Friday, November 9, 2012

A Question of Faith: Reforming Religious Education in Schools

Corroborree at Ingleside State School!!
Corroborree at Ingleside State School (Photo credit: JIGGS IMAGES)
by Dr Anna Halafoff, Research Fellow, Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University
and Dr Sue Smith, Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Development, School of Education at Charles Darwin University, The Conversation:

Last month, a Victorian tribunal found that the state department of education did not discriminate against children opting out of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes.

The plaintiffs - parents who chose to opt their children out of the classes - argued the students were treated differently, on religious grounds, and were not being offered proper instruction during SRI time.

The case has succeeded in creating public awareness of the flaws in the current system and in undermining the priority it gives to Christianity. But the victory is limited, and parents, educators, scholars and community leaders are continuing to call for improvements to SRI.

Reform is needed to create a more inclusive and equitable model of religious education.

From exclusion to inclusion

Victorian legislation states that public education is secular, but SRI programs remain exempt. SRI classes are taught by volunteers from various religious groups but the diversity of religions is not taught in a single class. The focus of each class is given to just one religion and most schools who offer SRI only provide a Christian option.

Before 2011, SRI was run as an opt-out system, which meant that all students were automatically enrolled in Christian SRI classes unless their parents specified otherwise.

A number of recommendations have been made in Australian studies over the past decade to either reform or abolish SRI, or SRE as it’s known in New South Wales, including calls to introduce the study of diverse Religions and Beliefs Education (RBE), also known as General Religions and Ethics Education (GREE) in Australia.

This alternative model is more inclusive and teaches about a variety of religions and beliefs rather than just one.

These findings are in line with leading research emerging from the UK and the EU that has documented the benefits of these programs, which have been running in schools since the 1980s, as peacebuilding strategies in increasingly religiously diverse societies.

However, up until this recent case, these recommendations have largely fallen upon deaf ears in Victoria.

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