“Academically rigorous” religious and values education

Advancing religious education in state schools

Religious education seems to have no place in a secular society, but there are those who want to change this.

Dialogue Australasia is a network of people committed to attempting to bring “academically rigorous” religious and values education into the curriculum in Australia and New Zealand.

After 18 months of operation, the New Zealand team has presented its vision to one state school and has been approached by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology in the wake of ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering.

Independent and Integrated schools already have a curriculum incorporating religious and values education, but state schools are free, compulsory and secular. Dialogue Australasia is very active in offering professional development and assistance with the curriculum in Independent and Integrated schools.

Dialogue Australasia’s New Zealand representative, Deborah Stevens, believes they are progressing.

Ms Stevens says there will soon be public discussion on the necessity for teaching theoretical and applied ethics to students in all levels of state and independent schools. Because that is available for public comment then Dialogue Australasia says they will have the opportunity to promote values and religious education.

She says Living Values, The Virtues Projects, and Philosophy for Children, which are currently offered voluntarily in the state system and will be recognized at the UNESCO organized Values Summit in Wellington on October 21, are “all wonderful and necessary but none of them offer a timetabled subject with a curriculum that teaches students how to think. The Virtues Project and Living Values are teaching literally “values” to children such as compassion, tolerance, understanding, and honesty, and such teaching can be piecemeal”.

They wish to see a separate system operating in New Zealand state schools throughout the pre-school, primary and secondary levels, using five strands of religious and values education that have featured in the British education system over the last 15 years. These are: ethics; philosophy of religion; world religions; an appreciation of the Bible and Christian tradition; and providing children with an appreciation of the value of stillness.

The benefits of this, Ms Stevens says, are that students engage with the fundamental questions of life, like what is it to be human.

“It is about giving them an opportunity to look at any and every philosophical question of life. Ethics develops people’s way of thinking. The Five Strands curriculum offers an opportunity for students to think deeply and to think well.”

The system that Dialogue Australasia wants to use in New Zealand is “up and running and tried and true” in Britain. Ms Stevens says 230,000 students are opting to take religious and values education at the equivalent level of New Zealand’s Bursary year.

“From what we understand, students who take religious and values education are quite highly desired by tertiary institutions because they know that those students can think – they can argue and offer well-reasoned thought to any opinion, and they have learnt how to be academically rigorous in how they approach any number of issues.”

Deborah Stevens presented a seminar on bio ethics in Lower Hutt on October 12, which was hosted by Holy Trinity Church and the Rotary Club of Eastern Hutt. She is a secondary school teacher at Chilton Saint James Independent School, advises the Anglican Bishop of Wellington on bio ethics, and is an active member of a local Anglican church.

By Peter Veugelaers.

Published 2002, Challenge Weekly


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