In general terms, the document does a good job of trying to bring potential issues with offering religious instruction to the attention of schools. These issues are both legal and ethical, and it is important that the focus of this document is kept on the rights and wellbeing of the children.
We would like to see more weight given to the precautionary principle in this document. We feel that it is important to ensure that any decision made by a school about religious instruction is made with the understanding that not allowing religious instruction in school does not infringe on the human rights of children with a religious belief, whereas allowing religious instruction has a real risk of infringing on the human rights of a child who does not have a religious belief. Because of this risk, it would be prudent to stress in the guidelines that if a school is unsure about offering religious instruction they should err on the side of caution, and choose to not allow religious instruction in the school.
These guidelines are an effort by the Ministry of Education to ensure that the legal rights of children are protected, and because most schools won’t be able to dedicate the time and expertise needed to make an informed independent decision on the topic of religious instruction, we think that it is important that all schools follow these recommendations. As such, we believe that this document should be a set of rules rather than guidelines, and that all eight recommendations become requirements. We know that the Ministry of Education have requirements for schools in other important areas, such as First Aid, Record Keeping and Property Design, and we would be keen to see the Ministry elevate the document to the status of being a set of requirements for schools rather than just guidelines.
It is concerning to see that all of the scenarios given in this document talk about schools either starting or continuing to offer religious instruction. None of the scenarios discuss schools deciding not to offer religious instruction, or choosing to stop offering religious instruction.
We think that the scenarios in this document need to be balanced, so as not to introduce bias in the reader. We understand that this document is concerned with scenarios where religious instruction is being considered, so some of the scenarios have to be about a school which offers religious instruction, but having every single scenario conclude with a school allowing religious instruction is likely to sway readers towards seeing allowing religious instruction as the norm.
In our responses to the individual guidelines below, we will make recommendations as to where we think a scenario could be edited or added to help bring balance to the document.
Offer. The document talks about boards of trustees and schools “offering” religious instruction, but the sessions are actually offered by the religious groups who run them, and permission to run the sessions within the school is given by a board of trustees. We think that the document should be edited throughout to talk of religious instruction at the school being “allowed” by boards of trustees and schools, and “offered” by religious instruction providers. We are happy with the terminology of a school “offering” an alternative non-religious programme, as this is an accurate description.
Lesson. Given that religious instruction is not a part of the New Zealand curriculum, and that it is also not generally considered to be educational, we believe that use of the word “lesson” in the context of religious instruction is problematic. We would like to see this changed throughout the document to “session”.
Use of Technology
We would like to see this document stress the use of technology, including schools’ websites and communication apps (e.g. Skoolbag), as a preferred way to disseminate information to the local community about religious instruction.
Making this information available on the school’s website, for example, has numerous benefits over more traditional dissemination methods such as sending children home with printouts. It allows the information to be anonymously viewed by parents, makes it widely available to everyone (including the parents of prospective students at the school), and ensures the information is always available and easily accessible.
We can see that the Ministry of Education has done a commendable job, on their website, of offering document templates for schools on a variety of topics including Enrolment, Financial Policy and Emergency Management. Given that these draft guidelines talk about communicating information to parents and whānau, it would be great to see a set of templates offered to schools alongside this guidance document. These templates would include:
- An example written survey seeking community input (Guideline 1)
- An example of clearly communicated written advice to parents, caregivers and whānau about religious instruction programmes and the education alternatives (Guideline 2)
- An example of a signed opt-in consent form (Guideline 4)
- An example complaints procedure, and a complaint form (Guideline 8)
We would be interested in hearing how the Ministry plans to ensure that these guidelines are disseminated to schools, including to teaching staff and school boards. We would be keen to see the Ministry take all possible measures to ensure the guidelines are understood and adopted promptly by all schools.
We would like to see the Ministry outline their plans for ensuring that these guidelines are followed by schools. It is our understanding that the Ministry of Education currently collects no information on how religious instruction is run in New Zealand schools, including even basic details such as which schools offer religious instruction. It will be impossible for the Ministry to have any idea of the success of their guidelines if they continue to have no insight into the running of religious instruction in schools.
We recommend that the Ministry of Education implement a procedure whereby schools are required to report a few basic details to the Ministry every year about religious instruction. These would include:
- Whether religious instruction is run at the school
- Whether a consultation was run in the previous 12 months, and if so why the consultation was run
- Which year groups the sessions are offered to
- The opt in/opt out numbers for each year group
- What time of day the sessions are run
- Which organisations are running the sessions
- What teaching materials are being used
- How many volunteers in the previous 12 months passed, and how many failed, safety checks
These details could then be used to identify schools likely to be having problems with following the Ministry’s guidelines, which would help the Ministry to proactively ensure that schools are compliant with their legal obligations and reduce the potential for religious instruction to be the cause of social problems for students.
1. Use community consultation to inform decision-making
We believe that consultation with the community should be performed frequently, given that in any 12 month period there is a whole new class of students who will have started at the school.
We think that ideally consultation should be run every 12 months, but that failing this it should be stressed that every 3 years is a minimum frequency.
The following bullet point can be made clearer that a consultation with the community needs to be performed regularly:
- consult every three years, or when there has been a noticeable change in the needs of the community, or if there is a proposed change to the religious instruction offered
This should be changed to:
- consult at least every three years, and also whenever there is a substantial change, such as a change in the needs of the community, or a proposed change to the religious instruction offered
It should be stressed that community consultation should not result in a simple majority being seen as a justification for offering religious instruction. The rights of all children should be considered when making this decision, not just the rights of the children of a majority of the parents.
In the scenario for this guideline, the wording makes the religious instruction program sound like it is owned by the school board:
“A board was reviewing its religious instruction programme.”
We think this should be changed to:
“A board was reviewing the religious instruction programme being run in its school.”
We would like to see a second scenario added to this guideline, where a school is approached by an organisation to allow religious instruction. The school asks for feedback from the community, receives strong views from both sides, and decides that the best course of action is to not allow religious instruction at the school. This would also be a good opportunity to highlight the use of a school’s website for disseminating information:
A second scenario for community consultation to inform decision-making
A board was approached by a local religious group about the possibility of offering religious instruction at the school. The board decided to make information about the nature and content of the proposed religious instruction programme, and on the alternative non-religious programme that would be available to those that do not participate, available on its website. The board advertised the web page in the school newsletter, on the front page of its website and social media pages, and it also sent information home with students.
The web page welcomed feedback from students, families, whānau and community members. A feedback form was hosted at the bottom of the page, with the option for submitted comments to be anonymous. The postal address of the school was given for physical submissions, and advice was given that written feedback could also be handed in to the school office.
The board considered all the feedback, and found that the community had very strong views about religious instruction, both for and against. The board decided not to start offering religious instruction at the school.
The board summarised and published the feedback and final decision, including how it arrived at the decision, in the school newsletter and on its website.
2. Provide full and accurate information to students, families and whānau to help them make informed decisions
The last bullet point in this guideline needs to make it clear that a school should let parents and whānau know which religious faith group is running religious instruction at the school, and also which individual volunteers are running the program. The point currently reads as:
- on who will be taking each of the programmes, and the time and place that the programmes will be held
This should be changed to:
- on who will be taking each of the programmes, the religious group they belong to, and the time and place that the programmes will be held
We would like to see that schools are also asked to mention any conflicts of interest among staff and board members. This could be done by adding an extra bullet point to the list:
- on any conflicts of interest among school staff or board members
The transparency of information mentioned in this section should go beyond the families and whānau of children, and should always be made publicly accessible – preferably with placement of the information on the school’s website.
We would like to see the addition of a scenario to this guideline which talks about a school gathering information about their religious instruction programme and the education alternative, and placing it in an easily accessible place on their school website, as well as sending a link to the web page to all parents:
A scenario where a school informs the community about their existing religious instruction programme
After receiving a new set of guidelines on religious instruction from the Ministry of Education, a board decided to inform the local community about a religious instruction program that had been running at their school for many years.
The board collated information on the nature and content of both the religious instruction programme and a new alternative non-religious programme they had recently started offering to students. This information was converted into a set of PDF documents.
The information was uploaded to a new page on the school’s website, and a link to the page was shared on the front page of the website, the school’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and the school’s Skoolbag app. The school newsletter let parents and whānau know about the availability of the information, and advised that a printed hard copy of the documents could be created and made available for pick-up at the school office if required.
3. Offer valid education alternatives to religious instruction
Given that religious instruction is not education, it seems overly restrictive that mention is made in these guidelines of the need for a “valid education alternative” to be offered to opted out students. This should simply be a “valid alternative”, as it seems unfair for exempted students that their activities would be restricted to educational activities only, when there is no such restriction on the students in a religious instruction session.
We think that more stress needs to be given to the preference for before or after school as an acceptable time to offer religious instruction, given that running sessions at this time is less likely to cause social issues for exempted children. We have heard many stories of children feeling left out because of being exempted from religious instruction, and ensuring that these exempted children are not at school at the times when religious instruction occurs would reduce the chance of these children feeling different to the children attending religious instruction. It is also possible that a more general division or segregation could occur among students, due to them being regularly separated into groups based on their families’ religious instruction preferences.
Related to this point, we consider it should be stressed to schools that ideally religious instruction should work around a normal school day, rather than having a school day being altered to allow for religious instruction. We think that it is unnecessarily burdensome on parents, and confusing for children, to have a school start later or end earlier on one or more days in order to cater for religious instruction.
To support the idea of religious instruction being minimally intrusive of a school day, the second scenario given in this guideline should be changed to talk about the school starting at the same time on Friday, 9.00am, as the rest of the week, and religious instruction starting earlier, at 8.30am:
A scenario where a school is closed when religious instruction programmes are offered
A board decided after consultation with its community to continue to provide religious instruction on Fridays. School started at 9.00am. Students who participated in religious instruction came to school at 8.30am. The religious instruction programme ran through to 9.00am, at which time the school opened for teaching.
4. Adopt a signed consent approach to religious instruction
The following sentence is ambiguous, and gives the impression that signed consent is sufficient to protect a child from discrimination:
“Requiring signed consent helps schools to align practices and processes with the protection of students’ rights and ensure students are free from discrimination”
This sentence should be changed to:
“Requiring signed consent helps schools to align practices and processes with the protection of students’ rights, and is a step that helps to ensure students are free from discrimination”
We think it is important that consent should be given by all legal guardians of a child before they are allowed to attend religious instruction. In cases where parents are in disagreement about whether a child should receive religious instruction, the precautionary principle should be followed and the child should be considered to be non-participatory.
We are concerned about the end of the scenario given for this section, where the religious instruction provider’s contact details are given to parents.
“The board included on the consent form the contact information of the provider of the religious instruction programme so that families and whānau could contact the provider directly for more information."
We do not feel that the best way to receive impartial advice about a religious instruction provider would be to ask them directly. It seems implausible that a religious instruction provider would ever say anything other than positive words about their own services. Instead, we think that families and whānau would best be directed to the website or other material of the provider, in order to be able to make up their mind without feeling pressured or coerced, and that they can then choose whether to contact the provider using the contact information supplied in their promotional material.
5. Use volunteers who are not teaching staff to lead religious instruction
We are concerned that the use of teachers in a supervisory role during religious instruction sessions gives them undue legitimacy. Ideally supervision should be performed by a staff member not associated by the children with learning, but we recognise that this could be difficult given that children will tend to see all adults working at the school as teaching staff. At the very least we consider it important that any supervision is undertaken by a staff member other than the students’ regular teacher.
6. Provide secular school and student support services
A paragraph should be added to this guideline stating that any volunteers from external student support services who have an affiliation with a religious group should not be allowed to promote to students any religious activities occurring outside of the school.
To offer balance, the scenario in this guideline should end with the school deciding not to allow the pastoral worker to offer services in the school, because of their affiliation with a Christian organisation:
A scenario for secular support services
A board was offered the help of a small, not-for-profit organisation that would provide support services to students, families and whānau by way of a trained individual support worker. The organisation was founded on Christian principles and provides a range of services to the community.
The board was aware that the organisation had also requested to become a religious instruction provider at the school. The board decided that, although the organisation claimed that the services the support worker would offer to students would be secular in nature, the risk of conflict in having a Christian organisation offering secular services in school was unacceptable.
The board decided to decline the organisation’s offer, and the school communicated this decision, and its reasoning, to the community.
7. Perform or sight safety checks for volunteers
We believe that the scenario given in this guideline should be changed to suggest what a school should do if the documentation for background checks is not in order:
A scenario for undertaking or sighting safety checks
A board was allowing a religious instruction programme delivered by a large, well organised religious instruction provider. All volunteers for the organisation were subject to a police vet as part of their induction.
The board instituted a Child Protection Policy which stated that it will safety check all volunteers, and requires volunteers to sign in and out at the office when visiting.
The board sought authorisation from the volunteer assigned to take the religious instruction to see their police vet and will seek authorisation from any volunteers who might fill in from time to time.
The board completed the other components of a safety check on the volunteer including an identity check, an interview, a work history check, referee checks and a risk assessment.
The volunteer was unable to provide a satisfactory work history, and the board decided that it would not allow the volunteer to offer religious instruction at the school. The board communicated their decision, and the reasons for it, to the provider, and reminded the provider of the safety checks that all volunteers need to pass before being allowed to run religious instruction sessions in the school.
8. Communicate to families and whānau the complaints procedure and use that complaints procedure to resolve issues
We feel that the first paragraph should be stronger when it comes to talking about the importance of students’ rights, as the second sentence currently makes it sound like the community need and rights of students should be balanced:
“School boards should be able to use these guidelines to design policies and practices around religious instruction that reflect community need while at the same time protect the rights of students, their families and whānau”
A preferable wording like below would stress that the protection of students’ rights is paramount:
“School boards should be able to use these guidelines to design policies and practices around religious instruction that reflect community need while at the same time ensuring that the rights of students, their families and whānau are always protected”
Due to the sensitive nature of people voicing their views on religious instruction, there should be mention of schools offering an option for families and whānau to make an anonymous complaint. This would obviously come with a disclaimer explaining that there can be no feedback or two way communication when using this form of complaint.
The guideline for this complaint should be changed to show a school taking sensible precautions when a religious instruction provider fails to abide by agreed-to rules:
A scenario for communicating and dealing with complaints
A teacher received a complaint from a parent regarding the school’s practice in religious instruction. The parent was unhappy that their child attended a religious instruction class when they had not given consent for their child to participate in the lesson.
The teacher, using the school’s complaints policy, took time to listen to the parent and make sure their concern was understood then advised the parent that they would take some time to investigate what had happened. The concern was relayed to senior management at the school.
Upon investigation, it was found that a reliever, who did not have knowledge of who had given consent for which option, was taking the class on the day in question. This led to the child remaining in the class while the religious instruction took place.
The board considered the issue and concluded that, although a school staff member had allowed the child to stay in class during religious instruction, ultimately it was the responsibility of the volunteer working for the religious instruction provider to ensure that only opted in children were attending the session. Religious instruction was suspended at the school, and the provider was advised that the sessions could continue once they had demonstrated the changes they had made in their procedures to ensure that a similar mistake would not happen again.
Please also be aware that there is a typo in the existing scenario:
“for their child to participate in to the lesson”
If the scenario is retained as is, this should be changed to:
“for their child to participate in the lesson”
We are grateful for being given the opportunity to give feedback on this set of guidelines, and thank the Ministry of Education for their diligence in taking on this important task.
This submission has been made by Jolene Phipps (President) and Mark Honeychurch (Vice President), on behalf of Humanist NZ.