Scripture vs ethics: stoush over NSW public school enrolment forms

NEWS | Kaley Payne

Friday 5 June 2015

Faith providers of Special Religious Education (SRE) have asked the NSW Government to remove the option for ethics classes from public school enrolment forms, saying it has caused confusion among parents.

The request has sparked outrage from ethics class provider, Primary Ethics, which told the Sydney Morning Herald this week that the proposed changes deny parents “the knowledge that they need to make an informed decision to choose between scripture or ethics or supervised activity.” The office of Premier Mike Baird has confirmed it is reviewing the enrolment form.

Earlier this week, media reports emerged that Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile had asked for the removal of the ethics class option on NSW public school enrolment forms. Rev Nile has been in fervent opposition to the ethics classes in public schools since their introduction in 2011.

Accusations that Rev Nile asked for the ethics changes in exchange for his support of the government’s power privatisation plans have also emerged, and have been denied by Rev Nile and the Christian Democrats.

“They’re not on equal footing, they never have been… SEE is the opt-out option.” Murray Norman, ICCOREIS

While the media has focused on Rev Nile’s request to take ethics classes off the enrolment form, there has been barely a mention that the same request has been made unanimously by faith groups offering Special Religious Education in NSW schools.

The Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools for NSW (ICCOREIS), which has been pushing for the changes to the enrolment form, says ethics classes should never have appeared on the enrolment form in the first place. (Read their media statement this week, here.) An ethics class option was included on the NSW public school enrolment form (used for primary and secondary students) in mid-2014.

“SEE is not an alterative to SRE. It is an alternative to non-scripture in some primary schools. Parents must opt out of SRE first. This is an easy process, but a necessary step,” reads a statement sent to NSW church leaders yesterday from ICCOREIS.

Murray Norman, the general manager of Presbyterian Youth and spokesperson for ICCOREIS, told Eternity that there is a misconception that Ethics classes are an alternative to Special Religious Education. “They’re not on equal footing, they never have been… SEE is the opt-out option.”

Mr Norman says all SRE providers are unanimous in asking for the change. He says the enrolment form as it currently stands, including both SRE and SEE as options, has caused great confusion among parents.

SRE is available in some form in the vast majority of schools from kindergarten to Year 12 across NSW. SEE is not available at all in secondary schools and is only available in some primary schools.

“Thus, inclusion on the form has considerably overestimated SEE’s availability in school,” says ICCOREIS. “Further, inclusion of SEE on the 2014 form meant that many parents who chose SEE for their sons and daughters found out a local level that it wasn’t available at the school, and their child was streamed out of SRE as well.”

“…given that Ethics is the only formal curriculum available as an alternative to SRE, it makes sense to include a clear reference to it on the enrolment forms. It seems unfair to do otherwise.” – Centre for Public Christianity

The Centre For Public Christianity has expressed disappointment in the request to remove ethics classes completely from the enrolment form. Rather, says the Centre’s director John Dickson, there should be a third view under consideration that he believes is fair for both parties. He says there’s a middle ground between removing any mention of SEE and giving it the same prominence on the forms as SRE.

“Given that Ethics classes in NSW are available in only about 18.6 per cent of schools, it doesn’t make sense for the enrolment form to offer parents a simple choice between SRE and SEE. That would be slightly misleading,” says Dickson in a statement provided to Eternity.

[Note: a previous version of this article quoted John Dickson as saying Ethics classes were in only about 10 per cent of schools. Dickson has since revised this statistic and apologised for the error.]

“Imagine a parent choosing Ethics (without any real objection to SRE) only to discover it isn’t available in most schools. They will have accidentally sent their kid to non-SRE/SEE, when they may in fact much prefer SRE to nothing at all.

“On the other hand, given that Ethics is the only formal curriculum available as an alternative to SRE, it makes sense to include a clear reference to it on the enrolment forms. It seems unfair to do otherwise.

“So, our recommendation would be to include a reference to Ethics on the enrolment form which follows the parent’s selection not to send their child to SRE. It could say something like: ‘Alternatives are available for children who do not attend SRE, including (in some Primary schools) Special Education in Ethics (SEE). If available, would you like your child to attend SEE? Yes. No.’ That seems fair and reasonable, but it doesn’t give the false impression that SEE is as widely available as SRE, which is offered in the biggest cities and smallest towns throughout the state.”

Mr Norman from ICCOREIS says that ethics classes should be offered to parents at a local level, depending on the availability of classes at local schools. He disagrees with Primary Ethics’ assertion that the proposed changes to the enrolment form will mean parents will be unaware of the options their child has for non-SRE at their school.

“There’s no way you could go through this process and not know that there are ethics classes, if they are available.”

In 2011, NSW education legislation was amended to allow Special Education in Ethics (SEE) as an alternative to Special Religious Education (SRE). The amendment stipulated that, ‘If the parent of a child objects to the child receiving special religious education, the child is entitled to receive special education in ethics.’

Primary Ethics is the provider of SEE in New South Wales. The Primary Ethics website says its objective is to “provide philosophical ethics education to children in State and Territory Government public schools who do not attend special religious education classes.”

According to SRE implementation guidelines from the Department of Education, non-scripture students must be supervised in a separate space to SRE classes, but activities during the lesson time could not be related to the curriculum. This was to ensure there was no competition with SRE classes that caused parents concern that their child was missing out on key learning time while in SRE.

In 2014, then general manager of Primary Ethics, Alyssa Kelly, told the ABC that the organisation was aiming to “provide children who are sitting in non-scripture with something productive to do with their time… If there are no children in non-scripture, then that school has no need for us.”

ICCOREIS believes the enrolment form changes are on the way.

“We are grateful that the DEC is moving to rectify the issues for parents that have been created by the 2014 enrolment form. This recognises the place of SRE as a strength of Public Education in our multi-faith and multi-cultural society, whilst continuing to provide clear choices and understanding for parents of non-SRE options available in schools at a local level.”

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