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Talking About Religion and Schools

Kyle Church Interview With Peter Harrison

Peter Harrison is the Co-ordinator for the Secular Education Network, an organisation established to provide support and information to parents concerned about religious instruction in schools. This weekend he is a speaker at the Sean Faircloth speaking series that is travelling the country.

Kyle: I’m with Peter Harrision the Co-ordinator for the Secular Education Network, and we’re just going to be having a brief chat about what the Secular Education Network is doing, and about Sean Faircloth’s talk which is coming up for the first time in Auckland on Saturday.

So, what I wanted to start with, just for people who don’t know what the Secular Education Network is, maybe just a very brief outline about what its purpose is.

Peter: Sure, well the Secular Education Network was founded pretty much a year ago, it came out of a concern that parents, they were coming to the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists and asking questions about religion in schools, and we had some advice for them, and brochures and so on, but weren’t really taking a proactive approach in terms of reaching out to the community. So, what the Secular Education Network was about was actually creating a community of parents that could support themselves, and basically creating that community so they can support each other right throughout the country- rather than having a relatively small organisation such as the NZRH try and handle that themselves.

K: Just to make the distinction here, we’re not talking about religion in schools in general in the sense of say, private catholic schools.

P: When we’re talking religion in schools, we’re talking about the religious instruction which occurs outside of the official school hours. So we’re talking about what’s effectively, well we call it religious indoctrination- the purpose is to try and convert the children, or at least increase the chance of them being converted. Some of that is disputed by the operators, but the teachers are very clear about what the ultimate purpose is, they’ve called them ‘mission fields’ in the past.

K: And you’ve actually had a lot of parents coming to the organisation since its founding haven’t you?

P: Yes, so, originally, the original set of parents, there were about three or four sets of parents who approached our organisation. The first move was just establishing the Facebook page and we got quite a few parents through that, and obviously that was starting to build up. But about a year ago we formed, sort of an official campaign and actually started funding it, so it went from just having a Facebook page to actually putting money into promoting it and having meetings and getting parents together

K: For the purposes of a support group for parents who believe in a secular education system.

P: Yes, and it isn’t exclusively parents, I mean, there’re parents, there’re teachers, there’re various people who are involved, of course the people who are mainly concerned and affected are the parents, and obviously the children.

K: I guess there’s a necessity to bring the rest of the community into it as well, in regard to getting teachers along. And you’ve just launched a new website correct?

P: We’ve just launched a new website which is religioninschools.co.nz, so originally it was an offshoot. We have a website called reason.org.nz which has a broader remit than just religion in schools. The religion in schools website is aimed at making some kind of distinction between the NZRH which is unabashedly an atheist organisation and the Secular Education Network, which isn’t. We’ve been very clear about this, anyone can be involved, in fact we do have pastors and priests involved because they also believe the secular world view that we shouldn’t be discriminating on the basis of religion. It’s not accepted by all religious group that that’s what we’re trying to do, but there are groups, there are religious groups, that have taken on board our message that we’re actually trying to protect religion, or at least we’re trying to protect people’s right to have their own religion

K: Or not as the case may be

P: Or not as the case may be, yes.

K: Right, because that’s actually one of the things I was going to ask you, is how have religious organisations, and maybe specifically some of the organisations going into schools, how have they responded to this?

P: They’ve responded, initially, in a rather defensive way. And I have to admit, the major provider which is CEC, the Christian Education Commission, they’ve taken a more enlightened approach I believe, I mean obviously they’re not quite where we are, but then I wouldn’t expect them to be, but they did take on my point of informed consent. I’ve been talking about informed consent, I know it sounds kind of obvious what that means, but informed means that the parents are told what the nature of these classes are, you don’t try and disguise them as values only classes, because there’s already a secular values programme which can be run in school time, so there’s no reason whatsoever to run an external, extracurricular values programme which excludes children.

K: Yeah, because, just as a bit of background I guess, one of the concerns was that a lot of the schools that are running these bible classes are doing so on an opt out basis. So students are having to opt out of it if they don’t want to do it. And often parents aren’t finding out until after their children had already been along to these classes.

P: Absolutely, and it actually goes further than that, for starters parents may not be told, they may be told that it’s a values programme like I was saying.

K: Oh, they might actually tell them it’s a values programme without saying anything about the religious content of the programmes?

P: Yes, so for example give the child a note, or a permission slip, which says “Do you want your child to attend a values programme?”

K: And parents will obviously say, “Oh of course, I want my child to have values”

P: Yes, so when we’re talking about informed consent, we mean that they have to be honest and upfront and provide accurate information, prior to the child being included in the class. And obviously the parents have to provide explicit permission, so none of this business of, well we send a note home to say “Send us a note back if you don’t want your child to attend”. That should be reversed so that you need explicit consent, just like you would for an extra-curricular activity of any other kind.

K: Yeah, and I guess that makes sense as well. So, something that has recently happened is your charter schools legislation submission. What risks has the Secular Education Network identified in regards to that?

P: I think there are a few issues around charter schools, and from the rationalist point of view, the NZRH point of view, one of the concerns is that the policy itself has no evidential basis, it’s based primarily in ideology. It appears to have been driven primarily by the ACT party, in an agreement with National. Now we’ve been having discussions with the ACT party and they dispute some of those things, but I think it’s clear that National wouldn’t be introducing this policy without the ACT party putting it forward. Certainly National did not electioneer based on this policy, so they don’t really have a mandate in that sense.

K: Right, so that’s actually what John Key said, that this was the nature of MMP, and they needed to make some concessions to the ACT party and so we’re going to take this policy on board as part of that.

P: Yes, so I don’t feel that’s a good way to be doing policy development. I’m personally of the belief that we should have a system which is, perhaps has values at its base so we express our values, but the policy should come from an evaluation to see that the policies achieve the values that we’re interested in. So it could be, so if ACT were to say, “What we want to do is improve choice in education”, then they would have a valid argument, to say, well, charter schools increase choice. But that’s not the argument they’re making, they’re making the argument that this is going to improve the long tail of underachievement. And there’s no evidence that a charter schools system is going to do that.

K: And where has secularism come into this, in terms of religious schools?

P: I guess… so there’re two arguments, so that one was the rationalist argument. There’s also a secular and freedom of education issue. It appears to be the fact that a predominant number of the organisations running these schools are going to be religious organisations, these are a large number of the organisations that have expressed interest. And it seems evident from who’s interested, and also from overseas experience, where a vast majority of the charter schools organisations are religious, that this is what we’re going to end up with- funding of these religious schools in New Zealand. Now, it’s true that we already have religious schools in New Zealand, so this is only making it worse. We’re not saying that this is a new problem necessarily, but it’s certainly one that is exacerbating an existing problem.

K: I guess one of the concerns would be that these charter schools wouldn’t be monitored to the same degree as some of the public and private schools we have currently.

P: Well, they’re expressly excluded from the Official Information Act, which is a very concerning development. It means that they’re going to be these religious schools which potentially, there’re all sorts of concerns about the quality of the education, the training of the teachers, the development of the curriculum, and all sorts of other areas where there are very serious concerns, and they need to be examined thoroughly. Instead of going down that line we are actually opening them up and closing off all kinds of scrutiny.

K: So, you’ve made the submission to the select committee, and you’ve got Sean Faircloth coming to do a series of talks in New Zealand in the next week and a half. And he’s talking about secularism in education and the separation of church and state.

P: Yeah, he has a somewhat broader remit, he’s talking about his experiences in the United States obviously. In the US we’ve seen things like certain educational facilities, religious organisations running these facilities, not being accountable like the other secular or non-religious organisations are, and as a result there are children who have been harmed because of a lack of safety guidelines that the secular organisations had. They’ve had a less safe environment for the children. His remit is somewhat wider. I’ll be talking about the NZ situation on Saturday, we’ll both be speaking, one after the other. The issue in the US is slightly different, they do have the voucher system and charter schools and they do have a predominant number of religious organisations running those schools. And you do see the teaching creeping in, of creationism for example. But in America there is protection, so even the charter schools can’t outright teach whatever they want.

K: Right, so they’re still being monitored by whatever educational body is responsible for schools.

P: Yeah, to a somewhat less degree than the public schools, but there are still some standards about what they can and cannot do. In New Zealand there isn’t going to be, under the proposed legislation there isn’t going to be protection, they’ll be able to openly teach creationism to their students and effectively that’s an indoctrination into a religion. And it’s the position of the NZRH that the government shouldn’t be in the business of helping religions indoctrinate children.

K: So there’s that point we just covered before as well that there’s a distinct difference between religious education and religious instruction.

P: Yes, a gulf of difference. So roughly 40% of public and private schools in New Zealand operate some kind of religious instruction which is effectively trying to indoctrinate children. You’ve got volunteers coming from church groups, who have a firm belief in their religion, and are conducting it in a way that they’ve been trained, to try and bring children into the faith. In New Zealand it’s not quite as open, they don’t want to be seen to be too evangelical, but certainly in Australia the group there, which is called Access, has been exceptionally open about the fact that they want to bring children to Christ.

K: I’ve actually got a bit of a teaching background and some of the stories I’ve heard about bible studies in schools have been, the teachers have been quite open about what they’re doing and on some levels, you might almost describe it as insidious.

P: Yeah, they have been quite open in New Zealand as well, it’s really only the CEC which is trying to soft-pedal that particular aspect.

K: And that’s after being in discussion with the Secular Education Network?

P: Yes well, we’ve had several public discussions and they emphasise the fact that they’re not there to indoctrinate children, but it’s hard to, they were the bible in schools league I believe, the particular purpose of their existence was promoting religion, so it’s hard to see how they’re being completely honest about that position. They certainly have an interest in bringing children to Christ. And to be honest they see that, the members who are doing this, I think, are genuinely good people, who believe they are doing the right thing. We don’t believe that these people are evil or that they’re doing it for bad purposes, at least they don’t perceive it that way. However, the effect, the outcome, is not good- you are excluding children you’re making them feel stigmatised and excluded, and ostracised from their class members

K: And I guess that’s the case for children of other religions, and from non-religious families, and the opt-out mechanism that we have means that…

P: Yeah, even for Christians, I heard a story the other day of the Exclusive Brethren for example, excluded in this manner. So it’s even other Christian denominations, which is why we have things like private Catholic schools. Ironically, I feel that that is actually a marginally better system, as people going to a catholic school know they’re doing it

K: So they’ve made a decision about it themselves

P: Yes, and there’s another issue of the funding of that, however the catholic approach is particularly mild in my experience, in fact the RE inside catholic schools is reported to be milder than the religious instruction being taught at state schools.

K: Right, from what I’ve seen of that, in religious education, they are actually teaching somewhat the history of the religion, and of other religions.

P: There has been, yeah, so that occurs in catholic schools, although obviously they have a bias, although they do discuss other religions. And in secular schools we should be having religious education, anyone suggesting that we shouldn’t teach about religions, we’re not trying to exclude all discussion, what we would like to see is an even handed unbiased critical look at the influence religion has had on the world, so both the good and the bad.

K: And values discussion could be part of that as well, you’re not saying “No we don’t want any values for our children”?

P: Absolutely, although we would like to see it be separate from religion. The coupling between values and religion is a dangerous concept I think. We should be teaching values as a separate exercise, we want to be able to teach all of our children values, and we don’t want to be linking it to particular religious concepts.

K: Okay, so event coming up this weekend, here at the University of Auckland, in the Owen Glenn building I believe?

P: Yes

K: And who’s speaking there? There’s you, Sean Faircloth, and I think there’s one more…

P: Michael Gousmett, he’s going to be talking about the taxation side, what advantages religions get from the state, from the point of view of tax relief, and other benefits that aren’t available to, you and me for example.

K: So this is a speaker series about the separation of church and state, with a specific focus, on your part, looking at religion in NZ schools.

P: Yes

K: Excellent, well thank you very much Peter.

P: Thank you.

Sean Faircloth’s speaking tour begins on Saturday 6th April in Auckland, and includes talks from Peter Harrison and Michael Gousmett. Sean Faircloth will be continuing the tour through Hawkes Bay, Christchurch and Wellington. Dates, times and ticketing information can be found here: http://www.reason.org.nz/index.php/8-news/29-seanfaircloth

-Kyle Church

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