Religion in Victorian Government schools

In recent months Victoria has been in uproar over the issue of religious education in government schools.

Controversy erupted when Evonne Paddison, when it was revealed that the CEO of Christian education group Access Ministries, made reference to making “disciples” during a conference speech.

Critics have argued that the comment constitutes a breach in government guidelines that ban groups who deliver religious education programs in schools from trying to convert students to a particular religion.

The initial concerns over Access Ministries’ motives and their extensive involvement in religious education in Victorian Government schools have since branched out into broader concerns about whether religious education should be part of the otherwise secular government school curriculum and whether it should receive government funding.

Victorian government school students receive two main forms of government-funded religious education:  

  • National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) — this Commonwealth Government program (introduced by the Howard government in 2006) provides funding to assist schools nationwide to establish chaplaincy and pastoral care services. Chaplains provide pastoral care as well as spiritual guidance for school students, staff and parents. Over $165 million over three years has been made available to fund the program, enabling government and non-government schools to apply for $20,000 per year to fund a chaplain (who need not be formally qualified) from the faith or denomination of their choice. It is up to individual schools to determine the role of the chaplain in their school.
     
  • Special Religious Instruction (SRI) — 30-minute weekly lessons on religion funded by the Victorian Government, which in the case of Access Ministries involve accredited volunteers instructing students on Christianity. By law, Victorian government schools must provide SRI where an approved instructor is available and has approached the school.

Major concerns with NSCP:

  • Psychologists are accusing chaplains of dealing with mental health issues they are not qualified to treat.
  • There are reports of chaplains trying to convert students — the Federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has received 72 complaints against individual chaplains.
  • The program has been the subject of a recent government investigation is also the subject of a High Court challenge due to be heard in August.

Major concerns with SRI:

  • While parents have the right to opt their children out of the classes, some have argued that doing so ostracises their children and results in them having to sit outside or at the back of the classroom without meaningful activities to occupy their time. The Victorian Departnent of Education and Early Childhood Development's guidelines state that secular instruction for opt-out students may not be timetabled while other students from the class are attending SRI.
  • While SRI may be conducted by approved members of any faith (including Catholic, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Islamic or Buddist), Christian Access Ministries’ volunteers teach 96 per cent of the religious instruction in Victorian schools (281 schools in total). The state government spends $500,000 annually funding Access Ministries’ chaplains.
  • Access Ministries’ SRI programs are instructed by volunteers rather than qualified educators, although all volunteers are accredited and undergo a Working with Children check.
  • SRI providers do not provide multi-faith lessons — they are only required to teach what their own religion dictates — causing some to argue that SRI segregates students of other faiths and is therefore not suitable in secular government schools. This is how SRI differs from religious education, which aims to teach students about all religions in Australia and throughout the world. 

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