Playground evangelism: Should schools restrict student discussion of religion?

10 August 2017

A recent review into religious instruction in government schools in Queensland has suggested that religious instruction materials could adversely impact on the ability of schools to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for students.

Despite not being an official policy of the Department of Education and Training and only explicitly affecting Queensland government schools, all schools should be aware of the expectations presented in the review, particularly in the context of increasing movements towards restricted religious education around the country.

Religious Instruction in Queensland in context

Religious Instruction (RI) is a program approved and provided by a religious denomination or society in Queensland government schools, and delivered by faith group volunteers. Under the Education (General Provisions) Act 2006 (Qld), schools must allow the provision of RI for up to one hour per week if approached by a faith group seeking to provide RI if students of that faith attend the school. RI is not compulsory, and while classroom teachers do not deliver the materials, staff are allocated to supervise each group of students while RI is being delivered.

RI is not provided with a curriculum or syllabus and the Department is not involved in content selection. Religious leaders are responsible for the quality of RI programs which are delivered in schools and are required to screen their accredited representatives and provide them with ongoing support and training to ensure that they are delivering only the authorised program.

However, as with any program or activity delivered in a school, principals are expected to have primary responsibility for promoting a safe, supportive and productive learning environment for students. They hence must review programs offered within their school to ensure compliance with legislation and Departmental policy, and fulfil their duty of care obligations.

Reviews into Religious Instruction

In June 2016, the Minister for Education Kate Jones pushed for review of the Connect materials used by various Christian faith groups for the delivery of RI in some Queensland government schools. The review was precipitated by the suspension of RI by one school principal, who wrote to parents announcing that the Connect materials in use attempted to solicit children to convert to Christianity.

The Connect review found that there is no consistent oversight of materials being used for religious instruction in Queensland government schools, with some content inappropriate for certain age groups and inconsistent with student protection policies and inclusive education.

It was subsequently announced in August 2016 that the Department would review all RI materials used in Queensland government schools, in terms of their consistency with legislation and Departmental policies and procedures. As of March 2017, the Department has completed two more reviews into currently used RI materials:

  • ACCESS ministries’ RI materials published by the Council for Christian Education in Schools, used in at least 90 schools throughout Queensland; and
  • the GodSpace RI program produced by Burst Christian Resources, used in approximately 70 government schools.

In both cases, there were no major inconsistencies between the materials and Queensland legislation and Departmental policies/procedures. However, the reports identified the following issues across the materials:

  • both programs contained potential examples of students being encouraged to evangelise their religious teachings onto others;
  • in the ACCESS materials, the proposed creation of artefacts, such as making Christmas tree decorations, could become non-compliant with Departmental policy if shared with students who did not participate in the classes;
  • certain lessons discussed topics which had the potential to affect the social and emotional well-being of students vulnerable to depression and may be upsetting to students with disabilities or from certain cultures;
  • parts of the materials contained inappropriate content for discussion with students, including slavery, mutilation and child sacrifice; and
  • volunteers were often encouraged to distribute food and treats to students, which may conflict with the Department’s food and allergy guidelines.

What do these reviews mean for schools?

While some of the reviews’ suggestions seem excessive, they may form part of an increasing trend towards restriction of religious education in schools. In Victoria, special religious instruction was dropped from the State’s new Respectful Relationships curriculum, and can now only be taught during lunchtime or out-of-school hours. In NSW, a range of measures will be implemented in an attempt to improve the transparency and accountability of religious groups providing special religious education and the content of the lessons.

The suggestion that the public depiction of religious artefacts and the discussion of faith are cause for concern accords with the requirement that government school education should be secular. However, religious symbolism within the school context (such as Christmas decorations) should not be considered a problem in and of itself. If it was, then texts such as the Chronicles of Narnia should also be discouraged from curriculum use due to their religious subtexts.

The reviews have also suggested that there is an expectation on schools to prevent students from discussing their religious instruction with other students, and attempting to convert those who do not participate in RI classes. While evangelism is not expressly prohibited by legislation or the Religious Instruction policy of the Department, schools who fail to take appropriate action may be failing to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.

In any situation in which external programs are conducted for students, schools should ensure they are compliant with the school’s own policies and procedures as well as their legislative obligations. But this is not to say that schools should act as “playground thought police” or discipline students simply for sharing their opinions or beliefs with classmates. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which Australia is a party), the right of a child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion must be respected; to do otherwise may breach anti-discrimination legislation.

Kieran Seed

Kieran is a Legal Research Coordinator at CompliSpace. In his position, Kieran assists with drafting and review of governance, risk and compliance content programs and client-requested policies, while also writing regular articles for School Governance. Kieran’s key focus areas are student duty of care and school registration. Kieran studied at the University of Sydney, completing a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of International and Global Studies majoring in Government and International Relations.