Victorian schools will scrap special religious instruction from class time, with changes to the state’s curriculum throwing the future of the controversial program in doubt.
The Andrews government has ordered that the weekly 30 minute program move to lunchtime and before and after school in 2016 to make way for new content on world histories, cultures, faiths and ethics.
Classes that address domestic violence and respectful relationships will also become compulsory for all prep to year 10 students from 2016.
The state government said students were missing out on essential learning while SRI took place.
“Extracurricular programs should not interfere with class time when teachers and students should be focused on the core curriculum,” the government said in a statement.
The decision to axe SRI from the curriculum has been met with fierce opposition by chaplaincy organisation Access Ministries, the main provider of religious instruction.
The organisation’s chief executive, Dawn Penney, said the government failed to consult SRI providers and nearly 30,000 Victorian parents about its decision.
Ms Penney was seeking “urgent discussions” with Education Minister James Merlino on Thursday about the changes, which could deter families from the program.
“The decision contradicts a clear statement made prior to the last state election that the government would support SRI.”
Mr Merlino said qualified teachers would deliver the new faith and ethics content.
“This new content helps all school students, regardless of their background or faith, to understand the world around them and the ideas and values that shape that world,” he said.
Lara Wood, a spokeswoman for Fairness in Religions in School, a group that has spent the past four years campaigning against SRI, claimed victory. “We won, we got what we wanted.”
She said religious instruction providers were proselytising in primary schools while students missed out on learning.
Australian Education Union Victorian president Meredith Peace, another opponent of SRI, welcomed the announcement, saying state schools should be secular.
“We didn’t believe SRI was consistent with that.”
She said students who did not opt in to the SRI lessons were sent to the library or sat in corridors.
SRI providers have battled to keep primary school students in the program after the state government changed its policy in 2011, requiring parents to “opt in” to the classes rather than “opt out”.
Enrolments fell from 92,808 Victorian students in 2013 to 53,361 – a 42 per cent plunge.
The inclusion of respectful relationships education into the curriculum coincides with the Royal Commission into Family Violence.
It follows a pilot that ran in 30 Victorian schools, and will focus on challenging attitudes and behaviours that can lead to violence against women.
Prevention of Family Violence Minister Fiona Richardson said that new focus on respectful relationships in schools would help address gender stereotypes and discrimination.
“Respectful relationships education is key to combating prejudice and preventing violence – we’re including it in the curriculum so that every Victorian school teaches students these important skills and content.”
Domestic Violence Victoria chief executive Fiona McCormack applauded the government for incorporating domestic violence prevention into the curriculum.
“The time has come, we’ve got to start intervening earlier, and educating children at a young age about respectful relationships,” she said.
But opposition education spokesman Nick Wakeling said Premier Daniel Andrews has broken a pre-election promise about SRI, creating chaos for parents.
“This decision by Daniel Andrews will create chaos for thousands of parents whose children will be forced to attend these classes out of school hours.” he said.
“Parents in schools across Victoria will face the prospect of juggling new and varied after-school hours pick-ups just to suit the ideological whims of Daniel Andrews.”