Illustration: Matt Davidson.

Illustration: Matt Davidson.

A WOMAN, perhaps in her mid-60s, enters a classroom of eight-year-olds in a state primary school on the outskirts of Melbourne. She is carrying a Bible. She joins the teacher, who reads out about eight of her pupils' names. A child stands as a name is called, and when all are called, those on their feet file out of class to a side room. They amount to about a third of this particular group; their parents have chosen to withdraw them from half-an-hour a week of Christian instruction.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal ruled recently that such scenes, which are enacted in scores of state primary schools throughout Victoria each week, are non-discriminatory. Whatever we think of that decision, the VCAT case, which was brought by three parents, failed to address a more fundamental question.

When Victorian students are reading and spelling less well, Christianity is declining and Julia Gillard is desperate to improve school education, are children getting pedagogic value out of almost 3 per cent of class time sequestered for Christian instruction?

Under Education Department guidelines, pupils removed to side rooms must not be taught "core curriculum". They must be "appropriately supervised" in activities such as revision, "self-study" and "positive independent learning".

But what happens to those who remain in class?

ACCESS ministries, which is responsible for almost all religious instruction in Victorian primary schools, has trained for 5 hours the woman with the Bible. She has volunteered to take Christianity to children. ACCESS' website says that "every day of the school year", its 3200 "teachers" are "sharing God's love" with more than 130,000 Victorian children. According to the statutes, public schools must let ACCESS into classrooms. And, to a significant extent, taxpayers foot the bill for the organisation's activities.

The principal of the primary school on the city fringes is incensed that ACCESS' Christian religious education (CRE) is in his borough. It simply wastes precious classroom time, he told me. It is unprofessional, and possibly "pedagogically harmful". He is determined to rid his school of it by next year.

Like many opponents of the scheme, he calls the ACCESS half-hour a lost opportunity. His school council – he is its "executive officer" – has resolved that the school officially "does not support the practice of volunteer-run [religious instruction] during school hours". He wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals by the department, which supports ACCESS.

His extensive notes of several ACCESS sessions reveal that the volunteers do almost all the talking. They rush to cover what is dictated in brightly coloured workbooks that anchor each half-hour. (And that parents pay for.) No real teaching goes on, he says, because the children are not invited to review what is being put to them, draw inferences from it, and use the conclusions as bases for action, further knowledge and experience.

One lesson, for example, began with children bringing felt silhouettes of sheep, rocks, soil and grass to the front of the class to stick on a backdrop, producing a diorama representing a shepherd and his flock. The instructor revised the Biblical story of the lost sheep, coaxing the kids with questions such as: "Who is like the shepherd in the story?" She enlarged their responses: "Yes, Jesus or God [is like the shepherd], because if the sheep are like people and God is like a shepherd, God cares very much about people . . . and wants them all to be safe." No discussion. A jaunty song and a prayer followed. In many sessions, the volunteer gets children to read relevant Bible passages.

To brand this as proselytising – as opponents of CRE do – is debatable. (By law, ACCESS must not try to convert children to Christianity.) What cannot be questioned, though, is its unprofessionalism.

The principal cites a lesson in which a child asked the question: "Why is it called the Dead Sea?" The ACCESS volunteer replied: "Because nothing lives in it." Apart from the answer's wrongness, he says, the question would have led – in the hands of a trained teacher – to the class investigating if, indeed, anything does live in the Dead Sea. They might have discovered that algae, bacteria and microbial fungi survive there, which would have led, of course, to discussions about the differences between these living things.

He says that the ACCESS lessons he has observed are "tantamount to indoctrination . . . with little or no semblance to good teaching".

Between March 2010 and June 2011, the state government granted $675,000 to ACCESS to run CRE. But the organisation also gets federal funds for chaplains who provide pastoral care in schools – a Howard government initiative. On the ACCESS website, its 2010 annual report shows that 38 per cent of its funding comes from the federal government – about $5 million a year. The organisation, which has made a loss for the past three years, is sponsored by a dozen Protestant sects, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Wesleyan Methodists.

In a flagrantly multicultural society a question begs for an answer: wouldn't Victorian schools be better off replacing CRE with a professional half-hour of teaching about religions and ethics?

Several things are clearly wrong about ACCESS' access to children. It aims to promote only Christianity in a multicultural, multi-faith society. Its teaching is unprofessional, yet occupies almost 3 per cent of classroom time. And taxpayers are paying for it – even parents who choose to withdraw their sons and daughters from CRE classes.

I asked Education Minister Martin Dixon to answer a single question: why does the government continue to support classroom time for unprofessionally delivered Christian instruction? Mr Dixon's spokesman replied that the volunteers were "appropriately qualified". The department funded ACCESS to support the "training, orientation and induction of volunteer special religious instructors". Parents had the right "at all times" to decide whether or not their children participated.

Stephen Downes is a journalist and writer who taught maths and science at high school level, teaches at universities, and has presented hundreds of hours of his own training programs. He holds a certificate IV in workplace training. He is also a former Age education editor.