Postgraduate students

Helen Bradstock, BEd (Hons), PhD

“Let’s Talk about Something Else”: Religion and Governmentality in New Zealand’s State Primary Schools

In 2012, the Churches Education Commission in New Zealand stated that around forty percent of state primary schools provided voluntary religious instruction. A search for the word ‘religion’ in the New Zealand Curriculum, at that time, yielded a zero result. The curriculum recognised New Zealand’s bicultural heritage and affirmed cultural diversity as a key principle. Yet religious diversity was not a curriculum focus.

The New Zealand Education Act of 1877 established that the primary school curriculum would be “entirely of a secular character.” But the Education Act of 1964 stated that, at any time during the school day, the school could “close” for religious instruction led by church volunteers. This was, and remains, known as Bible-in-Schools (BiS). In consequence of this, and subsequent legislation, confessional approaches to religious education appear to have been preserved in New Zealand primary schools. My research indicates that the effective separation of religion from the mainstream primary school curriculum, through the construct of school closure, has precluded both educational scrutiny of BiS programmes and the theorisation of religion as an appropriate object of study. This thesis examines policy and practice in seven case study primary schools, and draws on interview data with key stakeholders at the Ministry of Education, the New Zealand Educational Institute, the Churches Education Commission and the Human Rights Commission. It examines the archive of primary sources and traces the “history of the present,” identifying constraints on the development of religion as a curriculum area.

Adopting a Foucaultian approach to discourse analysis, genealogy, and governmentality, a critical realist theoretical perspective and theory of conceptual knowledge of religion, and an egalitarian liberal approach to social policy, I demonstrate how dominant societal and educational discourses operate to disqualify religion as a curriculum area and concurrently to position confessional approaches to culture and religion as educationally progressive. I problematise Bible-in-Schools, showing how current practices may leave children exposed to teaching which does not respect the right of children and parents to freedom of religions and beliefs and is inimical to the protection of diversity. I also suggest that, far from being neutral in matters of religion, secular state schools may be engaged in the promotion of a very specific liberal religious worldview, which is incompatible with many other religious perspectives. I advocate the inclusion of critical education in religions and worldviews within the New Zealand primary and secondary school curriculum.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Will Sweetman, Dr Lynne Baab and Dr Ruth Gasson

University of Otago Religious Studies Programme