Like all parents, I approached my children’s first days at Kindergarten with a mix of feelings. Among these was a sense of excitement and anticipation. They were beginning their formal learning, a process that would play a large part in shaping them as human beings, and I was looking forward to hearing about their days and watching them learn. Once they settled into school, I realized that I needed to select a Special Religious Education (SRE, or scripture) class for them to attend for up to one hour per week, or to opt out of this class.
This requirement, common to all New South Wales public schools, was a surprise to me since my children were attending a school with no religious affiliation. I did not grow up in Australia and had no experience of this system prior to my children entering it. I am not religious, and was concerned about this part of my child’s education. Wanting to know more, I enquired with our Principal, who explained that SRE classes and the lack of option for children not attending those classes was a matter of NSW state government policy, and not within the school’s control.
As time went on, I found that my children were watching videos without any educational content during the SRE period each week. I found this situation objectionable and discriminatory. Children whose parents nominate a religion on their behalf have the opportunity to engage in something meaningful in the context of that religion, while those nominating no religion are prevented from engaging in any meaningful task. Whether the discussion is actually meaningful in an SRE class is another question, but the point is that the opportunity is there, and it is not available to children who have not opted for SRE.
Looking further into the issue, I found that a great many parents have felt the same way for some time, and have been actively pursuing a change to the system. For example, one parent helped her children’s school to introduce a multi-faith course, but this was closed because it did not comply with the education policy. The policy on scripture classes was established more than one hundred years ago, when most families identified with a religion.
In more recent times, with an increasingly secular population, parents’ objections to the system have been taken to the NSW Federation of P&Cs, who approached the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney. In 2004, the Federation ran a survey of NSW parents and found that 59% of them wanted their child to have the option of ethics-based classes. Despite this impressive support, the state government at that time decided not to offer such an alternative. Since then, parent-driven support has continued, and in 2009 the NSW government finally agreed to trial a course of ethics-based classes as an option for children not attending SRE classes. The course curriculum has been developed by Associate Professor Philip Cam of The University of New South Wales, and includes discussion on issues such as fairness and telling the truth.
The course has been offered to all children in years 5 and 6 at ten primary schools across NSW (Darlinghurst, Haberfield, Bungendore, Rozelle, Randwick, Hurstville, Ferncourt, Baulkham Hills North, Crown Street and Leichhardt) for a period of ten weeks. The ethics classes ran alongside the usual SRE classes, which continued to be offered in the usual way. At each of the schools, volunteer facilitators (in most cases, parents at the school) were trained by Assoc. Professor Cam. The trial ended last month, and at my children’s school (Randwick), we’ve been proud to be part of it.
The year 5 and 6 children who opted to attend the ethics classes have expressed disappointment that it is over. Now, it is being independently evaluated, and the evaluation will be sent to the Minister for Education, Verity Firth, whose job it is to decide whether to change the current policy. If the policy is changed, an ethics-based option will exist alongside SRE classes, with no change to the system of SRE classes. Since the trial began, SRE classes in general and the ethics classes in particular have been a hot topic for community-wide discussion, and the focus of numerous articles and letters in the national press, television and radio shows, as well as Internet discussions. At my children’s school, the response from parents with and without religion has been very positive.
A poll by the Sydney Morning Herald found that only 3% of respondents were opposed to the ethics classes, with 65% in support. Discussion in the media also indicates wide support for this option to SRE classes, from the general public and from some Church representatives. On the other hand, Anglican Church leaders have argued very strongly against the classes, on the basis that ethics cannot be taught without religion. It should not be necessary to point out the abundant evidence of ethics within and without religion; surely the Church can see this, but chooses not to. Catholic Church leaders are less strongly opposed, but express concern that they might compete with SRE classes. However, the ethics option has been developed not in competition with SRE classes, but to sit alongside them.
There is no threat to SRE classes, simply the provision of a choice. In fact, the St James Ethics Centre has committed to making available to SRE groups their approved ethics course materials, for adaptation and use in SRE classes as required. My children have now been in the public primary school system for 3 or 4 years, but when they first started I felt quite alone in my surprise, confusion and objection to choosing a religion for them to learn about in a public school. It was good to realize, further down the line, that numerous parents felt the same way.
Since then, some of us have formed a group called parents4ethics (www.parents4ethics.org), in support of the ethics-based option to SRE classes, and providing a base where parents can link up with others and can find out about and discuss this issue. If you would like to know more, you can find us there.