Hundreds of primary school principals have stopped offering weekly religious education in schools, despite a department requirement to offer the classes.
Current Education Department guidelines state that principals "must" schedule the contentious ''special religious instruction'' (SRI) classes in the school timetable when accredited and approved instructors are available, but Education Department figures suggest the number of Victorian state schools delivering SRI programs declined by almost a third in the past two years.
In 2011, 940 government schools delivered an SRI program, but by 2013 the number plummeted to 666 - a drop of 274. In real terms, 130,100 students received SRI in 2011, with just 92,808 in 2013.
Cranbourne South Primary School Principal Joe Kelly. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
Christian organisation Access Ministries is the leading provider of instruction, delivering 81 per cent of programs through its weekly 30-minute Christian religious education (CRE) classes.
Joe Kelly has been principal of Cranbourne South Primary School for 15 years, and acknowledged that until two years ago he had been "blindly supporting" Access Ministries' presence. That was until he took a closer look at the actual classes and curriculum.
"It is not education," Mr Kelly said. "It has no value whatsoever. It is rubbish - hollow and empty rhetoric … My school teachers are committed to teaching children, not indoctrinating them."
Ross and Michelle Clennett and their son James at home in Mornington. Photo: Eddie Jim
In early 2012, Mr Kelly sent Access Ministries a two-page letter explaining why they would not be allowed back in his school. He subsequently spoke to a representative of the evangelical organisation.
"We did meet, and we agreed in the end," Mr Kelly said. "His words: 'If the school does not want Access Ministries, we will not force our way in'."
Mr Kelly said his actions created no backlash from within the school community, and nor was there any reprimand from the Education Department for his defiant stance - something he hoped would give heart to other principals considering exercising discretion.
"A lot of principals feel as strongly as I do, but they are not comfortable being as provocative as I am,'' he said.
Education Minister Martin Dixon said he had "full confidence in school principals making decisions in the interests of their parent body and the school community".
Despite the decline in numbers, Dr Evonne Paddison, chief executive of Access Ministries, said CRE was a "choice" that the parents of nearly 90,000 Victorian children still make.
"Some areas are seeing growth and others not so," she said. ''This is not an unusual pattern. CRE happens because parents want it."
Not all parents, of course. Members of the grassroots group Fairness in Religions in Schools have long agitated for change on this issue, and with some success.
Prior to August 2011, the SRI enrolment forms used by schools were "opt-out", meaning parents had to fill in the form or their child would automatically end up being taught religion, enrolled by default.
In the past two years, however, the forms became "opt-in", meaning parents have to make a conscious choice to enrol their child in religious education. This simple change had a massive impact on the popularity of SRI. Namely, far fewer kids are enrolled.
Emerald Primary School principal Mark Carver said before the form was changed, perhaps 75 per cent of students in a class of 24 would receive instruction.
"Last year that was dropping close to 50 per cent," Mr Carver said. "And once it gets below that, it becomes a difficult thing in terms of supervision."
Dr David Zyngier, a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Monash University, said his biggest concern remained for parents who opt-in but did not understand what lessons were being taught, or that they were being taught by volunteers - not teachers.
"I have reviewed all six booklets produced by Access Ministries, and it's basically low order, unintelligent, busy work and rote learning," Dr Zyngier said.
''It horrified me. There's nothing educational about it. It's all about becoming a disciple of Jesus."
Dr Paddison said the trained volunteers implement a curriculum designed with four levels of primary schooling in mind, as outlined in the Victorian Essential Learning Standards.
"As any adult interacting with young children will have some impact, we aim to make sure it is a positive one," Dr Paddison said.
Religion shouldn’t be the fourth ‘R’
Mornington father Ross Clennett did everything right. He filled out the correct form, indicating he did not want his son, James, to receive religious instruction.
The 6-year-old never made mention of God, or Jesus Christ, so it came as a surprise to flick through his son’s workbooks and discover that he had been learning about both for all of 2013, due to a manual coding error.
The school apologised for the mistake, but Mr Clennett said the real fault is in allowing religious instruction in public schools in the first place.
“This kind of mix-up was bound to happen,” he said.
“I believe there is simply no place in a government-funded school for that kind of education.”
St Kilda mother Mel Mackintosh only realised halfway through 2013 that her daughter received religious instruction for 18 months, after a similar error.
“My daughter has been told many times that God created her and the world and all that’s in it,” she said.
“This wasn’t taught as a Christian idea or belief, but as a fact.”
Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University, an expert on the intersection of religion and politics, is a member of the Uniting Church but agrees with Mr Clennett and Ms Mackintosh.
One major problem, she said, is that most religious instruction offers only one view, and no context.
Often lessons end by asking students to pray, or make personal expressions of faith. Such activity enters the realm of proselytising, which is not allowed in public schools.
“We expect kids to learn a fully rounded maths curriculum taught by trained professionals,” Professor Maddox said. “Why does religion deserve anything less?”
Correction: This story has been altered. The original story said there was a legal obligation to run religion classes where a teacher was available, but it is only an Education Department guideline.