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  • David Hines

Expert recipe for religious education in state schools almost ready: here's a preview!

The Ministry of Education sent me this tip-off

Why would the Ministry of Education send me an email this week saying they expect to release a report on religious education some time in October?

Well I've been making Official Information Act requests for it since August last year, and they've been stalling ever since, because the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins needs to see it first. And he's been constantly tied up with Covid-19. But now he has started looking at it, so they're picking he'll be ready to sign it off any day now. Some time in October!

Who commissioned this report?

The report was first suggested by the Religious Diversity Centre, a multi-faith trust, in March 2019, just after the Christchurch shootings. They said it would help to improve understanding of Muslims and other faiths.

So in October 2019 the Government agreed in principle, and asked Religious Studies Professor Paul Morris of Victoria University to prepare a report about the available options. There were two main parts to his homework:

  1. He would do a review of religious education studies in a number of other countries, and

  2. He would do a survey of stakeholders in New Zealand to see what kind of religious education they would like. As a leader of the Secular Education Network, I was one of the people surveyed. He also consulted religious leaders and a Humanist leader.

Prof Morris finished his report in December 20, and it's been sitting on a too-hard shelf at the Ministry of Education ever since.

My guestimate of what the report will contain

In the process of chasing the government for Prof Morris's report, I've already got several background documents. They include the questions that Prof Morris used in his survey, and a letter to the Prime Minister in 2019. This was from a group of religious leaders, backing up the idea of religious education, and saying what this education should include.

Professor Paul Morris of Victoria University finished his recommendations in December 2020. Some time in October 2021 the rest of us may get a peek, and have a chance to comment.

So here are my picks. It will include:

  1. the end of religious instruction such as Christian Bible in Schools classes (this was recommended by Mr Hipkins' in his cabinet paper in October 2019);

  2. replacing it with neutral education about religions found in Aotearoa-New Zealand including Taha Wairua Maori spirituality. (also suggested in the cabinet paper;*

  3. it is likely to include teaching about atheism and other belief systems (included in Prof Morris’s survey questions);

  4. there could be special place/role for Christianity (also referred to in Prof Morris’s survey).

  5. at the other extreme, it could follow the US example, with stricter separation of church and state. The US was one of half a dozen countries on Prof Morris’s research agenda.

  6. It could include high schools, judging by a wish list from religious leaders who put the original religious education proposal to PM Jacinda Ardern in 2019.

  7. Religious observances in school assemblies (these were referred to in Prof Morris' survey, and were left unchanged in the Education and Training Act 2020.

  8. Christian karakia could also continue. The Ministry of Education guidelines in 2019 suggested it was too difficult to determine whether these were religious or not. I asked Mr Hipkins whether Maori views were consulted at that time, and his reply suggests they were not consulted. He included advice he had received from the Ministry, but this didn't include Maori viewpoints.

Will New Zealanders get a chance to comment on these proposals before they become law?

I hope so, but I'm not sure. The Ministry has been very vague on this.

  1. One option would be to conduct a public opinion survey. The government has already enabled many people to comment through Prof Hipkins's survey. I would object that these were mainly religious leaders, and the whole population should get a chance to express their views. I would suggest taking a public opinion poll. I conducted one on similar topics in 2020, but it cost about $8000 and I couldn't afford to do that without substantial help.

  2. Another option would be to change the law. If the plan includes cancelling religious instruction, that would require a change to the law, and the government would need to hold a select committee meeting to hear public submissions. I personally hope that will happen.

  3. The government could avoid changing the law, One way it could do this would be introducing regulations. It still might call for public submissions. I would dread that, because it would drag the process on forever.

  4. This website. I'm trying to provide this website as a forum to hear all relevant views. I have interested supporters from my Muslim, Jewish and Humanist contacts. Some of the best of this material could be used in making submissions or even, God forbid, in a new court case. Having gone through that process already I hope one of the other measures will succeed.

Further information:

  • Mr Hipkins' cabinet paper which was released to the media on 2 December 2019

  • Prof Morris’ survey questions

  • The letter to the Prime Minister from religious leaders in 2019 expressing their views about religious education. I also obtained this under the Official Information Act Here's the link:

  • * The religions and beliefs listed in Prof Morris's questionnaire were:

  • Christianity

  • Taha Wairua (Māori spirituality)

  • Islam

  • Sikhism

  • Judaism

  • Hinduism

  • Buddhism

  • New Age/Spirituality

  • Atheism

  • Other

So if you want to have a say, please share this post, and please create links to it by emails and Facebook.

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