Opt-in RE in Catholic schools opposed

Concerns from New Zealand’s Catholic education sector over the wording of a bill concerning religious instruction in state schools and how this might affect integrated schools were heard by a parliamentary select committee earlier this year.

In a submission to the Education and Workforce Committee about the Education and Training Bill, former New Zealand Catholic Education Office chief executive Paul Ferris stated that the way the bill was drafted was ambiguous to the extent that the provisions that would apply to state schools and religious instruction would also apply to integrated schools.

[Dr Kevin Shore has been appointed the new Chief Executive Officer of the NZ Catholic Education Office, replacing Mr Ferris QSM, who is retiring at a date to be set later this year. Dr Shore is Chief Executive of both NZCEO and the Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools (APIS).]

Among other things, the bill changes the current “opt-out” provision for religious instruction in state schools that offer this outside of school hours to an “opt-in” one, whereby children can only participate if their parents request this in writing.

The NZCEO submission did not offer an opinion on reversing this onus for state schools.

But it stated that “under the current drafting, it appears that state integrated schools would be subject to the opt in provision . . . “. This appeared to be an oversight in the drafting.

It added that parents sending their children to a state-integrated schools is, in fact, a form of “opting in”.

“Making state integrated schools subject to the opt in provision creates unusual consequences, is inconsistent with other parts of the bill and is not supported by Ministry of Education guidelines around religious instruction,” the submission added.

“Where religious instruction is the foundation of a school’s special character, it is counter-intuitive that parents of students in those schools should have to expressly opt in,” it noted.

The submission also requested that the bill be reworded so that it was clearer in this area.

Mr Ferris told NZ Catholic that when the NZCEO appeared before the select committee, some committee members noted the points that were made and no-one argued with them.

A submission on the same bill by the Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools, of which Mr Ferris is also chief executive, made similar points, but expressed concerns around provisions that school boards of trustees be required to ensure that “students are given a Maori world view including spiritual custom and practice”.

“APIS records that a focus on the spiritual and cultural practices of Maori may at times conflict with the faith-based programmes of state-integrated schools . . . .”

The APIS submission noted that in state integrated schools, “the proprietor has the statutory right to determine what is necessary to preserve and safeguard the special character of the school”.

It also pointed to an inconsistency in the bill as it stands requiring that religious instruction only be permitted where parents opt in, as against a requirement that the curriculum must reflect aspects of local Maori culture, knowledge and world view, which include Maori spiritual custom and practice.

APIS supported “recognition of the partnership of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the emphasis in the bill on engaging student learners and raising the engagement of all learners to be more successful, without diminishing the obligation to provide equal outcomes for Maori students”.

Mr Ferris told NZ Catholic that “we supported much of the Maori world view, but noted that the wider integrated sector might struggle with such an expectation when aspects of Maori spirituality might challenge their special character”.

While the majority of integrated schools have Catholic affiliations, a significant number have their own special character, including Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Adventist, Jewish, Muslim, Steiner, Montessori and non-denominational Christian.

Mr Ferris said he thinks that the committee members saw that this area of the bill – and that around opt in for religious instruction in integrated schools – needed to be tightened up and clarified, so the issues named do not present themselves.

But he said the Covid-19 lockdown could well have distracted the committee from this work. “We have no updates to report, nor have we seen the final draft.”




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Michael Otto

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