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Religious Instruction in Victorian state schools could make a comeback

Liberal Opposition Leader Matthew Guy makes election promise: SRI back in school time

Religious Instruction in Victoria’s state schools will be reinstated if the Liberal Party wins the upcoming state election, says state Opposition Leader Matthew Guy.

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He made the announcement at an Australian Christian Lobby event at Crossway Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in Victoria, at the weekend.

“A government I lead will bring back Religious Instruction in schools because it’s very important,” he said.

ACL’s Victorian director Dan Flynn told Eternity the Opposition Leader’s announcement was a “sensible compromise” that brought back “parental choice” for Religious Instruction.

Special Religious Instruction (SRI)  in Victoria has been beleaguered for many years. In 2011, SRI had about 940 participating schools in the state, with more than 130,000 students in 30-minute classes operating in school time.

“We presently have 132 instructors offering 60 programmes with 1089 school children.” – Dawn Penney, Access Ministries

A series of changes implemented by the government, including reaccreditation of volunteer teachers, led to a dramatic drop in numbers – to about 27,000 students in 2015. That year, the programme was taken out of class time, with new regulations brought in by the Labor government stipulating that SRI was only to be offered at lunch times or after school.

In 2016, Access Ministries, the major Christian provider of SRI, reported that the number of students in the new iteration of SRI was almost zero, but told Eternity their efforts to build up a lunchtime programme were making inroads.

“We presently have 132 instructors offering 60 programmes with 1089 school children,” Dawn Penney said in a statement.

These programmes are conducted with a member of the teaching staff present, to act as a supervising teacher as required by departmental guidelines. Dan Flynn from ACL says this requirement has severely limited access to the programme.

“The decision to take SRI out of school time meant students weren’t able to access the programme, to the disappointment of many, many parents,” said Flynn. “It requires teacher supervision and teachers generally don’t want to be there before or after school to supervise such a thing.”

Criticism of SRI in Victoria and around the country has been rife, with a relentless campaign to axe the programmes. In Victoria, Access Ministries has been plagued by instances of rogue Religious Instruction volunteers distributing unauthorised materials and controversy over the appropriateness of lesson content.

In her statement, Penney said: “Access Ministries adheres to all guidelines and compliance measures set down by the state government in provision of our SRI services.”

“It’s not proselytising; it’s teaching about the principles and tenets of the faith.” – Dan Flynn, ACL

Dan Flynn said that, thanks to ongoing efforts to ensure the quality of SRI, he was confident that a “quality product” would be offered if the programme were restored to school time.

“It’s about governance, it’s about supervision and ultimately it’s about the quality of the product and those who deliver it. There is always going to be a need to ensure the quality. That is ongoing,” he said.

“RI is important because it provides a moral compass for young students – whether that’s the teachings of Judaism or the world faiths. Certainly with the Christian version of SRI, the Good Samaritan – ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’ – they are principles explained in this type of instruction. It’s not proselytising; it’s teaching about the principles and tenets of the faith.”

Flynn told Eternity that Religious Instruction in schools and the place of the controversial Safe Schools programme were the topics of most concern to Christians he spoke to in the lead-up to the Victorian state election on November 24.

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