I’ve written before about how annoying I find the rules about religious education in NSW public schools. In 1880, the NSW government established the Public Instruction Act, which introduced compulsory free education in NSW. In a compromise with the (non catholic) religious schools, the government also took over most of the poor, parish schools. As a compromise, to compensate the clergy for their sudden lack of access to impressionable young children, all students were allowed to continue to receive religious education (although it was specified as non compulsory). Here’s the relevant section of the original 1880 Act.
Hours for secular instruction
(1) In every school, 4 hours during each school day shall be devoted to secular instruction exclusively and a part of each day, not more than 1 hour, shall be set apart when the children of any one religious persuasion may be instructed by the clergyman or other religious teacher of a religious persuasion but, in all cases, the pupils receiving the religious instruction shall be separated from the other pupils of the school.
(2) And the hour during which the religious instruction may be given shall be fixed by mutual agreement between the school board in consultation with the principal of the school and the clergy of the district or the other person that may be duly authorised to act in his or her place and any classroom of a school may be used for the religious instruction by like agreement:
(a) provided that the religious instruction to be so given shall in every case be the religious instruction authorised by the church to which the clergy or other religious teacher may belong; and
(b) provided further that in case of the nonattendance of any clergy or religious teacher during any part of the period agreed to be set apart for religious instruction the period shall be devoted to the ordinary secular instruction in the school.
The rules are not really all that different today (although the hours have reduced):
32 Special religious education
(1) In every government school, time is to be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion, but the total number of hours so allowed in a year is not to exceed, for each child, the number of school weeks in the year.
(2) The religious education to be given to children of any religious persuasion is to be given by a member of the clergy or other religious teacher of that persuasion authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs.
(3) The religious education to be given is in every case to be the religious education authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs.
(4) The times at which religious education is to be given to children of a particular religious persuasion are to be fixed by agreement between the principal of the school and the local member of the clergy or other religious teacher of that persuasion.
(5) Children attending a religious education class are to be separated from other children at the school while the class is held.
(6) If the relevant member of the clergy or other religious teacher fails to attend the school at the appointed time, the children are to be appropriately cared for at the school during the period set aside for religious education.
So at Chatterboy and Hungry Boys’ school, the P&C have been exploring whether there is anything the “non-scripture” children can do while the scripture classes are on. Gossip from neighbouring schools suggests that there are a number of options that other schools are taking for these children. They often edge into some small degree of educational component, such as comparative religious education, singing, or at another Sydney school, normal tasks (since there are so few religious children).
A close read of the legislation suggests that alternative activities are allowed, as long as they are not on the curriculum. But unfortunately, that’s not going to happen at our school. The local church representatives were out in force at the P&C meeting, refusing to countenance any activity for “non-scripture”, and the teaching staff have retreated in the face of the political pressure.
It’s a common pattern – a minority, who cares deeply about an issue – is quite capable of overturning the apathetic majority. Although it’s probably only 20% of kids who do non scripture, I’d be surprised if even 10% of the school cared deeply about the religious aspect of scripture. The others are just sending their kids along because it’s good for them to know something about religion. According to this Hansard Q&A, only 15 requests for alternative subjects have been received by the Department of Education in three years.
I’ve had enough indignant conversations with parents about the issue to know that there are parents who would rather their children got to do something during that wasted time. But none of us have cared enough to be brave enough to take on the religious – atheists tend to be shy away from a religious confrontation, in my experience.