Hipkins making final touches to religious education plan. Are Kiwis ready for it?
Details of plan could be made public in October
For over a year now, I've been trying to get a copy of a government sanctioned report on religious education in state schools, and just yesterday the Ministry of Education wrote to say they expect it to be released in October.
The document I've been chasing is a report by religious education Professor Paul Morris of Victoria University. The initial idea came from the Religious Diversity Centre shortly after the Christchurch mosque attacks. Education Minister Chris Hipkins gave his support in principle in October 2019.
Then religious studies professor Paul Morris was commissioned to do the leg-work. This included a study of religious education systems in half a dozen countries including England, Canada and the US.
Then in June last year Prof Morris did a survey of stakeholders including myself and at least one other non-religious leader. And in December 2020 Prof Morris sent it to the Ministry of Education. Whenever I asked for a copy, I was given a number of reasons, but till two weeks ago the latest was that Mr Hipkins hadn't seen it himself..
Well now he has seen it, and is doing some last minute discussions with the Ministry.
As I understand it, it's not Mr Hipkins' final decisions that are about to be released, but Prof Morris's report of December 2020.
My crystal ball has a fair idea of what's in the report
After all my OIA requests, I have received a number of background papers from the Ministry indicating what religious people wanted to see in the report, and I also kept a copy of the questions in Prof Morris's survey.
So I'm pretty confident he will touch on the same topics in his report. My key predictions are that it will recommend
Religious instruction classes (AKA Bible in Schools) should be replaced by neutral religious education.
It will also recommend the end of religious observances (mainly Christian hymns and prayers in school assemblies.) and it
Will probably ignore Christian karakia, the other main Christian programme in state schools up till now.
Will religionless Kiwis be ready for an end to religious instruction classes?
I think the Secular Education Network would be delighted.
So October would be a good time to find out whether Prof Morris has recommended this, and if so to write letters to the Ministry of Education supporting it.
If the government also supports this, it would probably require a change to the Education Act. In that case the government would probably make an amendment bill and invite people to make submissions So would SEN want too do that? And would NZARH and NZ Humanists want to do the same? I suspect they would.
Will these religionless Kiwis be happy with Prof Morris's suggestions about religious education?
I've read the tea-leaves right, this termination of Religious Instruction will come at a price: the other part of the package would be religious education, neutral teaching about religions. This topic has crossed SEN's radar at odd times over its 11 years and each time its members were deeply divided about it.
So October could be a good time to read Prof Morris's report, to find out whether you want to send him a "thank you" card if you like it, or send a note to Mr Hipkins to suggest changes if you don't like it.
Will they be happy with Prof Morris's suggestions about religious observances in state schools?
According one of the questions in Prof Morris's survey last year, he is preparing a report about religious observances as well (such as Christian songs and prayers in state school assemblies).
If he is recommending that should cease as well, it would open another can of worms, because the government seems less willing to change religious observances. In its Education and Training Act last year it made small changes to religious instruction, but it left religious observances untouched.
So it would not be surprising if Prof Morris said they should be removed, but the government wanted them to continue.
Will religious Kiwis be happy with Paul Morris's suggestions on religious education?
I think they will. In the court case planned by Tanya Jacob and myself, I consulted a number of non-Christian religious leaders and they were not only happy with the idea of religious education: they insisted on it. Several said they would not want New Zealand schools to be totally religionless, as they would if religious instruction was removed and religious education took its place.
One community said if the government didn't bring in religious education, they would want to do their own religious education, with government funding.... we could then end up with three religions doing their own thing, instead of the status quo when they are all Christian programmes, with the exception of a single Muslim class. I think that would be a disaster. It would mean nearly all schools would lose an hour of teaching a week, and it would still be biased material.
Smaller religions groups, such as Jews and Sikhs would not be able to match the pace, and would miss out. Atheists and humanists would be in the same demeaning position. I can't see them having the funds or manpower to run classes in every state school classroom
Will the government follow these suggestions from Prof Morris?
I cut a rooster open to find the answer to that and its entrails said they don't have to follow Prof Morris's recommendations.
But the entrails from a second rooster said why would they have engaged him in the first place if they didn't like his views on Religious Instruction. Prof Morris has been an opponent of RI from way back (he was a key witness for our High Court case in 2020, all on the topic of RI. And he was also supporter of RE from way back.
And the same applies to religious observances. Prof Morris has in the past opposed these. So watch that space closely
Professor Paul Morris of Victoria University finished his recommendations in December 2020. Why won't the government let us read them?
What will religious and non-religious people be able to agree on these issues?
In our (unsuccessful) High Court case last October, we had been been supported by Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist witnesses. Should be be exchanging notes with these communities again? I think so.
However, at that time only religious instruction and religious observances were on our agenda. Now religious education is on the government's agenda as well.
By this time in my thinking I had run out of roosters, and am about to start reading tea leaves. But I suspect we may end up having different teams for different issues. I am approaching contacts in three communities asking if they would support religious education that included non-religious beliefs as well.
Somebody needs to do a poll of the views of the wider public: donations please
I'm also hoping to conduct a public opinion poll on the issues raised by Prof Morris. He consulted religious and non-religious community leaders, but I understand he did not poll the entire adult population. I believe they need to be consulted. I've done a similar poll a year ago and it cost me personally $8000. I am still paying that off, and would find it very difficult to do the same again, but will see if I can offset it by three or four donations of $500 to $1000 per community.
As well as rescuing my budget, a combined group supporting this opinion poll would make it more representative and more convincing to the government. Especially if they each contributed toward the budget, and each confirmed their support for the wording of the questions.
I am already contacting four communities. If you know of others who could help, please forward this to them, and/or forward their contact information on to me, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or my mobile 027-325-1382.