Scrapping religion classes from schools 'the right thing to do', says Victorian education minister

Religious instruction will be scrapped from the curriculum of Victorian schools from next year and replaced with education about building respectful relationships, the government announced on Friday.

The new relationships education program will be taught by qualified teachers and aims to help children understand global cultures and traditions, recognise and prevent family violence, and appreciate and understand diversity.

Special religious instruction, currently taught during school hours by volunteers, will be moved out of regular class times, freeing 30 minutes a week for the new program.

The education minister, James Merlino, said about 20% of primary school students took part in religious instruction, while the remaining students occupied themselves with other activities, such as reading.

“You can’t have 20% of school kids undertaking special religious education, while the other children are not getting teaching or learning, during precious curriculum time,” he told ABC radio on Friday morning.

“I understand that some people are going to be upset by this decision, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Understanding others, including other world views and religions, and acting with tolerance and respect, were essential skills for young people to learn, he said.

Rob Ward, a spokesman for the main provider of special religious instruction in Victoria, Access Ministries, said his organisation had not been consulted by the government, and he was disappointed by the decision.

“It’s hastily made and poorly advised,” he told Guardian Australia. “Nobody has seen this new curriculum as yet, and I’m not sure how a primary school teacher will teach well and capably the basic beliefs of the five major religions.”

Fairness for Religions in Schools, an organisation developed in response to religious instruction programs in Victoria and New South Wales, said the move was overdue.

Its chief executive, Lara Wood, said the organisation received feedback from parents concerned about religious instruction nearly every day.

“These parents are angry that their kids are losing four days’ worth of school time each year for a very small minority of students,” Wood said.

“Kids who do take part in the program are being told they will go to hell if they don’t believe in God, and we had a report of one child last year being locked in a closet while taking part in religious education.

“Merlino is so courageous in making this decision, because there will be a backlash from a small section of the religious right, but he’s done the perfect thing.”

The minister for the prevention of family violence, Fiona Richardson, said addressing gender inequality would comprise an important aspect of the healthy relationships curriculum. Such education was key to preventing family violence, she said.

“We’re including it in the curriculum so that every Victorian school teaches students these important skills and lessons.”

Schools will receive training and guidance to deliver the new curriculum content, and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority will develop resources to support teachers. It will be implemented from the start of the 2016 school year.