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  • David Hines

Ombudsman persuades 424 schools to reveal their religious programmes

Maori schools give stronger support to Christian karakia

By David Hines, 1 June, 2022

(900 words)

Thank God for the Ombudsman's Office! Last October I asked all New Zealand's state primary schools what kind of religious programmes they were running. After the four week limit set by the Official Information Act only a third of them had replied. I sent three reminders. In March this year, there were still more than a third who had not replied, so I complained to the Ombudsman’s Office. The Chief Ombudsman a few weeks later sent a firm reminder to the 540 late schools, and said he could formally investigate them if they didn’t reply. 424 of them did reply, leaving only 115 to be investigated.

1. The survey results, religious instruction is way down

The wait was worth it:

a) Only 14.29% of these schools now hold Christian religious instruction classes, compared with 20% in 2019 (and 40% in 2012).

b) Only 7.72% have religious observances in their assemblies, continuing a decline that started when Covid stopped them having assemblies.

c) 89.59% hold karakia, and of them

d) Only 18.70% include Christian karakia.

As a member of the Secular Education Network, religious instruction is something we have campaigned against since 2012, and that figure in particular is a message to the government that it is high time these were cancelled. There cannot be many votes in something that only 242 schools are still using. But the other two Christian programmes also need attention.

2. Also being investigated by the Ombudsman – a religious education proposal

In 2019 the Labour government commissioned a report on the idea of replacing religious instruction (in Christianity) with neutral religious education covering all main religions. Regrettably, that report, filed by Prof Paul Morris in December 2020, is still waiting for the Minister of Education to release it for public comment. At my request, the Ombudsman’s Office is investigating that refusal as well. They are heroes, but it is taking months longer than I expected.

As well as being involved in the Secular Education Network, I have been consulting Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders on these issues for a number of years, and all of them supported the idea of religious education. Several said they would not want religious instruction to be cancelled unless there was religious education to take its place. One community said they would consider starting religious instruction programmes themselves, if the government didn’t put a stop to Christian religious instruction.

So I will be inviting these groups to comment on this situation.

3. Examples of Christian and Traditional karakia

The schools also sent me hundreds of examples of karakia that they are using. This is information that I have been seeking unsuccessfully for several years. So it was most welcome. I realised it would be more time consuming for them to provide these, so I said this question was not compulsory. But I still received about 280 samples:

a) The most popular karakia of all was a traditional one – Whakataka te hau – about the west and south winds.

b) The most popular example of Christian karakia was the Lord’s Prayer

c) The second most popular was The Grace, a Christian farewell blessing in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

d) Third favourite of the Christian karakia was a group of three blessings of food at lunchtime.

I'll post these examples over the next few days.

4. Guidelines for karakia

a) In 2019, the Ministry of Education issued guidelines about religious instruction, but declined to give any guidance about karakia, saying it was unclear whether these should be regarded as religious. The schools I consulted had no difficulty saying which they regarded as Christian. They were clearly identified by the fact that they quoted the Bible, and used Christian names for God: Ihu Karaiti, Wairua Tapu and Atua (with a capital letter). Where is the problem, MOE?

b) Very few schools sent only Christian karakia. Some actively discouraged the use of them; others left the choice to the karakia leader.

c) I was surprised to learn that the Ministry, despite having no guidelines on the subject, went and published a very dubious selection of karakia for schools to use, on their website, and the Lord’s Prayer is among them. This goes right against the principle of secular schools as established in 1877. At that time, using the Lord’s Prayer in schools was a no-no. But now 30 schools in my survey say they use the Ministry’s set. The remaining 1700 schools don't use it.

5. A perspective from Kura Kaupapa Maori

The replies included 40 Kura Kaupapa Maori, who had a very different perspective on all three religious programmes:

a) Only 5% of them use religious instruction (cf 14.29% for the survey as a whole),

b) 32.5% use religious observances (cf 7.72%),

c) 100% of them have karakia (cf 89.59%), and

d) 50% of them include Christian karakia (cf 18.70%).

6. My own position:

a) I am strongly in favour of getting rid of religious instruction.

b) I also favour replacing it with neutral religious education. That is my own view. The Secular Education Network hasn't listed this as one of its key principles, though a number of individual members favour it.

c) I am also strongly in favour of getting rid of religious observances. The Secular Education Network opposed this in the past, but has not expressed an official view on its Facebook group in the last few years.

d) I have mixed views about Christian karakia. In principle I think it is not a good idea, but there are several modifying facts in my survey: the schools that use them also use other kinds of karakia as well. And the schools themselves seem to be discouraging them. But the Kura Kaupapa Maori schools are an important group, and I would like to see the whole issue debated in public before any change is made.


Donations to my campaign can be made through my PayPal page. It has cost me about $15,000 in the last three years.

For further reading:

Why did the NZ Government in 1877 vote to set up a secular education system.. My report covers the 11 amendments the MPs voted on, from religious instruction to state aid for religious schools. READ MORE

In the pipeline: The 280 sample karakia provided by schools in response to my survey. I'll post them in the next week.

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