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Teaching is not preaching


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Fourteen years ago, Pamela Torrington’s job was to advise the Bristol City Council in England on how schools should teach faith.

Now she lives in Masterton and believes New Zealand could learn a thing or two about accommodating religions in New Zealand.

She was part of Bristol’s Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education when they produced a publication called Matters of Faith – A Journey to Understanding, aimed at helping schools understand and accommodate students practising different religions.

In light of the debate prompted by the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, she believes more could be done in New Zealand on the subject.

Torrington says there are six major faiths with worshippers around the globe – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and Judaism – and children should have a basic level of understanding of all of them by the time they reach adulthood.

“After the Christchurch terror attacks, Muslims were amazed that people were interested in going in to their mosque,” she said.

“They said nobody’s ever asked before, they’ve never shown interest in their faith.

“I’m sure the same is the case with Sikhs, of which there are loads in New Zealand, and I bet most people have never gone in to a Sikh temple or shown interest in it at all, which makes them separate groups.”

In Masterton, there was a large Indian community, Torrington said, but not much understanding or even awareness of Hindu festivals like Diwali.

“I don’t think people here would know about it.”

Nor was there understanding of Muslim festivals like Eid to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

“Christmas is a statutory day off here – do they allow pupils to have a day off for Eid? Do they even know what it is?

“If a child came up to them and said, ‘It’s Eid next week, I need to have a day off’, I’m not sure teachers would know what they’re talking about.”

Matters of Faith contains information about festivals so teachers can work out when to allow holidays.

The book contains information about the origins, core beliefs, implications for schools, and places of worship in the area for the major religions, which could be put in a New Zealand context, and with minor tweaks, she thinks, could be useful to councils and corporations.

It would help them understand how, when, and why devotees practise their religions, so a Muslim pupil in a school, for example, could have exemption to leave class for Friday prayers just after noon.

She thinks it’s a shame our secular education system paints factual education on all major religions with the same brush as proselytising – attempting to convert people to one religion.

“It’s about understanding,” she said.

Britain’s religious education system wasn’t perfect, she said, but it tried harder to understand religions than New Zealand’s did

The changes began in the 1940s in response to the horrors of the Holocaust only a few years before, she said.

In New Zealand, especially in a place like Masterton, there were often few followers of religions other than Christianity, and they could easily feel isolated and separate from mainstream society.

Torrington said she was shocked that a new building for Canterbury’s regional council, built after the earthquakes, didn’t have a prayer room for Muslims, despite having Muslim employees, and guessed Masterton District Council wouldn’t either.

Council spokeswoman Shanna Crispin confirmed the council didn’t have a dedicated prayer room.

She said staff could book meeting rooms, and many staff would soon move to Waiata House, where the council was “looking at what we can design to cater to the well-being needs of our employees such as prayer, breast-feeding and meditation”.

“It is likely to be one room available for these uses.”


  1. Thank you for raising these important issues. The national conversation was long overdue, but lets hope the impetus since 15th March 2019 doesn’t slow down. Well done Pamela Torrington – we could learn much from your insights, particularly regarding smaller centres and rural areas.

  2. A dedicted prayer room can accommodate all faiths. All Muslims require is a small sign indicating the direction to Mecca. oh, and carpeting and mats that can be acceptable as a prayer mat – I’ve seen Muslims roll out a small rattan mat for their prayers. It can function as a meditation room too. Although, Muslim employees will say, if asked, how males and females can acceptably pray in the same room. Consultation, that’s the key!

  3. There is much to agree with in what Pamela Torrington has to say. Factual education on the major religions would be great in our schools. I might add it should also include discussion on the atheist/agnostic stance as well.
    Unfortunately we do have proselytising in a large number of our state secular primary schools currently. Once a week people of one certain faith instruct the children into their religion, teaching it is as the truth.
    However, what she is suggesting is not proselytising and would be a welcome improvement.

  4. The British system of teaching about world religions as part of the official curriculum is far superior to what happens in NZ. Here, there is no curriculum teaching about religion at all in our secular state primary schools but we do allow religious groups to access these same “supposedly” secular schools in order to promote their religious faith if the board of trustees approves. These are invariably Christian groups who seem to think that our children need to learn their religious beliefs in order to have good values. Allowing these classes inherently discriminates against children from non-Christian families, who account for over half the population as at the 2013 census.

    If we want to be a truly inclusive society that values diversity and freedom of expression, we need to stop allowing religious instruction classes run by outside church volunteers. It is appalling that they are given weekly access to impressionable children. If McDonalds were coming into the school every week to teach kids about nutrition, there would be an uproar!

    You can find out more about religious instruction in NZ state primary schools at http://www.religiouseducation.co.nz

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