Christmas Carols in Schools: the directive given to Principals

UPDATE as of 8pm December 22nd

Later this afternoon Education Minister, Mr James Merlino, issued a statement via The Australian newspaper, seeking to douse once for all the questions and confusion over whether schools will or will not be allowed to reference God and Jesus Christ in Christmas singing, as of 2016.

I am not interested in the politics being played out between the Government and opposition MPs, but I am concerned about Government overstepping the mark over freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

In his statement, Mr Merlino has reiterated (he made a comment on his website a few days ago) that there is no ban on carols in schools, and he has now specified that songs such as Away in a Manger and O Come all ye faithful, can be sung.  This is most encouraging to hear. I am not sure why it took several days for this clarification to come, but nonetheless, many people will be relieved to hear the news.

This statement is an improvement on and somewhat different to what he said a week earlier, “As with other curriculum decisions, schools will make the decision as to which Christmas carols feature as part of classroom activities.”

Does this mean the end of the matter? Unfortunately no, because  Mr Merlino’s statement is at odds with the Departmental directive sent to school principals. In light of this,  I am requesting that the Minister revise this messy piece of policy, and clarify in writing to schools so that there can be no ambiguity. Better still, why not drop the whole issue and allow schools to return to a practice that has work well for many decades

As I have earlier said, the directive is at best confusing, and a natural reading leaves people sensing that Christian carols are probably not permitted, except for within the very strict parameters of SRI and perhaps the General Religion classes.

The contention now is whether schools will follow Mr Merlino’s comments or will they adhere to the Education Department’s directive.

below is the post I wrote on December 17 with details concerning the directive sent to Principals

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I would prefer to spend this time enjoying the lead up to Christmas, not defending the freedom of children to celebrate Christmas, but unfortunately this is a sign of the times in which we live.

Following on from yesterday’s developments regarding Christmas songs in our schools, I have read a copy of the Government’s directive given to school principals. Below is a screenshot of the most relevant section. The left side describes what is permissible only in a SRI class, and the right hand side outlines what is acceptable as non-SRI activity.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 1.11.13 pm

Logically, these two lists clash. The directive is clear, songs that praise God or some other deity are strictly prohibited outside SRI. The only exception to this rule are songs considered ‘societally recognised’, but even they are limited to General Religious Instruction. However, the right side column says that Christmas carols are permitted. Which is it?

A generous reading of the directive could conclude that children can keep singing ‘Away in a Manger’ and other songs about Jesus’ birth, but in my view that is not the natural reading of the document.

Education Minister, Mr James Merlino, yesterday commented that Christmas carols can still be sung in our schools, which was I was pleased to hear, but his own Department’s notice to school principals puts this in doubt. Unless of course, his meaning of Christmas Carols is limited to those non-religious festive favourites such as ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.

I’m curious, what will happen to classic songs like John Lennon’s, ‘Imagine’ ,which is often sung at Christmas time. Are anti-God lyrics ok for our children to sing?

One thing is clear from the directive, members of the community can no longer be invited to help schools in their Christmas celebrations, which is sad given how most people appreciate these ties with community groups.

At best this policy is ambiguous (perhaps deliberately so), and that is evident from the disparate interpretations being proffered by various MPs and even schools.

For me, reading the directive raises more questions:

  1. Is a ‘societally recognised’ song permitted to be sung at a Christmas celebration outside of General Religious classes?
  2. By Christmas Carols, are songs about Jesus, the Bible, and God permitted in school celebrations? For example, ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Silent Night’.

If the answer to these questions is yes, and many Victorians will be encouraged to hear this, I would then ask Mr Merlino and the Education Department to clarify the confusion for schools, in writing. Better still, I recommend that the directive be revised to support these important clarifications.

What do others think?

Dr Paul Ehrlich accusing Scripture classes of child abuse on QandA

Last night on QandA, guest panelist, Dr Paul Ehrlich (Professor of Biological studies at Stanford University), made an astonishing allegation regarding religious instruction in schools.

“We did, but we didn’t have child abuse required in those days. We didn’t have any religious instructions in the schools,” Dr Ehrlich said.

“Did you just say religious instruction is child abuse,” Jones asked the outspoken panellist.

“That’s what Richard Dawkins and lots of other people have said; that you teach people details about non-existent supernatural monsters and then behave in reaction to what you think they are telling you.”

“That’s child abuse. You don’t raise your kids that way,” Dr Ehrlich said.

Audience members then responded with applause.

I have heard similar comments before, made by angry and uninformed persons, but not by an intellectual and person of public standing. We have come to expect these types of accusations by supporters of FIRIS and others, but do the allegations have warrant? If this is a case of name calling, it is truly bad taste and Dr Ehrlich should apologise. If, however, the allegation is serious, action must be taken by both Government and police, for child abuse is rightly deemed appalling and never acceptable.

According to the Department of Human Services (DHS) child abuse is defined in the following ways:

“Child abuse is an act by parents or caregivers which endangers a child or young person’s physical or emotional health or development. Child abuse can be a single incident, but usually takes place over time.

In Victoria, under the Children Youth and Families Act 2005 a child or young person is a person under eighteen years of age.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse occurs when a child suffers or is likely to suffer significant harm from an injury inflicted by a child’s parent or caregiver. The injury may be inflicted intentionally or may be the inadvertent consequence of physical punishment or physically aggressive treatment of a child. The injury may take the form of bruises, cuts, burns or fractures.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when a person uses power or authority over a child to involve the child in sexual activity and the child’s parent or caregiver has not protected the child. Physical force is sometimes involved. Child sexual abuse involves a wide range of sexual activity. It includes fondling of the child’s genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or other object, or exposure of the child to pornography.

Emotional abuse

Emotional Abuse occurs when a child’s parent or caregiver repeatedly rejects the child or uses threats to frighten the child. This may involve name calling, put downs or continual coldness from the parent or caregiver, to the extent that it significantly damages the child’s physical, social, intellectual or emotional development.

Neglect

Neglect is the failure to provide the child with the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, shelter, medical attention or supervision, to the extent that the child’s health and development is, or is likely to be, significantly harmed.”

Do Scripture classes fall into any of these categories? What are the facts?

-Scripture classes are voluntary, with parents having the choice to opt-in their children or not.

-In the case of Christian SRI, these classes teach students basic Christian beliefs by reading and thinking about the Bible.

-Students are free to explore and ask questions.

-No one is compelled or forced to believe the ideas that are communicated, although students are encouraged to use their minds and hearts as they consider the big questions of life.

– The worldview taught in SRI is about truth, love, hope and kindness. Everything that child abuse is, is opposed by these programs.

The reality is, there is no substance to Dr Ehrlich’s allegations; certainly not in the case of Christian instruction classes. I cannot speak on behalf of other religions as I don’t have experience there, but no doubt they will respond for themselves.

Such a misuse of language may garner rapturous cheers from anti-religious supporters, but it contributes nothing to wise and constructive discourse.  In fact, Dr Ehrlich’s comments are incredibly irresponsible, and no doubt victims of child abuse would be justified for being hurt and outraged by them. 

Imagine the public outcry if a Christian panelist on QandA said that refusing children the opportunity to explore theism was akin to child abuse? What would Dr Ehrlich think if a person on national television accused him of child abuse? My point is, his comments are not mere rhetoric, they are allegations of utmost seriousness, and Dr Ehrlich, if he has any intellectual and moral integrity, should withdraw them.

New evidence suggests that the closure of SRI was a mistake

It appears as though Daniel Andrews and the Victorian Government have unnecessarily pulled the plug on Religious Instruction in schools (SRI).

In August this year Education Minister, James Merlino, announced that religious instruction classes would be removed from Victorian schools from 2016. It should be mentioned that religious groups may be permitted outside class time, however the parameters for running these lunch-time groups remains unclear and uncertain.

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Why am I suggesting that the Government has made a mistake? In the last 24 hours the ABC has published two articles that warrant a re-examination of SRI’s closure.

First of all, it has been demonstrated that the policy shift derives from a faulty understanding of secularism (see Michael Bird’s piece on ABC Religion and Ethics). Dr Bird refers to the ‘New Atheists’ who have redefined secularism, “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.” It is this fallacious thinking that has been pushed by groups such as FIRIS, and would seem has also been adopted by the Andrews’ Government.

One of the adverse effects of this view of secularism is that we are creating a new wave of sectarianism, where thousands of families are now faced with the dilemma of either keeping their children in a State school environment where religious toleration is dissipating, or moving their children to independent schools. Far from creating more inclusive schools, we are in danger of returning to the ugly days of sectarian divides, except this time it is not Protestant/Catholic, but religious/non-religious.

As a parent who has three children attending a State school, I value the education they receive; the teachers are excellent and the pastoral care is first rate. It is worrying though, that faulty Government policy may unnecessarily drive a wedge in many school communities, where none has existed previously.

Secondly, Michael Jensen has written a piece overviewing findings from recent academic studies, that demonstrate the positive benefits of our children learning about God and engaging with ideas found in religion.

He says,

“Here’s the bottom line. There’s been a lot of alarmist stuff written recently about the potential detrimental effects of religious teaching on young people. What the hard data says is otherwise: an active religious faith is much to be desired in young people, and the benefits of such a faith persist into old age.”

Dr John Dickson has also helpfully summarised the findings  from one set of research that has been published in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2012):

* ‘Well-being’: 78% of over 300 studies report a significant positive relationship between religion/spirituality and well-being.

* ‘Hope’: 73% of 40 studies find that religion/spirituality is related to greater hope.

* ‘Optimism’: 81% of 32 studies indicate that optimism is more common among those who are religious/spiritual.

* ‘Meaning and purpose’: 93% of 45 studies find that religion/spirituality is related to greater purpose and meaning.

* ‘Social support’: 82% of 74 studies report significant links between religion/spirituality and a person’s social support.

* ‘Self-esteem’: 61% of 69 studies report a positive link between religion/spirituality and self-esteem.

* ‘Depression’: 61% of 413 studies found lower rates of depression or faster recovery from depression in individuals who are more religious.

* ‘Suicide’: 75% of 141 studies found that greater religiosity/spirituality is associated with less suicidal ideation, fewer suicidal attempts, or fewer completed suicides.

* ‘Social capital’ (i.e., an individual’s community participation, volunteerism, social trust, involvement in civic life): 79% of 14 studies report significantly positive associations between religious involvement and social capital.

While I would add certain caveats and qualifications about these findings, they nonetheless communicate that there are significantly positive social and mental benefits that derive from belief in God.

It is interesting to note that the Victorian Department of Education understand that ‘Health and wellbeing are essential for quality of life and are fundamental preconditions for learning and development’. One of the identified aspects of wellbeing is what they refer to as ‘spiritual wellbeing’. And yet the Government is truncating this very principle by taking away from students the freedom and opportunity to engage with these very things.

Dr Bird and Dr Jensen are not saying anything new, but they offer timely refutations to the popular memes about religion, children and education. Given the weight of their arguments, I believe it is reasonable for Mr Merlino and Mr Andrews to reconsider their decision about SRI in 2016.