Victorian Schools Are Axing Religious Education For Classes About Respectful Relationships

For better or worse, we may be about to head into a whole new debate about secular education.

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As people notoriously love wading into complex debates about religion, education and domestic violence on Friday afternoons, the Victorian government has today announced a new policy regarding Special Religious Instruction in the state’s schools. The program, which is carried out in each of the states and territories, is a primary course comprised of “instruction provided by churches and other religious groups”. The change is that it will no longer be taught in school hours.

“Every second of class time counts,” said Victorian Education Minister James Merlino in a statement today. “[Though it is an] important and popular extra-curricular program … Extra-curricular programs should not interfere with class time, when teachers and students should be focused on the core curriculum.”

The course, which runs at a maximum of 30 minutes per week, will now be taught at lunchtime or before/after school, and the spare time will instead be filled with a new program about “respectful relationships”. Compulsory for kids from prep till Year 10, this will comprise of a broad array of subjects about understanding, empathy and respect that takes a particular focus on preventing domestic violence. “This new content helps all school students, regardless of their background or faith, to understand the world around them and the ideas and values that shape that world,” Merlino said today.

For a number of reasons, this is all a bigger deal than it sounds.

The Backlash So Far

Off the back of a long-running series of disagreements with the state government — including but not limited to that time they got slammed for handing out unauthorised “biblezines” containing homophobic material — the course’s main provider of religious instruction, Access Ministries, has taken issue with the move.

Though its spokespeople have expressed an admiration of the new program they claim they weren’t adequately notified of the change and are calling for the decision to be reviewed to take into account the thoughts of parents. Likewise, a representative of the National Council of Churches told The Australian the change would spell a “real loss” for kids who don’t get spiritual support in other areas of their life.

From there, the cause has unsurprisingly been taken up by politicians. Opposition education spokesperson Nick Wakeling has called for a review, claiming the move breaks a pre-election promise from Premier Daniel Andrews, and the conversation has also spread elsewhere with NSW Labor being asked if they’ll follow suit.

This is a particularly important question for the state after the government removed a box on school enrolment forms that gave parents an easy choice between religious education and ethics classes. Questions were being raised about it being the result of sway from the Christian Democrats and the whole thing was looking fairly messy. Despite this, and mounting pressure from the NSW Greens to support Victoria’s new policy, Opposition Leader Luke Foley said today he has no interest in it — effortlessly winning favour with kids and parents interested in both religion and remaining big toasty cinnamon buns each morning before school.

The Good News

In announcing all this, James Merlino had a couple of points that are fairly crucial no matter what your faith. Firstly: the current SRI course is only being taken up by 20 percent of Victorian primary school students, which means that while other kids are learning about faith and honesty and virtue, the remaining 80 percent are probably screwing around like I did on the monkey bars. The President of the Australian Education Union told The Age they were often sent to the library or simply sat in corridors.

Not ideal.

Maximising this time to involve all class members is a fairly practical idea, and the new course about maintaining healthy relationships and having respect for one another seems particularly worthwhile. There are currently similar subjects being considered for the curriculum in NSW, Queensland and Tasmania, and it’s already run as a trial in 30 Victorian schools after continued pressure from Rosie Batty.

“Schools are places where respect and equality can be modelled, to help shape positive attitudes and behaviours at an early stage of life,” she said last month. “They can play a central role in teaching young people what violence against women and children looks like and that it is never okay.”

All in all, it’s no huge victory — domestic violence is still affecting Australians in epidemic proportions with little concrete government support — but it is a promising step forward; and having one out of five kids catch the bus half an hour later one day a week isn’t a bad price to pay.