THE future of the United Jewish Education Board’s (UJEB) role in Victoria’s state schools hangs in the balance as it awaits a magistrate’s decision regarding religious education.
UJEB, which operates under the state government’s Special Religious Instruction (SRI) program, could be banned from teaching during school hours if the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) rules in favour of three secular parents, members of the group Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS), who say the current system discriminates against their children.
During a seven-day hearing that concluded last week, the court heard that children who opted out of SRI were left in corridors unsupervised, separated from their classmates, and prevented from undertaking meaningful tasks during the weekly half-hour sessions.
But president of UJEB Yossi Goldfarb said while the system needed revision, the VCAT case sought to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.
“While there is room for improvement in the current system, the provision of SRI to smaller religious groups is a critical cornerstone for a multicultural Victoria,” he explained.
UJEB educates the majority of Jewish children at 35 of Victoria’s 1300 state government primary schools.
“If this motion is successful, it will effectively ban Jewish education for Jewish children in government schools,” said Goldfarb.
FIRIS member Scott Hedges, who is not Jewish, said the current model impinged on the rights of families across Victoria. “I would love for UJEB to look on this issue as ‘mipnei tikkun ha-olam’, something that is done because it helps avoid social chaos – something that is done because it is right,” he said.
But Goldfarb said the effort to diminish the importance of religious education would have “negative and dire consequences for the Jewish community”.
A parent at Caulfield Junior College, at which about 25 per cent of students are Jewish, agreed that removing the opportunity for religious education would be “dreadful”.
“One of the things that makes [the school] so attractive to parents is that there is an opportunity for Jewish education,” said Abi Gold.
But for another member of FIRIS, whose Jewish children are two of a tiny minority at their school, the picture was less rosy.
Katie Valentine pulled her kids from UJEB classes because they were being taken out during non-SRI time and missing core curriculum.
“I’m very committed to them having a Jewish education, but when they are they are at school, I don’t want them treated differently,” she said.
The complainants argued that alternatives to SRI should include ethics and general religious education, but the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development told the court these classes would be in breach of Victorian legislation.
The law dictates that alternatives such as these should still be provided by churches or other religious groups and that auxiliary classes cannot take in core-curriculum lessons.
Caulfield Junior College offers a School Values program that teaches children who opt out about integrity and responsibility.