Ombudsman persuades 362 schools to join religion in schools survey
9 April 2022
Only 30% of schools responded in time
The rush to provide information came after I applied for this information last October under the Official Information Act. The Act gives public authorities 20 working days to answer such questions, but by that deadline only 555 schools had replied, only 30% of the 1827 schools surveyed.
I sent three email reminders, and phoned 83 schools who had blocked my emails. The last reminder included a warning that I would complain to the Ombudsman if they didn’t reply by the end of December. This led to 83 more responses, but that was nowhere near enough.
Warning from the Ombudsman
I carried out my threat in February, and Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier supported my complaint, and sent 540 of his own reminders to the schools last Thursday. His letter included a warning that if I wasn't satisfied with the result, I could ask him to do a formal inquiry.
Dozens of schools responded in minutes, and in the first 24 hours 362 schools had taken parr. Only 178 schools have not yet responded.
Judge Boshier also gave me individual complaint codes for each of the schools, so I can make yet another database analysis, logging those who complete the survey and those who don’t. He also told the schools to give me their reasons for not complying. The Act provides four valid reasons why people should not comply, but so far none of the 1300 tardy schools have used them.
Evidence of schools' blocking tactics
As evidence for my complaint, I sent the Ombudsman printouts of the different responses as at February 2022: they showed
96 schools that had blocked my emailed survey request
26 schools that left them in their spam folders,
and 418 that received the survey links but did not click on them, despite the words
Ombudsman also working to get religious instruction report
The reason I want to get a more complete response is that the Ombudsman is already in the final stage of investigating another complaint, about the Ministry of Education refusing my request for a copy of report by Prof Paul Morris, into ways that religious instruction classes should be dropped and replaced with neutral teaching about other religion and beliefs.
I believe it would be unconvincing to ask the government to stop religious instruction, if we didn’t have up to date information on how many schools were actually doing it.
The survey results to date:
14.7% of the schools have religious instruction, compared with 40% in a similar survey in 2012. The number of schools with religious instruction has been steadily dropping, even during the time it’s taken to do the survey. Schools which responded within the first month of the survey showed 21.3% had religious instruction. The responses since the Ombudsman intervened show only 10% with religious instruction.
7.4% of schools have these as part of their assemblies, such as Christian songs, prayers or Bible readings.
88.9% of schools have karakia in their school programmes
4) 16.4% have these, such as Maori prayers about Jesus, or quotations from the Bible,
The Ombudsman’s office said they expected there would be a provisional decision about releasing Professor Morris’s report in the end of this week or the beginning of next week.
This kind of mid-survey shift in results did not happened in any of my previous surveys…. I believe the pressure on the schools over this period of changing rules about Covid have had several effects, including making some object to doing the survey, and some schools dropping religious instruction as part of their plans for the coming year.
I was startled to see such a switch of answers during a survey. This is the fourth survey I have conducted, and in all the others, the percentage of answers seldom changed more than 2 percentage points from results from the first 30% or so responses. This is another reason for getting a complete response: if I had stopped the survey in December the picture would have been inaccurate. It could still change another percentage point. Would you feel different about religious instruction if there were only 13% percent of schools?
Does it change your mind about Christian karakia to find that it now outnumbers the schools doing religious instruction?
I have spoken briefly about these issues with Professor Morris and he shares my concern that his report is gathering dust in Chris Hipkins’ office. He also shares my concern that religious observances in state schools are discriminatory. These were left unchanged in the Education and Training Act 2020.
I began this campaign against religious bias in 2012 as one of the leaders of the Secular Education Network, but network elected a new committee in 2020, and they have not taken a position on the idea of replacing religious instruction with religious education.
I was also a leader in the plan to take the issue to the High Court in 2020. This fell through in the last few months of that year, when a new Education and Training Act changed the rules for religious instruction. This moved the goal posts for our case, since a number of our witnesses had based their evidence on the rules dealing with religious instruction, so to some extent their evidence became out of date. We had legal advice that we should drop the case until we had new witnesses with experience of the new law.
I didn’t believe we could afford the time or the money for another court case. I thought our bests shot would be to take part in the debate over Professor Morris’s report. So I decided to contribute to that as an independent researcher, working for support through SEN, but also through other channels, such as the Auckland Unitarian Church, Humanist NZ, and personal contacts with leaders in non-Christian religions.
I am seeking donations toward the cost of this lobbying, including the cost of software, a new website (www.wesleyschair.net), and the cost of two professional public opinion polls. One was done part of my submission to the Education and Training Bill in 2020 and another yet to come, to deal with reactions to Professor Morris’s report.
Contributions can be made via my PayPal link: