Recently Stateline and Compass looked at the NSW trial of ethics classes as a compliment to scripture. Earlier this year we had quite a bit discussion about the ethics trial, scripture and “non-scritpure” at my daughters’ school. It was a fairly contentious issue as some parents, who strongly supported scripture, were concerned about the introduction of secular humanist ethics classes and felt that providing alternatives to scripture could undermine scripture as it currently stands.
As president of the P&C, having a long interest in community engagement, being passionate about conflict resolution,and having children who did not attend scripture; I found it a challenging situation. The discussion of the ethics trial was first raised at our P&C in October 2009 by a parent (not me) who was concerned that children not attending scripture were not participating in meaningful activities during the time for scripture. He had heard about the current trial of the ethics classes and thought the ethics curriculum could provide a base for an appropriate activity for children not attending scripture. When we looked into the issue further we learnt that the Departmental policy prevented alternative lessons including discussion of “ethics, values, civics or general religious education” and that some religious groups opposed the introduction of the St James ethics syllabus.
The issue was potentially divisive and engendered significant passion (in at least some of us). My approach was to try find areas of agreement. To me there were three areas of agreement which were summarised in a letter we sent to the Minister for Education:
- We support the retention of SRE and recognise the importance of scripture classes for some students and families.
- We support schools being given greater flexibility so that they can provide meaningful activities for students who do not attend SRE.
- We want to ensure that, even though there are strong feelings, that it does not become a divisive issue within the school community.
I knew we couldn’t come to agreement about the ethics classes (if for no other reason than the political heat in the issue) and thought we needed to return to the original concern (the lack of alternatives for students attending “non-scripture”.) In a way it has just delayed the debate because if schools do get flexibility to offer an alternative to SRE (and a couple of parents felt uncomfortable with the P&C supporting schools having flexibility) I’m not sure that we could come to agreement about what should be offered. (I’m also not sure about who should make the decision.)
It was also unsure about how important it was to try to remain neutral as P&C president and how much to bring in my personal beliefs. I ended up making my position clear (but not expressing it as strongly as I could have), working hard to try to understand some of the concerns of opponents to alternatives to scripture, and being as fair and unbiased as I could in my role as president. I think I did fairly well: although others might disagree or feel I gave too much time to discussing the issue.
I’m now waiting to see what the review of the trial says, and then potentially having to tackle the really hard task of trying to find a way forward that is not too divisive.