As the year 2 class sang songs and played games, a handful of pupils wandered around outside sweeping the Pukekohe school’s playground. They weren’t being punished; this was the activity arranged for children not participating in religious instruction class.

One of the girls’ fathers, Joe Hitchcock, was furious: “When we enrolled my daughter, we were told about the weekly bible class and I asked if I could take her out of it. Her teacher said it was no big deal, so that was great.

“The following week, I asked my daughter what she did instead of the class, and her and two Indian girls had to clean up all the bark around the playground.”

He complained, and the school came up with a new alternative to the class: “quiet reading time” in the library.

A few weeks later, Hitchcock relented and allowed his daughter to attend religious instruction: “Both of my daughters (6 and 9) participate because all of their friends are there and they feel left out if they are sent away on their own,” he says. “Apparently, Bible study class is fun because there are games and songs, and sometimes balloon animals.”

Yet he remains unhappy. “It feels like my youngest daughter is indoctrinated with Christianity and believes every word is true. My personal views are very different and I would love for them to be taught about all religions instead.”

In more than a quarter of state primary schools, unpaid volunteers teach Christian religious instruction classes. It is up to the board of trustees and the principal to decide whether the classes are offered.

The main provider of these classes, the Churches Education Commission, predominantly sources its volunteers from local church communities. The volunteers are not required to have teaching qualifications.

There is very little oversight of the self-regulating commission by the Ministry of Education. The ministry, for instance, is unable to say exactly how many schools offer religious instruction. The commission itself says 520.

The classes, which focus on the Bible, are “opt-out” in most schools. In other words, it is presumed pupils will attend unless their parents request otherwise. Most commonly, schools notify parents each year about the classes, or at enrolment, and offer the choice to opt out.

Although state schools are secular, the Education Act allows them to hold religious instruction classes for up to 20 hours per year. The sections in the act relating to religious instruction haven’t been updated since 1964.

It is up to schools to decide what alternative activity they offer children who are opted out of religious instruction. But Joe Hitchcock’s experience isn’t rare.

The Ministry of Education is unable to say how many complaints are made about religious instruction classes each year, or even what the nature of those complaints are, but it does admit they are frequent. To tackle the issue, which has been ongoing for decades, the ministry has drafted new guidelines, that will come into effect next year. Public consultation ends Friday.

The Ministry says the guidelines have been prompted by “ongoing concerns about the level of guidance available to schools on [choosing] to allow religious instruction in a way that protects the rights of their diverse students, and their parents, caregivers, family and whānau”.

The guidelines recommend schools change to a signed consent opt-in system, provide education alternatives (rather than having children clean playgrounds or sit in the library), and perform their own safety checks on the volunteers teaching the classes.

Although still in the draft phase, the guidelines are already having an impact. Last week, north Auckland’s Red Beach School, which had continued to offer religious instruction classes throughout a long legal battle with a parent and the group Secular Education Network, cancelled the controversial classes over the new guidelines’ “increasing curriculum requirements”.

The guidelines have been a long time coming. Drafts of similar documents have passed over the previous two governments’ desks. In 2006, a set of guidelines were withdrawn after the Anglican church complained. They were resurrected in 2015, but again, nothing came of them.

In the meantime, a resource published by the Human Rights Commission a decade ago has had to suffice.

Religion in New Zealand Schools: Questions and Concerns set out to help parents, whānau, teachers, trustees and students with questions about religious classes.

It notes that the Human Rights Commission and the New Zealand School Trustees Association receives a steady stream of questions about the place of religion in schools. “These enquiries and complaints range from whether hot cross buns are allowed in schools or how schools celebrate Easter, to the question of whether children from non-religious families are discriminated against by the provision of religious instruction.” The document recommends state schools avoid favouring a particular religious belief.

Will the new guidelines answer concerns more effectively?

For more than a decade, the Secular Education Network has lobbied the government for change. Spokesperson Tanya Jacob says the guidelines may persuade some schools that are on the fence to ditch religious classes, but says ultimately they will be “inadequate” because they are only guidelines and not legally enforceable.

“They’re obviously an acknowledgement that there is a problem with bible in schools, but because they are not enforceable, the problem is still there,” she says. Besides, the guidelines omit mention of religious observances like prayers or hymns during assemblies.

But Dr Andrea Schöllmann, the Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary for education system policy, says there is a safety net. If parents feel a school is acting inappropriately, they can contact the ministry, or make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission (the commission has only ever heard a handful of similar complaints, and none have succeeded). She says religious observances like hymns and prayers are lawful, as long as schools allow children to opt out.

When Rebecca enrolled her five-year-old in her small, local North Canterbury school, she opted her out of religious instruction. Yet during her first week, she came home with a religious colouring page. “It said something like, ‘God made kangaroos, and God made me,’ on it,” Rebecca remembers. “So we reiterated with the school that we didn’t want her in the class, and its alternative was to put her in a corner, in this little alcove, in the room.”

In telling her story, Rebecca asked for her surname and her child’s school to be omitted as she doesn’t want to be viewed as anti-religious in her current professional role. “We thought it was ridiculous she could still hear everything that was happening in the class, but couldn’t watch.”

Rebecca says her daughter started coming home increasingly distressed. The class involved games and toy animals, and she would plead with her parents to let her take part. “We felt really bad so eventually we allowed her to join, despite being a secular family. New pupils go through enough in terms of trying to fit in and make friends, without having to go sit in a corner by themselves for 30 minutes a week.”

She says she and her husband hadn’t planned to have a conversation about religion at such an early stage in their daughter’s life, but did so before allowing her to rejoin the class. They found the syllabus online: “It seemed to be quite objective and not just, ‘Christianity is truth.'” But Rebecca’s daughter came home with more religious material they were unhappy with, and one night she told her father, “I got to hold God’s heart today.”

They withdrew her again and complained to the school and the Churches Education Commission. Their daughter was moved into an older year group’s class in a different room during the classes. “We regretted the confusion this caused our daughter. She was quite cross at us for a long time. She kept saying she wants to believe in God so she could go,” Rebecca says.

A few years later, Rebecca says the religious instruction teacher, in the playground, told her daughter: “I know the meaning of life, but I can’t tell you because you don’t come to my class.”

The family recently moved from the area, and the daughter no longer attends the school. “We learned that we were one of only two families that opted out of that class – we genuinely felt throughout the whole experience quite excluded from the school community. People thought we were rocking the boat.”

The school’s principal remembers the experience as “a wee bit nasty”.

“Things became a little unpleasant when the Secular Education Network got involved. They can be a strong group.” He says he never thought much about having a religious class, “as some schools have done so for probably 100 years.

“What happened definitely made us relook at what we were doing.”

Following Rebecca’s complaints and the involvement of the Secular Education Network, the school temporarily stopped the class and sent out a survey to parents asking if they wanted the lessons to continue.

“We explained everything about the class and its teacher – who came from the local church – and based on positive feedback from parents, we kept it and changed it to an opt-in class at lunchtimes,” the principal says. The class has been run this way for the past year, and he says it has gone well. The number of pupils, though, has dropped from almost the entire school roll, of a few hundred, to 10-15 per week.

“On a sunny day, some of the kids decide they’d rather go out and play soccer on the school field at lunchtime.”

The Secular Education Network has a Facebook page boasting almost 2000 members. The group even sells printed T-shirts online, including one for $42 that says “Education not indoctrination!”

Last year, spokesperson Tanya Jacob and other members of the group distributed leaflets outside a Christchurch primary school which said children who were opted out of weekly bible lessons were being ostracised and bullied. The leaflets described the classes as “sinister”, and Jacob said religious grooming was taking place.

In 2014, Jacob, with fellow spokesperson David Hines, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission that classes display religious favouritism, which is contrary to the Bill of Rights. The next year, they raised about $80,000 in donations to push for a law change to permanently ban religious instruction. After stalling for almost two years at the Human Rights Review Tribunal, in July it was moved to the High Court.

The group has filed evidence from parents, teachers and students that argue the law allows for segregation of children and is discriminatory and divisive. The group say all religions should be taught in an academic way. The network is awaiting a trial date, but expects the case to be heard next year. The attorney general was expected to file his evidence last week, but delayed.

“Schools generally don’t know where most of their volunteers come from … The law essentially allows any religious group to go into any state primary school and teach a class,” says Jacob. “This is just about parents trying to make things better for their kids.”

Jacob says she, and the group, aren’t against children learning about religion, but want it taught in an objective way. She says the Churches Education Commission is being given free reign to “teach the way to live is to be Christian and the Bible is true.

“All parents want to do is be able to send their kids to school without it being implied that if they don’t go into these classes, they don’t have values.”

Two years ago, the Churches Education Commission was operating in about a third of all state primary schools (roughly 650). Now, it’s in about a quarter (520).

Spokesperson Tracy Kirkley lays much of the blame at the Secular Education Network’s door, and a “very politically correct climate”.

“There are definitely schools closing the programme because of the pressure put on them by the SEN. They are very effective at targeting certain schools and running a campaign of pressure, challenge and concern,” she says.

She believes the commission’s classes are important. She is one of its thousands of volunteers teaching in schools. “I enjoy the contact with kids and it’s an opportunity to tell some Bible stories and how they relate to challenges they face in life.”

The commission sources its volunteer teachers from local church communities throughout the country. Some are Baptist, others Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Brethren or Methodist.

She says teachers undergo yearly professional development, can attend training days, and are police-vetted. They must be observed leading a lesson by a senior member of the commission, before becoming “an accredited CRE teacher”.

“This vague idea that our people are just out there doing their own thing is untrue,” Kirkley says. Yet last year, she told RNZ it was a “challenge” to review and check on volunteers: “We would like to do it every three years, we’d like to check all of our teachers, ones that have been teaching for a long time … If there are any issues or a red flag is raised we’ll be in there.”

The commission’s central syllabus, which volunteer teachers are required to stick to closely, is available on its website. Some of the Bible stories told in classes include David and Goliath, the story of Elijah, David becoming the King of Israel, Abraham’s story, and those of disciples Peter, Matthew and Luke.

According to the commission, its volunteers teach Christian beliefs, but must not “place pressure on children in any way, shape or form to become Christians”.

Kirkley says as long as religious instruction is legal and wanted by New Zealand schools, there will be a place for the Churches Education Commission. “We live in a free and democratic society, and we have the right to practice religion in public and in private – that’s part of the Bill of Rights. For [SEN] to say we’re recruiting or discriminating, that’s just false,” she says.

“Our role is to provide a fun and robust religious instruction programme suitable for schools, where kids can have some fun learning about the bible and values like forgiveness, respect, kindness and courage.”

Debbie is a parent of two children (7 and 10) who attend religious instruction at their north Auckland primary school. She asked for herself and the school to be anonymous because she worries about the Secular Education Network starting a campaign against her children’s classes.

At their school, pupils shift to the hall for the classes, which are run by a church-going parent. Debbie estimates about half of the school attends. She says she wants her children to learn about her family’s beliefs in a different environment. “Whether you believe it or not, the point of each lesson is universal. For instance, you don’t need to believe in God to learn about non-violence.”

Perhaps surprisingly, both Debbie and Tracy Kirkley agree the Ministry of Education’s new guidelines are needed, even if they could potentially lead to more schools cancelling their religious classes.

“Schools are being asked questions by parents, and they’re also being pursued quite fiercely by SEN,” Kirkley says. “We’re very big on parents being aware that our programmes are being run in schools.” The commission may, however, take issue with classes becoming opt-in.

Debbie says it’s a shame when parents’ wishes aren’t respected, so it’s incredibly important they are given a clearer choice – and that includes the choice to attend religious instruction classes.

The National Party, is also welcoming the guidelines. But the Secular Education Network, determined to rid state primary schools of religious instruction, believes a law change is the only solution.

Rebecca, still smarting from her daughter’s experience at the North Canterbury School, agrees. “I have no doubt that these teachers believe they’re doing the right thing. They’re not bad people. They genuinely believe they’re saving our children’s souls, otherwise they’ll go to hell,” she says.

“But that’s not their, or a school’s choice to make.”