The facts

Most parent’s don’t realise but there are many SA public primary and secondary schools that allow religious activities including outright evangelism into the school yard, in school time. Currently this is mostly Christian.  As a result, parents of other faiths or no-faith are having to shop around for schools to find one without evangelical activity.  Under the Education Regulations 2012 and Department of Education and Child Development (DECD) Religious Activities in Government Schools Policy 2013, strangely, state schools are allowed to offer any kind of religious activity.

However FIRIS-SA think this practice is eroding the secular nature of our public schools and impacts on the capacity of schools to support diversity and tolerance in the school yard. DECD policy needs strengthening, as it is being misinterpreted, and the privilege that church groups have of being invited in to our schools is being abused.  For many parents this situation has created friction and conflicts of interest – that are not always managed well e.g. Governing Council members are not necessarily stepping down for decisions about their own church groups or congregations. Its also hard on our teachers who are expected to supervise evangelical activities, against their better judgement.

On top of this, there is a special complaints procedure for Schools Ministry Group that by-passes the process of logging parent issues with the DECD Complaints Unit. FIRIS-SA believe this results in under-reporting.

This has created a situation where in some public schools, there is now a plethora of poor quality, poorly supervised, highly evangelical religious activities which is a concern to parents.

TYPES OF ORGANISATIONS AND ACTIVITIES

The types of organisations and activities you will see on our Watch list tab that have come to our attention include:

– programs, small groups or 1:1 programs being run by Christian Pastoral Support Workers (CPSWs)

– programs run by church volunteers or external groups invited into your school by the CPSW

– programs run by church volunteers or external groups invited into your school by Governing Council, the principal, other teachers or parents

– organisations running programs run outside the school such as school camps, off-site seminars, and even things like sports clinics or school holiday activities promoted through the school newsletters.

Depending on your school there may be other overlaps and encroachments. In some schools evangelists are active in after-school care, before school care or have set up free after school ‘clubs’ across the road from schools attracting kids with X-boxes and running bible readings.

AREAS OF CONCERN

Some of our concerns about religious activities in public schools include:

1) Segregation of children based on faith. FIRIS-SA believe that faith-based programs where children are required to opt in OR out, are not appropriate and lead to bullying. The school yard is a place to promote diversity and tolerance. Schools that offer religious programs where parents have to opt their children in OR out, are segregating children based on faith, for no educational benefit. There are plenty of opportunities outside school for families to pursue religious activities or religious instruction in SA, it is not necessary or appropriate in public schools.

2) Misuse of consent processes. If religious activities are run in schools, DECD policy says parents see the materials and provide informed consent. However evangelists like SMG Life Matters and Scripture Union SA (aka Christian or Primary Options Program, or SMG/SUSA Easter or Christmas Programs) often promote an opt-out consent process only.  This is a SUSA website quote – ” Parents are always informed about the Christian Options Program prior to the team coming to the school, and are given the opportunity to withdraw their children.” This is very different to informed consent. It means if you don’t send back the form, the default position is to include your child. It is a breach of DECD policy.

3) Less than honest promotion. Religious activities run by external groups are not designed or delivered by DECD teachers and program materials are not real curriculum (even though this is often implied by using government logos on consent forms, or by saying it ‘complements the curriculum’ ).  We believe that if parents haven’t actually seen the materials, then this is not informed consent.  Scripture Union SA say they will share materials, but FIRIS-SA parents have yet to get a response to our request for materials.  Some religious groups also tell parents they are not welcome to attend to watch – which is concerning.  Some also attempt to play down or disguise the religious content by saying ‘we are just sharing Good News’ or ‘we will be sharing our own personal experience and may speak about God or Jesus’.

4) Privileging and promoting a religion. Currently the dominant religion in Australia is Christianity, and we feel DECD policy and the schools are unfairly promoting it. Through seminars like the Christian Options Program, religious lunchtime programs, before school or after-school religious activities – public schools are privileging and promoting Christianity. Public schools are intended to be an environment that  supports children of all faiths AND no-faith. While children should be educated broadly by real teachers about religions of the world, public schools should be promoting religious neutrality and moral equality.

5) Confusion between religious education and religious instruction. Religious education is about belief systems including those of people with no faith. It is led, designed and delivered by qualified teachers employed by DECD and based on DECD approved curriculum.  By contrast, religious instruction teaches children about one faith, so is usually taught by someone from that faith group. The latter is not education, and therefore not needed in public schools. Families are not short of opportunities for this to occur in the community, outside school time, without interrupting the education of children of other faiths or no faith. Religious instruction is the role of the family, not the school.

6) Christian valuesIt is often argued that religious activities in schools, including the presence of school chaplains are needed to help our children develop ‘christian values’. For some parents this is seen as positive, but for others its considered negative. This is why public schools only need to promote religious neutrality, tolerance and diversity. We believe that qualified school teachers, working in partnership with parents are quite capable of instilling good values in our children. This is not the job of external evangelists or schools chaplains.

7) Resource impost. All religious activities in public schools need teacher supervision. Given that religious activities are for the benefit of adults who seek to minister to children, not for the benefit of children this is a huge resource impost. In addition to supervision, schools are also supposed to be treating all external religious groups the same as any volunteer i.e. having a bona-fide role, sighting police checks, logging movement in and out of school grounds, being supervised by a teacher, and ensuring proper procedures around access to your children.

8) Poor complaints procedure. The grievance process in the Religious Activities in Government Schools policy effectively buries parent complaints. It expect parents to ‘work it out between the parties’, and the the principal doesn’t even have to represent himself in this process, just be represented by his delegate.  It then gets escalated through the para-church group SMG. This is completely different to the mainstream Education Complaints procedures where parents have the right to pick up the phone to the DECD Complaints Unit at any time in the process and log their issue. Hence DECD report a low number of complaints.

SPECIFIC CONCERNS WITH THE SCHOOL CHAPLAINS

We are particularly concerned about the governance and management practices of Schools Ministry Group (SMG) the employer of all the school chaplains – in SA called the Christian Pastoral Support Worker (CPSW ) – under the National School Chaplaincy Program.

Some of our concerns are:

1) Discriminatory hiring practices. When people apply for a job with SMG to be a CPSW they are required to sign-up to be celibate (unless married) and prove they are a regular church goer – and even supply a reference from their Pastor. This means people who are in de facto relationships or same sex relationships are unable to even apply to be a CPSW.  This is discriminatory and poor management practice and doesn’t reflect community standards, nor the guidance on Best Practice Recruitment and Selection published by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Many parents and teachers currently have no idea they are a party to this type of discrimination when they appoint a CPSW. Nor of impact it has by reducing their opportunity to use open, competitive, merit based selection processes to find the best person for their school. www.smg.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/Expression-of-Interest-Form-CPSW-role-20133.doc (Word document, 140kb)

2) Fundamentalist values. Not only does discriminatory hiring practices block other capable people from working in public schools, it ends up delivering a workforce of people with a very particular christian view, based on very literal interpretations of scripture. While they have a right to hold these views, but they are are completely unrelated to their job.

3) Unworkable processes. For example, if your school is only offering a camp at a Christian camp-site, and has included the school chaplain in the camp program, then it is physically impossible to opt children out of religious content or contact with the CPSW, without them missing out on the Camp, or the program. Similarly some school chaplains run the Student Representative Council, so if parents want to opt children out – they miss out on being a student representative.

4) Fuzzy job descriptions. The school chaplain is not permitted to counsel children, but are required to ‘be a presence’ in the school yard, on camps and excursions. They are not a teacher, but are allowed to have unsupervised time with children. They are there to offer pastoral care, even though there was never a documented gap in ‘pastoral’ needs in schools. The AEU, Australian Psychological Society, Australian Psychologists & Counsellors in Schools and Beyond Blue all say the program should be ceased.

5) Lack of school procedures to ensure safety. In 2010 the NT Ombudsman did a review of school chaplains in a rural area of NT. This report clearly identified many issues that are transferrable and relevant for SA such as lack of procedures around access to children, consent processes, ensuring teacher supervision of any 1:1 contact with children. It is worth the read: Investigation into the Operation of Chaplaincy services within 5 NT rural schools

Frankly, our biggest concern is that we have to justify ourselves. Parents have a right to expect public schools to be a secular environment. It is disappointing that we have to say more.