When Teaching Becomes Preaching

A fresh campaign to get religious instruction out of state primary schools has reprised a very old debate.

by Alison McCulloch

Just over a century ago, a remarkable debate broke out in the pages of the nation’s newspapers over the question of whether or not students from secular schools were more or less likely to grow up to be criminals than those from church-run institutions. It all started with a claim by Sir Robert Stout, then the country’s chief justice and a fierce defender of secular education, that children from New Zealand’s secular schools “produce only half the criminals, in proportion to the numbers of those trained, that denominational schools produce”. Claim and counterclaim followed including tables listing the church affiliations of convicted criminals (the Church of England was apparently the most crime-ridden), debates over whether Stout was talking about serious or minor offences, and an accusation from the Tablet that he had committed a “libel” on church schools.

That discussion followed scores of others over religion in schools dating back at least to the late 1830s – which is as far as the National Library’s PapersPast records go – and it preceded scores more. It is, as the Press of 1883 suggested, a subject on which “very strong feelings prevail”.

That’s still true, and it’s one of many aspects of the religion in schools debate that doesn’t seem to change. Just this year, the debate erupted anew in the wake of a campaign to get religion out of state primary schools spearheaded by the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists. And if letters to the editor and newspaper articles are anything to go by, the 2012 clash has a lot in common with those of 1883, 1892, 1909, 1932…

Now, as then, (Stout notwithstanding) writers tend to link a lack of religious values to the nation’s moral decline – murder rates, child abuse, suicide. I am sure, wrote one correspondent to the Bay of Plenty Times, “that the fairly widespread disbelief in the Bible has led to the landslide in standards of morality. I remember when murders were a rarity, and children could safely go to play in a park on their own without fear of molestation”. That was August 2012. “Mr. Wilson,” writing in 1884 would surely have agreed, arguing in the pages of the Press “that education is altogether unworthy of the name unless based upon moral and religious precepts”.

Wilson’s letter addressed another issue, too, but one that’s absent in today’s incarnation of the debate: interdenominational sniping – in particular, between Catholics and Protestants. It’s that sniping that lies at the heart of how New Zealand ended up with a state-mandated secular education system in the first place. With Catholics and Protestants each concerned that the other might gain some advantage in any state-supported religious education, secularism managed to sneak through the middle, resulting in the passage of the much-maligned (as “Godless”) 1877 Education Act mandating that the teaching in primary schools “shall be entirely of a secular nature”.

A victory for secularism, yes. But by no means the end of the matter. Before the ink on the new act was dry, religious instruction was sneaking into the school day through what came to be called the “Nelson System”, after the town in which it was first successfully adopted. Under that system, which was eventually legislated for in the early 1960s, the school – or parts of it – must officially close while religious instruction is taking place leaving, in theory at least, the secular nature of primary school education intact.

Taking on the ‘Nelson System’

It is a system that irks today’s supporters of secular education, who argue it is dishonest and undermines education. In Auckland, members of the Secular Education Network, have taken their campaign against the Nelson System directly to schools, handing out leaflets and talking to parents. According to one of their fliers, three schools have closed their Bible programmes already this year. But, just as in decades past, they’ve also met with resistance, from parents and, in some cases, teachers.

That resistance has been particularly strong in Tauranga, where public comments by secularists led to a fierce debate in the local paper and a flood of support for Cool Bananas, the Christian-based programme currently running in 17 of the area’s 40 or so primary schools. (The Churches Education Commission-run Bible in Schools operates in a handful of other schools.)

It’s a popular programme that was established in Tauranga 15 years ago and continues to expand, both in the Bay of Plenty and elsewhere, with groups now up and running in Dargaville and Hastings. Overseen by a charitable trust, Cool Bananas has eight staff and an income last year of nearly $300,000. The programme’s coordinators, Grant and Karena Vincent [pictured left], say their support comes from a balance of religious and non-religious sources. They apply for grants and have built up what they say is a “good database of individuals who believe in what Cool Bananas is doing”. Their larger funders include the Lottery Grants Board, Pub Charity and the Tauranga Energy Consumer Trust.

Cool Bananas is open about its Christian focus, listing its three “purposes” on its Trust deed: to provide education in the Christian way of life; to promote Christian values; and to create an environment within and outside the school system which will support and nurture the ability to interact and relate to others. The Vincents say they’ve been heartened by the support they’ve received since the religion in schools debate broke out. “The teachers are coming up to us and they’ve seen the debate,” Grant Vincent said, “and they’re saying look we don’t agree with what’s being said, we just want to say that we think you guys are doing a great job and you’ve got our support.”

Weighing in on their side in the local news media was the head of the Western Bay of Plenty Principals Association, Robert Hyndman, and Otumoetai School principal, Geoff Opie. Asked about the programme for this article, Opie forwarded copies of supportive emails from parents as well as a letter he wrote to the paper but did not send. The letter was, however, posted on the Web site of the Christian newspaper Challenge Weekly.

In it, Opie argues that in the 40 years he’s been involved in primary education, “I have witnessed and am witnessing first-hand the impact that the degradation of community values is having on our children and families, indeed on our country’s social fabric as a whole”. Opie suggests more focus could be placed on “the positive outcomes of a programme such as Cool Bananas”, as well as on other ways of addressing “societal dysfunctions”. He also noted that a bona fide non-religious group offering an alternative – values education that “engaged and excited the students” focused around “the universality of ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’” – would most likely attract plenty of worthwhile work.

That latter point is one that has counted against secularists in this latest round of the religion-in-schools battle, with some supporters of the current system seeing them as wanting to take something away – popular programmes like Cool Bananas – without offering anything in its place. The two faces of the secular campaign in Tauranga, Paul McIlwee and Des Vize [pictured left], acknowledge that there’s been little support coming their way. Watching the debate play out in letters to the editor column, it was clear that while it had certainly succeeded in raising awareness – one of their primary goals, they say – the campaign had also provoked a spirited pushback.

McIlwee and Vize are not disheartened. “There will always be backlash in today’s current society against anybody who stands up against any form of religion,” McIlwee says. “Does that affect our cause? I don’t think so because we still have to stand up for what we think is right.”

They’re not about providing a non-religious alternative to Cool Bananas, they say. Values education should be part of the school curriculum – and certainly shouldn’t put Christianity forward as the main or only source of those values. The goal of the Secular Education Network’s campaign, as one commenter on Facebook put it, is not to become the secular version of the Churches Education Commission.

Pressure to Conform

Kate Graeme is the mother of two daughters, aged 5 and 6. She and her husband, Simon, who have no religious affiliation, recently moved to Tauranga and were surprised to discover their daughters’ school included the Cool Bananas programme. Neither of the previous two schools they attended, Graeme said, had hosted any religious-based instruction.

They found out about the programme at enrolment when they were presented with a form requesting permission to include their daughters in the sessions. Kate Graeme said they planned to opt out, but were advised against it. “The feedback was, well basically all the kids do go and they really enjoy it, and they won’t thank you for not letting them go,” she said. “You don’t want to rock the boat, particularly when you’re new to a school or make your children different from others which is hard thing from a peer perspective.”

With its emphasis on “values”, Graeme said, she and her husband were at first quite happy with what their girls told them about the Cool Bananas. “It’s hard not to initially like it, with its focus on core values that we believe in and that we believe need to be reiterated for children within the school system” she said. Then, one day, the children returned home and told their mother, “God made us, God made our hands out of clay”. That’s a pretty fundamental teaching, Graeme said, and flies in the face of evolution and science. “We then had discussions about, ‘Well, we don’t actually believe in God, we believe in evolution,’ so you move right away from the values themselves and weaken their message.”

If you teach values in a religious context, Graeme said, “there’s a danger that they lose their strength and relevancy, if you don’t adhere to that wider belief system that they’re taught in”. “They should be taught as values for values sake and not as part of any particular religious teaching.” Kate Graeme said she was surprised at “at how vehemently the children parroted these ideas about God, despite having had previous family discussions about what we did and did not believe in.” She said she thought it was because the message was coming from an authority figure – someone speaking at school.

“It really illustrates how powerful these instructions can be in both a positive and not so positive way,” she said. “On the positives, I think it means value teachings at school have the potential to really resonate with, and be taken on board by, children. But it also means you can really quite easily push religious messages.”

‘Core Values’

A lot of the debate that erupted in the Bay of Plenty Times over Cool Bananas focused on the issue of values, which has emerged as a primary defence of Christian-based school programmes. “It’s not religion or indoctrination as some would suggest. It’s wisdom and common sense!” one letter writer said. It’s something Grant and Karena Vincent highlight about their programme, which focuses on one key “value” in each session – honesty respect and kindness, for example – values that are also tied into the national curriculum.

“We try and gear the lessons to inspire the kids to make good choices,” Grant Vincent says. “And based on the values that we believe our whole country was founded on. … And so even though we present it from a Christian perspective, we’re not telling the kids they have to be Christians, we’re not forcing it down their throat, all we’re trying to do is inspire them to make some good choices.”

Secularists don’t buy the argument that programmes like Cool Bananas are just teaching values. “Let’s be clear what their agenda is,” Vize says. “Today they’re teaching values, tomorrow it will be providing something else. What they’re really at is pushing Christianity.” Rather than being harmless “values”, he says, the groups most vehemently opposed to social reforms like gay rights, marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia are Christian groups. “There is a social and political programme attached to Christian values in these Christian communities that we can’t ignore.”

At the height of the debate in Tauranga, the Bay of Plenty Times sent a reporter to sit in on one of the Cool Bananas sessions. She concluded that while “Christian values” had “undoubtedly influenced the content in the Cool Bananas programme”, it was “entertaining and educational, and most importantly highly valued by all the children who attended”. What didn’t go unnoticed by McIlwee was something in the photograph accompanying the article. Behind the Cool Bananas instructor was a yellow screen with three commands: “Do right, Enjoy being kind & Always show respect to God.” That latter “value” was “hardly a secular statement, nor respectful of other creeds in our society,” McIlwee pointed out later in a letter to the editor.

Asked about the slide, the Vincents explained that the session was based on respect for those in authority, which for some people, includes God. “In that lesson we said, ‘you know as someone who believes in God ourselves we show respect to God,’” Grant Vincent said. “But we said to the kids, ‘Who’s in charge in your home? Mum and Dad. Do you show respect to them? When you show respect to the people in authority over you do things go better or worse? Oh yeah they go better. What about when you’re at school. Who’s in charge of you when you’re at school?’ So we went through different scenarios: at home, at school, and on the sports field.”

Kate Graeme also went along to a Cool Bananas session to see what it was like. She described the instructor using a jingle telling the children to “Respect your parents: pay attention to your dad. Respect your parents, especially your mother.” The words were accompanied with a muscle flexing gesture for the dad, and a skirt swishing for the mother. “As I pointed out to one of the teachers, that’s a very sexist message and seems to suggest that the father figure’s views are worth paying attention to but not the mother’s. I’m a stay-at-home mother and I expect to have my ideas asked for, listened to and treated with the same authority as their Dad’s.”

Christianity on the Wane

The efforts by supporters of programmes like Cool Bananas to focus on “core values” and downplay the “God content” shows religion-in-schools programmes are careful where they tread in an increasingly diverse New Zealand, something that is likely to hearten proponents of secular education.

Census figures show that fewer and fewer New Zealanders identify as Christian (57% in 2006, down from 63% in 2001) at the same time as those opting for “no religion” are on the rise, jumping nearly 5% between the 2001 and 2006 censuses to 35 percent. And within those who continue to class themselves as believers, there’s also change, at least in Auckland. According to a report this month in the New Zealand Herald, mainstream Christian religions are losing ground to Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, with Roman Catholicism the only traditional Christian denomination still growing, in part because of immigrant communities.

Yet for all that, Christianity is really the only religion in town when it comes to school programmes. In Auckland, Paul Bennett, a member of the Secular Education Network, surveyed 235 primary schools, of which 93 said they were offering a religious instruction programme of some kind. “Of those, only two indicated they offered both a Christian-based class alongside another faith,” Bennett said. One offered Bible in Schools plus Muslim Studies, the other Christian-based Life Skills and Baha’i. Among the schools not running any programmes, the most common reasons given included difficulty fitting them into a busy schedule and concerns about multi-cultural issues.

Grant Vincent said he hadn’t heard of any other groups wanting to set up values programmes in Tauranga area schools. In response to a question about opt-outs, the Vincents said children of different cultures and religions tended to say in their sessions. And though they generally don’t know the reasons behind the opt-outs, they did say the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses were among those who chose not to participate. “Obviously, because we’re Christian based we don’t promote any other religion,” Grant Vincent said, “But we’re not putting them down either, we’re not telling kids you can’t be that, that’s wrong.”

The Human Rights Commission makes clear in its 2009 publication on “Religion in New Zealand Schools” that religious instruction must not discriminate against those who don’t share that belief. But it’s an open question as to whether support for faith-based education under the Nelson System would remain as strong if followers of religions other than Christianity began to press their case. Des Vize and Paul McIlwee certainly don’t think so. If another faith began making inroads into schools, Vize says, “it wouldn’t be too long before the people opposing us would be standing beside us. They’d want secularism in schools because a religion other than theirs was suddenly gaining ground.”

Vize makes a good point. Secularism isn’t actually about atheism or agnosticism, but, as he puts it, is “sitting in the middle”. It’s intended not just to protect citizens from religion, but to protect the religious from one another. In Auckland, an active member of the Secular Education Network is David Hines, a Methodist lay preacher who spoke against Bible in Schools at a church service in Auckland in late September. Hines sees school religious programmes as a kind of “spiritual apartheid”, arguing that while they may not consciously promote Christian supremacy, “that is the effect of what they are doing”.

For his stance, Hines has received what he called “hate messages”. “A woman from the other end of the country phoned me out of the blue and accused me of being an atheist (as if that was a crime),” he said. “In fact, I am not an atheist, but I stand alongside atheists on this issue … and that was enough to get me onto her black-list.”

People like Hines are the very religious moderates that the American author and academic Jacques Berlinerblau sees as the key to shoring up the secular state. In his new book, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, Berlinerlblau, an associate professor of Jewish Civilisation at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., argues that because secularism has become so closely entwined with atheism, religious moderates are often reluctant to identify themselves as secularists. The so-called New Atheists have, he says, driven a wedge between the very two groups that must unite to save secularism: non-believers and religious moderates.

“If secularism is just a form of extreme atheism that snickers at religion’s dumb show,” Berlinerbrau writes, “then the moderates will not buy in.” Of course Berlinerblau is writing in the United States where secularism certainly appears to be on the ropes. With both our most recent prime ministers being open about their own non-belief, New Zealand’s secular state is surely much healthier. But secularists here clearly think we mustn’t drop our guard, particularly when it comes to education.

A Convenient Fiction?

In Tauranga, Des Vize says the goal is to get rid of the Nelson System. “The Nelson System is the intruder – it’s not the traditional way, the traditional way is to have secular state schools,” he says. “For a group that is teaching values, they’re taking advantage of a system that lacks values. Because the act itself says schools have to be free, secular and compulsory and then hidden away in the small print is this sneaky little fishhook in it that says, ‘Ah, but you can teach religion in schools if you close the school’,” Vize says. “That’s dishonest.”

Indeed, the closer one studies the Nelson System, the less “honest” it looks. Why would a state that purports to fund a secular primary education system allow any religion access to its students in what is effectively school time? Can parents really ‘opt out’ or does the kind of pressure felt by Kate Graeme, who continues to allow her daughters to attend Cool Bananas, effectively preclude that? What does it really mean to “close” the school? Are schools following that rule anyway? And, as Graeme asked, if the community really feels values should be part of the curriculum, should children be able to ‘opt out’, as more and more of them do in their later primary years?

Werewolf asked a handful of Tauranga schools that run the Cool Bananas whether or not they do indeed close when the programme is in session. Only two responded, and both said they did not. One was Geoff Opie’s Otumoetai School. Opie said the few children who have been “opted out” attend the library information centre for the half-hour Cool Bananas sessions. “I don’t know, even historically, if any school actually ‘closed’ for this half hour period,” he added.

The other school, in Omokoroa on the outskirts of Tauranga, said it did not officially close “as there are two sessions, one for the Junior School and one for the middle school, therefore it would not be practical to close the whole school, especially as the seniors do not take part.” (In response to a question on the matter, the Ministry of Education also said it does not “routinely ‘police’ or require reporting about which schools close for religious instruction”.)

There’s another threat to secularism on the horizon, too, in the form of charter schools, or “Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua” as the Government is calling them. The head of the Partnership School working group, Catherine Isaac, said it had been decided that faith-based partnership schools should be an option “because faith-based schools have demonstrably raised achievement”. And that means the Nelson System need not apply. “Schools which gained approval to teach a faith-based curriculum,” Isaac said, “would not need to use the so-called Nelson Clause to give faith-based instruction.” Those schools would, she added, have to “use a curriculum that maps to the principles of the New Zealand curriculum”. They would also be obliged to accept all students who applied. Nevertheless, that also means state funding for religious primary education, something not envisaged in the current law.

With all that going on, it’s not clear where a law that insists primary teaching “shall be entirely of a secular character” stands, and whether primary education in New Zealand can truly be considered secular. Yet for all the hypocrisies of the system, there also doesn’t seem to be a big groundswell against it outside of those actively campaigning on the issue. The Ministry of Education said it had received no complaints about school closures, or non-closures, for religious education, though it pointed out that if parents did have a complaint, it would first go through the school and its board of trustees.

For his part, Opie said that 95 percent of parents at his school say “yes” when presented with the enrolment form question on the issue. (It reads: “Values Education – I give permission for my child to take part in the Cool Bananas Bible based Values Education Programme” and offers a “yes” or “no” option.) Perhaps what looks like a wider lack of concern is just another indication of the waning influence of organised religion in New Zealand society. Or, it may simply be, as Paul McIlwee suggests, apathy.

Things certainly appear to have been a lot more heated back in 1909. Sir Robert Stout [pictured left], having set off that firestorm with his comments about church schools and criminality, later took the time to expand on his comments to a “Post Correspondent”. Stout, the “correspondent” wrote, “did not mean to attack any Church. He did not say that any Church tended to produce crime at all. What he wanted to emphasise was that a person trained in a secular school in New Zealand was trained in obedience to the law, to respect others and to love others, and a man so trained would not be a criminal. As for the teaching that if a child did wrong he would be punished hereafter, he did not think that would have much effect on either criminality or morality, and the history of the world proved it.”

Note: The author expressed her own secularist tendencies in a column last month in The Bay of Plenty Times.

“Church, State, and New Zealand Education.” By Colin McGeorge and Ivan Snook. Wellington: Price Milburn, 1981.

“Religion in New Zealand Schools: Questions and Concerns.” Human Rights Commission, 2009.

“How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.” By Jacques Berlinerblau. Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, September 2012.

Photos of Cool Bananas offices and staff by Cool Bananas; photo of Des Vize by Alison McCulloch.