is in the curriculum.  RI takes up 4.5 days of school time per year in each school it is in.  Better academic outcomes can reasonably be anticipated without the interruption. I refer you to the excerpt below from a maths teacher’s blog (in which you are mentioned) where she longs for even 10 extra minutes in the day to lift student achievement and yet knows that that time would be coveted for many other subjects as well.

 

So far each of my attempts to address this problem have been obstructed by either personal pro-evangelical politics or the jurisdictional problem of the schools being legally “closed” during RI.  I have written to the Minister and the Ministry of Education.  My complaint was handled by Pauline Barnes who, with her husband, set up the Open Doors Foundation in Romania – an evangelical christian organisation.  Not surprisingly, she was unsympathetic.  I wrote to Hekia Parata again to confirm that Pauline did in fact represent her position and I received a letter to the effect that there is no intention of repealing the relevant sections of the Act (see attached).

 

My next recourse was to contact Dr Graham Stoop at the Education Review Office.  Dimension 5 of ERO’s Evaluation Indicators for School Reviews attempts to ensure a “safe and inclusive school culture”.  However, as schools or individual classrooms are legally “closed” for the duration of RI and because RI is not part of the curriculum, it is not within ERO’s  purview to assess the impact of RI at any school.  Since RI  is not part of the NZ Curriculum, neither the Ministry nor ERO are willing or able to challenge it, let alone monitor its impact.  It is worth noting that the Ministry does not keep any record of which schools run RI and neither do they check to see that it is conducted in accordance with the law.  Getting accurate figures is difficult, since the CEC is not inclined to release that information.  Around 750 state primary schools participate in RI, sometimes with the programme so entrenched that successive Boards don’t even realise that it is not part of the curriculum and that the school is closed for the duration.

 

So what about the school Boards?  This is the recommended avenue to take such grievances, but as discussed in my attached letter, the CEC member churches openly encourage their congregations to get onto their school Boards so that they are in a position to facilitate and support religious instruction at their school.  Parents left with no formal recourse except the school boards are put in an impossible position.  This is almost certainly what I encountered at my children’s first school, where I tried to get the Board to either stop BiS or poll the parents to see whether there was a mandate for it to continue.  Surveying the parents could have helped establish whether parents want RI to be during normal class hours, or treated like any other extra-curricular activity (ie outside of normal class time and opt in rather than opt out).  The Board refused.  What’s more, a school board convinced that RI should be allowed would in many cases prefer dissenters to find another school rather than be challenged about it.  It is exceedingly difficult to negotiate with a school when this is the case, for fear of how the attitudes of staff will impact your child.  The Secular Education Network’s facebook page has many examples of this sort of situation happening to families throughout the country.

 

Some parents have resorted to appealing to the Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman; however, whilst indicative of the seriousness of this issue, it is primarily to address their individual situations rather than the issue as a whole.  According to the 2006 Census approximately half of all New Zealanders have no religion and the current Census is expected to continue the trend where the non-religious will for the first time comprise more than half of the population.  Non-Christian religions have seen large increases in number in the 2006 Census, particularly Sikh (up 83%), Islam (up 52.6%) and Hindu (up 61.8%).  Unless the State is willing to disregard the beliefs of non-religious people, non-evangelical Christians and other religious groups, ending this unethical intrusion of religion into our secular state schools must be prioritised.  A change in the Education Act is necessary to achieve this.   It is not the 1960s anymore.  Secularism is not the same as promoting atheism – it takes no position on the existence of deities – and only secularism can provide a religiously neutral environment in schools, allowing families to practice their chosen religion at home, in church, Sunday School, synagogue, temple etc.

 

When you critically evaluate all the arguments for RI, all that remains is a “just let them” attitude.  That is not a valid basis to continue the status quo.  The volunteers might be nice people, but that is not a reason to carry on when there are many examples of RI causing the kind of harm I’ve discussed here.  If the pro-RI are worried for religious reasons about children from unchurched families, that is something they have to bear.  It is not up to religious groups to decide for other peoples’ children that secular state schools are theirs to infiltrate and use for indoctrination.  We should be outraged by this; many are.

The religious lobby has always been a powerful one but it is clear that attitudes in New Zealand are changing.  The support for the Marriage Reform amendment shows that ordinary New Zealanders are no longer content to allow religious rhetoric to dominate when real human issues are at stake.

 

I realise it is the rare individual in public office that would take such a contentious issue on and lobby for change.  I must point out that by virtue of the ease of social networking, concerned parents are finally in the position to be able to support each other as well as pool their knowledge and resources towards the lobbying of this cause.  The Keep Religion Out Of Schools page currently has around 6,000 followers.  The Secular Education Network has around 500.  The numbers keep going up as exposure of this issue grows.  My hope is that you will be able to assist me and the many other parents concerned with repealing the relevant sections of the Education Act so that our schools may be truly secular.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  What follows are quotes from other members of SEN and a selection of articles that I feel articulate the issue particularly well.  Also attached are the letters I mentioned above.  I look forward to hearing from you about what you can do to address this problem.

 

Yours sincerely,

One Response to Letter to Secretary for Education & Chief Executive

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