Once again NSW ethics classes (Special Education in Ethics – SEE) are under attack. The NSW government is apparently considering removing any reference to ethics classes as an alternative to scripture classes (Special Religious Education – SRE) from school enrolment forms (Sydney Morning Herald).
In NSW all students in state schools have the right to attend scripture, and schools are not allowed to timetable other classes at the same time. The introduction of ethics classes in 2011 provided a meaningful alternative for students not attending scripture. Prior to these classes many primary school children were just given colouring-in during the time set aside for scripture, and were not even allowed to do homework.
Despite strong opposition from some church groups and Rev. Fred Nile (a Christian Democrat in the NSW parliament), ethics classes were trialled in 2010 in 10 NSW schools, and the classes were introduced state-wide (where volunteer teachers are available) in the following year.
Fred Nile continues to oppose ethics classes.
Following the election, Nile, who was vehmently [sic] opposed to the ethics classes, introduced a private members bill proposing the abolition of the classes at the end of the 2011 calendar year. Debate on the bill was ajourned [sic] until 16 September; and eventually Nile was successful in pushing the government to establish a parliamentary inquiry to examine whether ethics classes in NSW schools should be abolished. Meanwhile, in introducing his bill into the Legislative Council, Nile gained headlines by arguing that the ethics course is based on a philosophy linked to Nazism and communism. (Christian Democratic Party – this is how his own party’s website describes Nile’s opposition)
The 2012 inquiry recommended that the NSW government should continue to support the delivery of ethics classes, but that information about the availability of ethics classes should
Only be distributed to parents/carers of potential non-SRE [scripture] students only after an ‘opt out’ decision by parents/carers has been communicated to the school” (Inquiry report, Recommendation 12).
In other words, parents were only to be given information about ethics classes after they have indicated they didn’t want their children to attend scripture classes. This recommendation essentially denied parents the right to make an informed decision.
The 2015 enrolment form, however, gave parents the option of choosing scripture, ethics classes or neither.
While the form could be clearer that students are unable to attend both scripture and ethics classes (because they are held at the same time), it makes it clear that parents have a choice.
The NSW government wants to return to the old system where all that parents were able to do was indicate their child’s religion (including the option of “no religion”) and they were allocated scripture based on this choice. Only students with “no religion” were supposed to be given information about ethics classes. In practice many (if not most) schools, sensibly, provided information about all the available options in the information provided to parents before enrolment.
The NSW Premier, Mike Baird, claims all he is doing is supporting the status quo by returning to the original form.
I am a supporter of Special Religious Education [SRE] in public schools. It has been in place for a long time and I have asked for the status quo. There was a change of form at the Department of Education. All I have asked for is the status quo—no changes, just the status quo. We are proud of maintaining the status quo for SRE in our schools. (Hansard)
The Premier denies that the change is part of a deal with Fred Nile whose support is needed to pass crucial (to the government) legislation, but it is hard not to suspect this is a factor in his decision.
The Education Department procedures for both Special Religious Education and Special Education in Ethics state that parents should have the right of choice and the right to information. The Special Education in Ethics Implementation Procedures states
The right to special education in ethics
- Parents/caregivers in public schools have the right to have their children attend special education in ethics classes, where authorised teachers are available.
The right to religious education
- Parents/caregivers in public schools have the right to have their children receive instruction in their religious persuasion, where authorised teachers of that persuasion are available.
The right of choice
- Parents/caregivers also have the right to choose to exempt their children from attending either special religious education or special education in ethics and for them to be provided with meaningful activities.
- This is done at the time of enrolment through the enrolment form or by writing to the principal at any time during the school year seeking exemption.
The right to information
- Parents/caregivers have the right to know how special education in ethics will be organised each year and which approved providers will deliver it.
- They also have the right to know what special religious education options are available. (p. 3)
The Religious Education Implementation Procedures also identify the right of choice and the right to information. If parents are going to exercise these rights, they need to be provided the relevant information up front and be given the opportunity to indicate their preference at the time of enrolment.
I’m a passionate about schools engaging parents in their children’s education. I cannot see any justification for denying parents the right to receive information about both scripture and ethics classes at the time of enrolment and providing them the opportunity to make an informed decision.
I should be clear too, that I’m a strong supporter of the ethics classes and am convinced my daughters have benefited from the discussions they have had in the classes. I do, however, also support the retention of scripture in schools for those wanting this option.
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