Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Attend school or else...!

Last week I met with the Minister for School Education, The Hon Peter Garrett, to follow up a letter I had written him weeks before. In the letter I expressed the concern of the Uniting Church in Australia at his announcement on 18 October that social security payments will be suspended if parents are assessed to be “not doing their part to get their child to school.”

While sharing concerns for improving educational engagement by Indigenous children, we are aware that such punitive approaches to school attendance have not worked elsewhere. In the report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) “What works to overcome Indigenous disadvantage”, published this year, the authors note (p.3) “a review of evidence from seven rigorously evaluated programs that linked school attendance with welfare payments in the United States found that sanction-only programs have a negligible effect on attendance, but that case management was the most critical factor.”

The Report identified from a review of the literature, respect for culture and different learning style were considered to be important for engaging Indigenous families in school readiness programs.

The Minister's speech acknowledged that what works in favour of school attendance are the following factors:
• a strong relationship between school and community;
• well prepared and well supported teachers;
• following students through with Personalised Learning Plans; and
• what’s been referred to as a “culture of high expectations”.

We are concerned that the additional punitive measure he announced of cutting social security payments may actually retard the impact of the above measures and increase financial hardship for families penalised, with financial hardship being identified in the AIHW and AIFS report as one of the factors that serves as a barrier to school attendance (p. 2).

I attended this meeting with my colleague Peter Jones, General Secretary of the UCA's Northern Synod. Peter was not only a teacher in a previous life, but worked in senior positions in the Northern Territory Education Department and has deep connections on the ground with Indigenous communities in the Territory.

The Minister listened respectfully to our position but wouldn't move on the basic policy direction. We left him with a well researched 13 page paper prepared by UnitingJustice supporting our call for a reconsideration of a policy we consider to be discriminatory and very likely to be ineffective in achieving its aims.

What is more difficult to measure is the long term impact on Indigenous communities of once again being on the end of paternalistic and punitive approaches to achieve desired outcomes.

Monday, December 5, 2011

China Christian Council meets the Uniting Church

I returned last week from a visit to the China Christian Council (CCC) with a delegation of Uniting Church leaders. We went to sound out a possible formal relationship with the CCC akin to the partnerships we have with 36 other churches, mainly in the Pacific and Asia. China is a country with whom we have historic mission links and, of course, the relationship between China and Australia generally is becoming increasingly important politically and economically. Increasing migration from China to Australia, growing Chinese involvement within the UCA and a shared history of being uniting churches added impetus to our visit.

Our delegation included two leaders from our Theological Colleges, two leaders from Uniting Church community services, two Uniting Church Chinese Ministers, the Director of UnitingWorld and me. Our program concentrated on meetings with the CCC leadership, visits to three theological seminaries, CCC community services staff and the Amity Foundation.

Amity is an NGO Development Agency of the CCC. It also runs the largest printing press in the world, with a staff of 500 it publishes 10 million bibles per year. On visiting the massive printing works I recalled reading books in the 1970's about people smuggling bibles into China. Now the Bible is going out in large volumes across the world from China! I was presented with an limited edition bible marking the 80 millionth bible printed by Amity - that copy will be on display at UnitingWorld.

We also visited a number of congregations in Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing. One of the churches was called, memorably to my Australian ear, in translation, 'No Worries Church'!

The CCC describes itself as 'post-denominational'. It regards itself as a uniting church and embraces a range of traditions including mainstream Protestant churches as well as Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal and Indigenous Churches! They are determined not to replicate the divisions of the Western Church. When I asked about their doctrinal core they said they basically used the Bible, and the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds. It was formed in the 1950's but during the Cultural Revolution (1966-80) churches were forced to close and Christians gathered secretly. One conservative estimate is that there are now 23 million Christians in China and growing rapidly. Open evangelism seems still somewhat restricted but local leaders attribute the church growth to personal witness and to an intentional approach to discipling and educating new Christians. We have much to learn from this church.

What might they gain from a closer relationship with a church like the UCA?  They have a desperate need for more pastors to serve in the growing church so theological education is a priority. They are interested in possible links between CCC seminaries and UCA theological colleges, as well as possible service collaboration between the CCC Social Service Department and UnitingCare. There is also the possibility of volunteer placements through UnitingWorld and the Amity Foundation.

We hope that a similar delegation from the CCC will visit the UCA next year to coincide with our trienniel Assembly meeting.

Oh and we did squeeze in a bit of sightseeing but that's another story...
Photos by Rev Ji Zhang