Gippsland pastor fears ‘de-Christianisation’

Latrobe Valley students will only have access to religious education outside of school hours next year, when the State Government introduces a respectful relationships program.

Healthy relationships, global cultures, ethics and traditions will be part of the state school curriculum, while ‘special religious instruction’ (SRI) will be taught during lunch, or before and after school.

Last week Education Minister James Merlino announced the changes to challenge negative attitudes and prevent family violence, with low SRI participation rates across Victoria.

The Express contacted several Latrobe Valley primary schools, with many principals stating the SRI program did not run this year due to lack of interest or inability to find an instructor.

Senior pastor of Now Church in Gippsland Paul Gratton said while he believed religious education in its current form was failing, his concern was the “de-Christianisation of Australian society”.

“The issue for me is that SRI is great for little kids, but it was never successful for high school kids, because it was never given the credit of being part of the curriculum,” Pastor Gratton said.

“There was no way of measuring the kids’ behaviour or their desire to learn.

“For teenagers, the format for me was not successful.”

SRI is an optional component of the school curriculum and is provided by accredited SRI volunteers who have a religious affiliation.

Pastor Gratton said although religious instruction gave young children “a good grounding”, older students often lost interest where no assessment or behaviour was measured.

He said he would not argue with the government’s decision to scrap SRI, but did not feel confident the respectful relationships program was the right substitution.

“It’s very much a secularised version of Christianity, but again the problem I have with it is the lack of absolutes,” he said.

“If you say you have to respect other people’s rights and behaviours, well that kind of wears thin.

“If it’s left up to us to figure it out for ourselves and not look to the Bible, there’s no moral absolute.”

All schools are required to implement the new curriculum for students in prep to year 10 from 2016, with staff to receive training later this year.

How each school will deliver the new curriculum will be decided at the local school level, although the focus will be on curbing prejudice, discrimination and harassment.

A spokesperson for Mr Merlino said the content would not be “entirely new for teachers”.

“What is new is a more explicit and specific focus on enabling students to learn about safety in the home environment,” the spokesperson said.

“(As well as) the development of new teaching and learning resources to support teachers to effectively deliver this aspect of the curriculum.

“The move means that teachers and students will be able to focus on core curriculum, learning the lessons and skills they need to be their best.”

Forty five per cent of students are still undertaking SRI at Yinnar Primary School, according to principal George Telford:

“In some respect the majority of the families at the school don’t support religious education, but it is probably not quite as straightforward as other schools,” Mr Telford said.

“There was a time when the vast majority would have done SRI.

“It is hard to run programs where students are experiencing new learning, because that means the students doing religious education are not doing new learning.”

Although Hazelwood North Primary School offers SRI at the start of each year, principal Paul Jorgensen said it did not run this year due to lack of interest:

“As a school, we have decided not to run SRI because it has involved too few a numbers (and) we still have to cater for the other students,” Mr Jorgensen said.

“Now if it’s offered during lunch or recess time, those families who elect to have that will be able to go into a room and get SRI.

“All we need to do is provide a teacher to cater for that and it does not impact on the learning of everyone.”

Due to difficulty in obtaining a religious instructor, Moe’s Elizabeth Street Primary School has not been able to offer SRI to the school community this year:

“As the rules around participation in SRI changed, the instructors found it more difficult,” principal Jenny Dowsett said.

“It’s not that easy to get volunteers to take the classes, (so) we don’t offer anything at the moment, (but) we teach respect through our school-wide positive behaviour system.

“I do think most schools already have programs in place to look at respectful relationships.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad change. As far as any religious education is concerned, I believe it’s a responsibility of the families.”