Moral Education

In Australia, Baha'i religious classes in state schools find wide appeal

Bahá'í teachings about moral values and respect for other cultures and religions are appreciated by parents; classes are offered in some 300 public schools throughout the country.

SYDNEY, Australia ­­— Like many other parents around the world, Vicki Thomas very much wants her children to grow up with some kind of religious feeling.

“My children are very young, and they don't need anything too heavy at this stage, but it's important to me that they do have a faith education,” said the 33-year-old resident of St. Ives, a northern suburb of metropolitan Sydney .

Her choice for such training may be somewhat surprising, however, given that she comes from a Catholic background. Even though she is not a Bahá'í, she chooses to send all three of her children to Bahá'í religious classes, which are held at their primary school.

“I liked the open-minded approach of the Bahá'í curriculum,” she said.

Ms. Thomas is not alone among Australian parents, who have the option of enrolling their children in Special Religious Education courses at the state schools — thanks in part to a century-old law requiring schools to offer religious training if parents want it.

In all, nearly 6,000 primary school children attend Bahá'í classes in Australia, which are offered in more than 300 state-run schools throughout the country. The classes are offered in state schools primarily to provide religious instruction to Bahá'í children. Yet more than 90 percent of the children in Bahá'í classes are from families who are not members of the Bahá'í Faith — indicating the wide appeal of the Bahá'í approach to religious education.

As might be expected, many more children attend religious classes offered by Christians. Some 70 percent of Australians identify themselves as Christian, and many thousands of children attend Christian classes in state schools. For example, a 2001 article in Alive magazine said there were Christian classes in 1,000 schools in New South Wales, Australia 's largest state. By comparison, last year Bahá'í classes were held in some 150 schools in New South Wales. Classes are also offered in Australia by Buddhist and Muslim groups, among others.

Moral values stressed

In accordance with the Bahá'í belief that all the world's great religions share the same divine origin and have been revealed progressively to humanity, the approach of Bahá'í Education in State Schools (BESS), as the program is known, includes an introduction to the world's other great religions.

BESS classes also stress the development of moral values as taught in all world religions, such as patience, honesty, and compassion, as well as broad social principles, such as the oneness of humanity, the equality of women, and the promotion of racial and religious tolerance.

“Parents appreciate that we teach the students to respect the different cultures and religions of the world in the classes,” said Yvonne Perkins, a spokesperson for the Bahá'í community of Australia, which has about 10,000 members.

“They also like the moral basis of the program, and the fact that we encourage children to look at their own behavior and how improving it helps them to contribute to a better world,” said Ms. Perkins.

In Australia, unlike some countries around the world, religious education in public schools is not strictly prohibited as a violation of church and state separation. General Religious Education, covering religious traditions in a broad sociological context, is often part of the curriculum — although prayers are not said and no one religion is singled out as the truth.

In addition, the law in most states and territories allows students to obtain specialized religious education, relating to a specific belief system, in the school setting. This is known as Special Religious Education (SRE). It is offered by specific religious groups, approved and administered at the state level.

In Western Australia, for example, the Department of Education and Training reviews the curriculum plans of the various religious groups that wish to offer Special Religious Education classes.

“The Bahá'í Special Religious Curriculum — the Peace Pack — has been reviewed and subsequently endorsed by the Department for trained Bahá'í personnel to deliver,” said Brian Rogers, principal curriculum officer for the Department.

“In endorsing the program, the Department looked at general issues such as pedagogical approach rather than specific information, which is left to the individual religious bodies to decide,” added Mr. Rogers.

Informal Bahá'í classes have been taught at schools in Australia since the 1960s, begun by some Bahá'í mothers who started classes in their local schools to provide spiritual education for their children. The BESS program was formally established in the late 1980s, when the Bahá'í community was approved by the New South Wales State Government as a provider of Special Religious Education.

Today, BESS classes are taught by hundreds of Bahá'í volunteers in most states around the country. They receive ongoing training in religious education, undergo child protection training, and are registered according to the policy of state-level education departments. They use a variety of curriculum resources specifically developed for BESS classes by Bahá'ís who are professional educators.

Kath Podger, former head of the Australian Bahá'í community's Office of Education, said that many volunteers run more than one class and are often parents themselves.

“As parents, they recognize the need to provide spiritual education for their own children and to offer it to everyone as a service to the community at large,” she said.

An emphasis on values

In addition to the basic teachings of the Bahá'í Faith, BESS classes cover peace studies and the great variety of religions, cultures, and festivals around the world. Children share their own cultural heritage through song and craft. Prayers and meditation are also incorporated.

Government officials have indicated that they recognize the need for religious and values education in an increasingly multi-cultural Australia.

“The Society and Environment Learning Area statement acknowledges that a focus on the diversity of interaction between cultures, beliefs and practices in the past and present is important for all year levels,” said Mr. Rogers of the Western Australia Education and Training Department, referring to the state-level curriculum statement that encourages students to develop a respect for cultural heritage and a commitment to social justice.

The BESS program places a strong emphasis on encouraging each individual child to identify those virtues he or she already possesses, and those he or she needs to focus on developing.

The classes adhere to the Bahá'í principle that education should facilitate an individual's capacity to think independently and objectively. Hence, BESS teachers do not seek to convert or indoctrinate their students, but rather to encourage them to question and explore ways of serving humanity.

As well, children from families who are not Bahá'ís can only attend BESS classes with parental permission.

“We've experienced an enormous growth of interest and numbers in BESS classes over the past decade in particular,” said Ms. Perkins, the national Bahá'í spokesperson. “The classes have expanded in number and size largely through word of mouth, and through the results that parents see in children who attend them.

“Children love the way the classes are taught — the program is quite varied, with a lot of arts and crafts, meditation, and stories, so it keeps their imagination stimulated,” Ms. Perkins added. BESS teachers also incorporate singing, dancing, games, and other participatory activities in their classes.

Many teachers draw heavily on a Bahá'í curriculum initially developed by professional teacher Georgina Sounness and illustrator Terri Turner, known as the “Peace Pack.”

The two women began writing the books after more than 40 children turned up at a BESS class they opened in Perth in 1993.

“It was quite daunting, because we realized the classes could get even bigger than that, and there wasn't much in the way of formal material for other volunteers to use,” Ms. Sounness said.

The “Peace Pack” is a four-part course for varying age groups, accompanied by a CD of songs for children prepared by Western Australian musician Greg Parker. It focuses on themes such as racial unity, gender equality, the need to end abject poverty, and the importance of education as key to building international peace and prosperity.

“The whole purpose of it is to empower children to believe that peace is achievable and to give them the tools to become peacemakers and assist them in bringing it about,” said Ms. Sounness.

To help children imagine what a peaceful world might look like, the authors use the idea of building a “Peace House.”

In that exercise, children use cardboard, paint, and felt to build a dwelling that would keep its “world citizen” occupants happy and snug — whether it be equality between women and men, economic well-being and education for all, or awareness and understanding between people of different faiths.

“Children find the idea charming, and it's very hands-on; they get to build the house using cardboard, or felt, or ice cream sticks, and then they understand that if one of the tiles is missing, the house isn't complete,” Ms. Sounness said. “If the oneness of mankind is missing, or gender equality is missing, there will still be an absence of peace.”

Changes in behavior

The response from parents to the BESS classes has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I've had parents call to thank us for giving their children a spiritual education,” said Ms. Sounness. “They want to give that to their children but are often at a loss on how to approach this.

“They've given written permission for their children to attend the classes, so they know what they're receiving, but beyond that they fall in love with the curriculum, too.”

Ms. Perkins said many parents have commented on how their children's behavior has improved through attending BESS classes.

“Our teachers work from the view that while a child's qualities might be masked by poor behavior that's developed over time, everyone nevertheless possesses something wonderful — and Bahá'í teachers actually search for those good qualities in the children, to show the children the wonderful qualities they have, ignoring labels like ‘poor concentration' or ‘badly behaved',” said Ms. Perkins.

“For a child, to have someone encouraging you to develop your good attributes once a week instead of focusing on what's wrong with your behavior — this can all make a dramatic change to a child's life.”

Robert Chivers, a 50-year-old software developer in Perth who has been teaching BESS classes for three years, said parents often say they see improved behavior after the classes.

“Parents notice the difference on the days the children have Bahá'í classes — for example, their children are calmer, and talk about using virtues,” he said.

BESS teacher Venus Nasrabadi began volunteering when her own children needed a class and has now been teaching for eight years. She said the number of pupils in her class has risen dramatically over time.

“This year I began with three pupils, one of whom was my own son, but the parents at the school where I teach know me and they know my children, and as people got to hear about the classes, they enrolled their kids — so I finished the year with 29 students,” she said.

“Children really do recognize God, in the sense that they have a feeling for their own spirituality, and I give them a lot of creative activities which illustrate the themes they're learning.

“For example, in teaching about Moses, we made paper baskets to illustrate the story that His parents had to put Him into a basket and place him in a river, and that helped introduce our study of Moses and His achievements and the Jewish faith.

“For Mother's Day, the children made gift cards containing a prayer for mothers from the Bahá'í writings, and covered them with sequins, shells and colors. Later, their mothers told me that they absolutely loved this craftwork partly because it is a gift thanking them for their service as parents, and also because their children are learning respectfulness,” said Ms. Nasrabadi.

Michelle Ostowari, 47, is married to a Zoroastrian and chose BESS classes for being “the closest thing” she could find to a Zoroastrian class.

“It's great because otherwise we'd send our children to non-scripture class, where they just sit and do nothing,” said Ms. Osowari. “My daughter's been going since she was in kindergarten, and now she's in grade 5, and my son will start attending when he begins school next year.

“It's been very good for my daughter; she has become genuinely tolerant towards everyone, no matter whether they're Jewish, Muslim, or whatever — she gets on with everyone, and we're delighted that, for her, religion will never be a barrier to friendship.

“This year there were just four children in the class, but after the teacher gave a short presentation at the school to let parents know more about what was on offer in the curriculum, she was deluged with another 40 enrolments — and now she's having to go and find another teacher to help her cope,” said Ms. Ostowari, expressing some amusement at the extra work they've created for the BESS teacher.

Jan Heath, a 46-year-old teacher in Brisbane who is not Bahá'í, sends her son to BESS classes at the Fig Tree Pocket State School. She feels the class has helped him develop respect and tolerance for others.

“My son certainly seems to be heading towards growing into a caring young man,” said Ms. Heath. “He may have done this anyway, but constant reminders and praise in Bahá'í classes can only help. I feel that the teachings reinforce our family values.”

Ms. Thomas, of the Sydney suburb of St. Ives, likewise said her children seem to enjoy the Bahá'í classes.

“There is an emphasis on peace and unity in the Bahá'í teachings, which the children love,” said Ms. Thomas.

“They come home with beautiful work and beautiful quotations, and there's a real gentleness of spirit that comes across, which is really beneficial for them,” said Ms. Thomas. “It's definitely one of the highlights of the week, they look forward to their Tuesday mornings so much!”

By Corinne Podger