Presented at Meeting with the Ministry of Education
Written and Presented by
Archbishop Peter Chong
4 February 2019
Madam, Honourable Minister for Education, the Faith Community Leaders are very happy to attend this meeting to discuss with you an issue central to our calling and obligations as faith leaders, and which is attracting much public attention, namely education. Thank you, Madam, for your generosity and understanding.
I welcome my friends and colleagues from other faith communities. We have come together in a common cause driven by our spiritual and religious commitments and ideals.
I express heartfelt thanks to the many members of the public who are sympathetic to our concerns, aware of the issues at stake and how important these are to our nation.
Honourable Minister, within the Catholic church we have sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit. On January 17th I called a meeting with the Catholic Education Board, Religious Institutes that run schools and educationalist to consult them and more importantly to discern, that is, to listen to what the Spirit of God is telling us. Likewise, the Faith Community leaders come today with the same inspiration of the One God we all believe in.
Faith based organisations in Fiji have a proud history of providing education to primary and secondary school students. Increasingly, this national service has been provided in co-operation with the State. Both the faith based organisations and the State have a commitment to providing the best possible education for Fijian children.
Through a communique paper sent to your office (7th December, 2018) and our presentation to the Permanent Secretary of Education Ms Alison Burchell (8th January), we clearly laid out our concerns. These are not at the margins of the churches and faith communities. We are talking about matters central to faith communities – the transmission divine truths revealed by God.
There is nothing radical, provocative or unreasonable about our request. It is a simple proposition that is within our constitution.
Under the Constitution of the Republic of Fiji, it is important that education services be provided while honouring three key constitutional principles:
1. The State is secular. This means that the State does not favour one religion over another. It does not favour religion over non-religion. Neither does it favour non-religion over religion. There is a strict separation between church and state. Those teachers who are public servants, holding public office employed by the state and paid by the state, are not permitted to prefer or advance any religion (see Constitution, section 4).
2. All Fijians, individually and collectively, have the right to freedom of religion. This includes the right of faith based organisations to establish, maintain and manage places of education, whether or not they receive financial assistance from the State (see Constitution, section 22).
3. All Fijians are entitled to be treated equally and not to suffer unfair discrimination (see Constitution, section 26).
Consistent with these principles and with Fijian tradition and custom (talanoa), we respectfully ask three commitments from government when applying the Policy on Open Merit Recruitment and Selection (OMRS):
1. Consult with the management of a faith communities before appointing a head of school conducted by that faith based organisation.
2. Include in the job description for the head of school of a faith based organisation the requirement that the head of school uphold and foster the ethos of the school and the school community.
3. When assessing the skills and abilities of applicants for head of school managed by a faith community, the interviewing panel have regard for the applicants' skill and ability at maintaining and fostering the ethos of the school consistent with the school's history and religious affiliation.
Unless these three commitments be honoured by government, consistent with the key principles of our Constitution, there is no way that faith communities will continue to enjoy the constitutional right ‘to establish, maintain and manage places of education' (see section 22, Constitution). The right of faith communities to religious freedom cannot be satisfied in future by restricting faith communities to managing schools which are totally secular in ethos and leadership. As we see it, the Government's insistence on appointing the school principals is an infringement of our rights as owners of private property.
In Section 22 of the constitution, religious communities are given the right to manage places of education. In the management of any organisation the appointment of the right applicant to the top leadership position is one of the most important responsibilities of those in charge. The person appointed is tasked, among other things, to ensure an organisation achieves its vision and mission in accordance with its values and principles.
Yet, in our case, that right to exercise one of the most important functions of management, is being denied. I state for emphasis that it is impossible for the leaders of any organisation to fully exercise their management obligations and mandate if they are not allowed to appoint their own chief executive, in line with their best judgment.
This applies very much to schools as well.
Madam Minister, let me now speak briefly on the Government's policy of free education as expressed in the constitution. Is it not fair to say that in its approach to education, the Government appears to be stepping back from its constitutional commitment?
What we are hearing is that education is free only if schools conform to Government requirements. We are told that if we now wish to appoint our own school principals, then we are on our own; we, and our students, will be deprived of public funding. So free education, in line with this thinking, is conditional. It is not apparently universally available in Fiji.
Bear in mind again that the members of our faith communities contribute substantially to the funding of education.
We leaders of faith communities are happy to co-operate with the government ensuring that the OMRS can be applied upholding all three key constitutional imperatives:
i. the secularity of the state,
ii. the right of faith communities to maintain and manage schools long term and in accordance with their ethos,
iii. and the right of all Fijians to equality and non-discrimination.
We welcome today's meeting in a spirit of co-operation and respect.
With goodwill, respectful co-operation, consultation prior to appointments, and sufficiently inclusive criteria for selection taking into account the distinctive ethos of religious schools, it should be possible for us all to work together, using the OMRS to provide the best possible education for Fijian children, building on the proud heritage of faith based education provided in Fiji since the nineteenth century.
Madam Minister, I should mention for the record that, in the interests of accountability and the public's right to know, we intend to issue a statement after this meeting. However, we would like to cooperate with you Minister in endeavouring to jointly sign a document for publication outlining briefly the main points of discussion, common ground and the next steps.
On behalf of the Faith Community leaders, I sincerely thank you for listening to us.