Earlier in the week, the Ministry of Education briefed the Education and Science select committee on new guidelines covering religion in schools. Freedom of religion is affirmed by s13 of the BORA, while s77 of the Education Act 1964 requires that teaching in state primary schools "shall be entirely of a secular character". s79 further provides that
No pupil enrolled at a State primary school shall be required to attend or take part in any [religious] instruction or observances...
if their parents object (in line with s15 of the BORA, s78 allows primary schools to close temporarily for the purpose of such instruction). The guidelines look perfectly reasonable and in line with current law - schools should have outside instructors rather than teachers provide religious instruction or observances, hold them outside normal school hours rather than in class time, and avoid "whole of school" activities such as prayer in assemblies to avoiding placing undue pressure on students. The big change is a shift from an "opt-out" system to one where those wanting religious instruction must explicitly "opt in", which removes implicit pressure to participate and is far fairer on those who may not wish to be involved. It's worth noting that Seatoun School's "KidsKlub", which provoked a public outcry last year when a new board of trustees tried to ban it, seems to comply perfectly with these guidelines.
Despite this, there has been an outcry from the principals federation claiming that the guidelines are "impractical" and that it somehow bans singing the national anthem (no, not that one, the other one) because it mentions god. And now we have the Maori Party's Pita Sharples calling it "Political Correctness gone berserk" and claiming that it will interfere with teaching:
“How could one possibly describe the process of colonisation in the history of Aotearoa, without discussing the impact of missionaries?”
“How can one discuss the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, our foundation as a nation, without reference to the role of Anglican, Wesleyan and Roman Catholics clergy within the negotiations, and Anglican and Wesleyan missionaries?”
I agree its impossible to adequately study those things without referring to the religious beliefs of those concerned (just as its impossible to understand the seventeenth century and the birth of the modern world without knowing a little about Catholics and Protestants) - but a history lesson is not a religious observance. And that's what's at issue here - not expunging any mention of religion from the curriculum, but forcing students to participate in religious observances. Sharples may see that as unproblematic - but I suspect he'd feel rather differently if a school proposed to start the day with a compulsory black mass.