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Mary is a Sydneysider, a mother, a feminist activist for women in tech, and an erstwhile computer scientist. She co-founded a women-in-tech non-profit, the Ada Initiative, where she presently works. Mary also writes for Geek Feminism, and, when there's no other suitable venue, for her own blog puzzling.org.

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31 responses to “Ethics classes to be offered in SRE time in NSW”

  1. Amanda

    It’s a good start and I am particularly pleased the NSW Govt showed some initiative and backbone in getting it into legislation. When I get a chance I’ll have a look through hansard for the debate on it in the last couple of days, the Libs, Nats and Fred Nile speeches should provide some laughs.

    Of course SRE shouldn’t exist at all IMHO; I mean if it were comparative religions as you mention above, yes sure but despite the pedagogically correct sounding name of Special Religious Education is just Sunday School during the week and subsidised by the state (at the NSW state school I attended in Years 7 and 8 they couldn’t even get scripture teachers so once a month every one went home early on a Monday arvo!)

    I’m not a parent but I am a citizen – and an Aunt of a niece whose current hobby is arguing with creationists on Facebook so I would love her to have an intellectually stimulating option in lieu of scripture. Her mother reports she literally just does colouring in during scipture time. I’d also consider volunteering but as you note working makes it difficult.

    The churches actually had a point in their opposition that holding ethics class at the same time as scripture meant that kids who did want to attend (or whose parents wanted them to attend) SRE missed out on the ethics class, which was not fair to the SRE kids. The churches of course were entirely disingenous in making this argument, grasping at whatever straws they could and it is a “problem” of their own making by insisting on keeping the inappropriate privilege of direct access to evangelise young minds in state schools but for a long time I’ve thought an ethics or philosophy course should be introduced to schools.

    So my prefered arrangement would be to turf scripture alotgether and use that time for an ethics/philosophy (or proper comparative religion, even) class for ALL kids and let parents take their kids to [insert place of worship] seven days a week if that’s what they want, just not in public schools.

  2. Mindy

    I have decided that this is important enough to me that I will find the time to teach ethics if I can get training to do so. My other option was to claim that we are Jedi and watch Star Wars with my kids in the library during Scripture time, but I think that is probably taking the mickey a little bit far. I am fortunate enough to be able to accrue flex time, so a couple of hours once a term (which is how they seem to do it at my son’s school) won’t be a problem. If I have to go across the three public schools in town it might get interesting though!

  3. lauredhel

    I was just recently contemplating default/majority Christian SRE and the effect that can have on kids opted out, as I was reading the Auskick rules and explanations for the Lad’s club. They don’t use an order-off rule at all in the 5-8 year old age group; coaches resolve situations by counselling and modelling, rather than by exclusion. It was explained that this is because of the disproportiately negative effect that exclusion from peers can have on a child in that age group.

    And then I started thinking again about opted-out kids for whom the majority of the class are doing SRE, and how those small children might feel as they are yanked out of their classroom to sit alone in the library, or told to turn with their back to the class.

    Yet another argument for the complete abolishment of state-school SRE as far as I’m concerned. But the ethics class kludge is way better than nothing.

  4. tigtog

    From the way other people describe it, SRE must work differently in various places. I’ve never attended or been parent at a school where the opting-out kids had to leave while the other kids stayed.

    My experience has always been that the opting-in kids had to leave and go to the room assigned to their family’s nominated denominations/faith, and opting-out kids went to the designated non-Scripture classroom (which for some of them might be their home classroom, but for most probably not).

    This seems the most sensible arrangement to minimise those exclusionary effects – everybody (pretty much) gets to change rooms and sit with a different group for a while, and then everybody goes back to the normal room.

  5. tigtog

    P.S. not that I approve of SRE in public schools, it’s just that I’ve never seen it work in such a way that the SRE teacher came into a classroom full of kids who normally sit together. SRE classes are typically across the full age range of a school (maybe one class for K-2, and another for 3-6), so they can’t just come to one classroom and kick out the nonbelievers.

  6. Emily

    I agree with the above commentors, SRE should be removed from public schools.

    I was one of those kids who, as lauredhel puts it, were ‘yanked out of their classroom to sit alone in the library’ because my parents didn’t want me to take part in the (creationist Baptist) RE that was offered at my primary school. It was alienating – there was only myself and one other girl who abstained – and I remember wanting to join the classes just so I wouldn’t be ‘left out’. Ironically when I did join in for a while I knew far more about the Bible than most of the Christian kids because I’d actually read some of it.

    Having ethics classes in place is something, but I’d much rather see the entire SRE system abolished. Religious teaching has no place whatsoever in state schools. Ethics and comparitive religion, sure, but not theology or dogma.

  7. lauredhel

    tigtog: this is from anecdotes collected over years from individuals – I don’t have a pile of specific cites to hand right now. Here is one, though, from a comment here by Jennifer, who was put alone in a first aid room, and whose brother was forced to stay in the SRE class despite opt-out due to “lack of supervision”. And another from Yvonne, in the same thread, whose child was made to sit at the back of the class facing the wall. And yet another, from Brenda, whose child was sat at the back of the class and arbitrarily included in it despite the opt-out. If these stories emerge from one small thread with a small readership, how many more are out there? A trivial search finds more here – “Also they made them sit at the back of the class and colour in, so they still heard it all”; “The fact that my daughter has to sit in a cold, drafty hallway [...] You know she wants to attend scripture because she hates having to sit out there with a group of boys.”, and more here: “On investigation he was told, “Oh, sorry, but kids who opt out are just put at the back of the class.””. And here: “When the scripture teacher arrives the names of my son and two others are read out. They are then paraded out of the class into a corridor. The school is small and there is no other classroom for them to go to. ”

    It seems to work completely differently in different schools, and what guidelines do exist are fuzzy and fuzzily interpreted. The Education Department here couldn’t even tell me how many children opted out or what religions were offered, let alone anything more specific about procedure.

    My only personal experience with SRE in a WA state school, a long time ago, involved the kids staying in the everyday classroom for the Anglican SRE class, a very few Catholic kids going elsewhere, and I don’t know whether there were any opters-out.

    I can also tell you that my kid’s school doesn’t offer SRE on paper (and I have opted out in writing regardless), but he still came home with this from regular classtime in first grade. And is right now being taught all about how Christmas is celebrated in various Christian countries (both secularly and religiously), a unit lasting an entire term, with not the slightest nod that I can see to any other religion or any other solstice-adjacent celebration. This is nominally GRE/integrated studies, it seems, but I find the complete exclusion of any other religion or celebration disturbing.

  8. tigtog

    I’m not doubting that these exclusionary things happen, and I’m sorry if it seemed like I was disbelieving, I’m just amazed that there seems so little cohesion about how it’s all dealt with.

    I always went to fairly large schools, same for my kids, so I guess that’s why the systems I’m used to have lots of kids heading off in many different directions (even if it’s just for different Protestant denominations) for SRE. I can see how in small schools it would work very differently, and how the feeling of exclusion would be very painful.

  9. Beppie

    I attended a very small school, and our only opt-outs were a couple of Jehovah’s Witness kids — they had to go and sit in the library during scripture lessons. I wanted to opt out, but I wasn’t allowed to. If I had kids I would DEFINITELY have them attend the ethics classes instead of religious classes.

    I also went to a Catholic school for my first couple of years — from Kindergarten to 1/4 of the way through Year 2 — and my dominant memory from that is learning that Jesus was all about being nice to people. Christianity, as it was presented to me in those years, was firmly grounded in the “do unto others” ethic, which is not a bad thing at all. If only the official doctrines of the Catholic Church were really like that!

    In contrast, my dominant memories from scriputre class at public school are thus:
    1. In the earlier years, I won a lot of colouring in competitions. The prize was usually a pencil or rubber with the words “Jesus loves you” on them.
    2. The “Boy Called David” song, which we all loved to sing, because the actions that went along with it were RUDE. (The lyrics “One little stone went in the sling” involved inserting one’s index finger into a hole created by the thumb and index finger of the other hand. The next line “And the sling went round and round” involved making a circular motion with the “sling” hand, with the “stone” still inside it.)
    3. In Year 6 my scripture teacher told me that I was heading down an evil path because I told her that my sister and I had performed a mock-seance.

  10. tigtog

    Up until the year I turned 11, I didn’t think much about attending SRE – I went along with all the other Anglican kids from other years in my primary school to the main hall for the Anglican Scripture class while the smaller groups making up the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Salvos and various ethnic Orthodox classes met elsewhere on the school grounds.

    That was the year I was supposed to be confirmed (Newcastle was a “High Church” diocese, the “Low Church” waits until later for confirmation vows), and it was also the year thatI read Nuri Mass’ Many Paths, One Heaven (which is a fine work of general religious education which is probably still very relevant today, because it’s about root doctrines and cultural traditions of the major world religions). Anyway, this non-judgementally presented comparative religion information raised questions in me about some of the dogma we were being taught, and I asked about them in Scripture, and raising those questions got me kicked out of class. I guess it was a bit of a Lisa Simpson moment.

    Since I hadn’t been meaning any mischief, and genuinely wanted answers in depth like the goody-goody-swot I was, I had a grievous sense of injustice at this outcome and, well, basically I FLOUNCED so hard out of any subsequent church/scripture attendance (especially those confirmation classes) and made my disgust so plain that my whole family stopped going to church.

    The rest of my SRE time at school was spent happily with the handful of other Non Scripture kids, in the library reading. Often I was reading stuff about comparative religion, funnily enough: because I kept on trying to understand why the young minister was so threatened by a kid just wanting answers. Then of course I actually read the Bible on my own, which is well reputed as an excellent way to push someone towards atheism, although I didn’t know that at the time.

    I’ve still never been given good answers to most of those questions I first got so interested in at age 11.

    /derail

  11. Bri

    As a pagan, I opted my son out of SRE in his (Victorian) primary school. He never cared about being one of the only ones who didnt attend, he was happy to sit in the library and read. Personally I think he learned more than way.

    That said, we chose to send him to a Catholic secondary school simply because it is the best school on offer in our town of 12,000 people. Ok, best school within our price range anyway, the private school was wayyyy too costly. From all reports his RE classes are quite interesting. Two weeks ago his RE teacher told the class that ‘Mary was knocked up by God’. RE has certainly made for some interesting dinner table conversation at our house!

  12. Hendo

    I would also support getting rid of SRE and just having comparative religion and ethics. My experience in northern NSW… My parents (jaded with Catholicism and the Presbo church) purposely didn’t have my brother or I christened. We went to scripture in primary school, which I suspect my parents did partly so we would know the basics about Christianity, and partly so we wouldn’t feel excluded. I was in a school of between 18 and 35 kids total for all of primary school, and I remember feeling left out that the other 3 kids in my grade level would go to a separate part of the school to do Catholic scripture.

    We had one Jehovah’s Witness in all that time and she used to go sit outside or wander around the playground on her own when the rest of us were in scripture… at a one teacher school, the principal used to use scripture lessons to catch up on other stuff, he wouldn’t have had time to hang out with one kid.

    In high school, as a little atheist (my parents put me down as ‘no religion’ without consulting me, which worked out well), I considered doing ‘Society and Culture’, which studied religions – I found all different religions equally interesting and unbelievable.

    I’d be happy for any kids I had to do an ethics course and comparative religion, but I really don’t think it’s right to teach in public schools that one religion is correct (but then I’m not comfortable with the existence of religious schools, either).

  13. gardolia

    I think what your blog has revealed to me is that many people are dissatisfied with the experiences they have had in religious education classes. It’s a shame that no-one with a good experience has been attracted to write about it.

    Another revelation is that scripture classes happen in many different ways in schools, depending on the availability of rooms and supervising teachers, but in any case, mostly the numbers of children who opt out is small – where are the thousands that are so often quoted in the pro-ethics media?

    And could someone please point out how ethics, philosophy and religion are linked?

  14. tigtog

    in any case, mostly the numbers of children who opt out is small – where are the thousands that are so often quoted in the pro-ethics media?

    Back when I was a kid, very few other kids opted out.

    At my kids’ schools, (city-Sydney) I would say more than half of all the kids were opting out. It depends on how churched one’s neighbours are [eta:and all recent demographics show that most church congregations are declining in size at an increasing rate]

    And could someone please point out how ethics, philosophy and religion are linked?

    They’re all systems of knowledge and analysis for making sense of our place in society and what we expect of ourselves and others.

  15. Mindy

    From wikipedia: Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. A couple of things there that you think religion might touch on, no?

    Ethics, also known as moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice, etc. Also things that you might think would concern the religious, perhaps?

    Unless of course religion is just supposed to be the mindless adherence to a set of arbritrary rules? Then they have no common ground at all.

  16. Sam Bauers

    My daughter is going to start kindergarten at a Steiner school next year. No SRE for her (no need to warn me about Anthroposophy either – I did my homework on that one). I would probably enjoy running an ethics class at the local public school, but time is scarce for me too.

    I have heard about friends recent experiences with their kids in NSW country schools where SRE is basically compulsory. In their schools it’s hard to imagine anyone will be stepping up to teach ethics.

    When I was a kid (in inner-city Sydney in the 80′s mind you). There was one Anglican (I think) scripture class and about one-third of the kids left the regular classroom to attend in the school hall. It was opt-in, not opt-out. I went out of curiosity a couple of times when I was about eight or nine and eventually decided that it was a waste of time. Interestingly the instructors asked the school to call my mother when I opted out to check if that was OK. They did no such thing when I joined in the first place though.

    My classmates in scripture used to spend the whole time looking for double entendres in the teachings, and laughing (out loud) at the instructors. This came to a crescendo one time when the instructors put on a shadow puppet play about Moses. The shadow puppet of Moses itself was a simple cutout with one moving part which was his forearm. Unfortunately the forearm was a little short and the arm was attached a little too low on the body. As the puppeteer/instructor enthusiastically wagged the arm up and down as Moses talked, the result was Moses with an out-of-control “boner”. Every scene without Moses in it was spent in giggly anticipation of the reappearance of Moses. Every scene with Moses in it was spent pointing and laughing at Moses’ erection.

    Anyway, the attempt by the church to lure me to Christianity with their lurid shadow puppet porn didn’t work. I remain atheist.

  17. Mindy

    Atheists are hiding all over this great country of ours so maybe your friends will be pleasantly surprised Sam. Or maybe they could step up to the plate themselves?

  18. Sam Bauers

    Mindy, my comment was just an elaborate ruse to make Hoyden turn up in Google when one searches for “shadow puppet porn”.

    Something about the country situation is different. Possibly the churches in country towns are more interwoven into the fragile social fabric. I would be a bold move to get ethics going in some regional towns.

  19. lauredhel

    gardolia: A lot of people are opting out in some areas, as tigtog notes. As I noted above, I tried to get stats for my state, but they simply don’t exist here.

    Lack of disclosure is an issue. In the conversations I’ve had about this, it’s also become clear to me that plenty of of parents are simply unaware that SRE classes preach specific dogma as truth, they aren’t neutral studies about religion.

    Others opt in because of concerns about social exclusion and inappropriate treatment of opted-out kids, and about the way their kids might feel if the SRE teacher engages in coercive practices like the distribution of lollies only to opted-in kids. Others are opted in by default, because the only way to opt out is in writing.

    Some people here are talking about being happy being the only opted-out child, but I get the impression they’re talking about their experiences as an older child – and also that we skew toward the bookworm-in-the-corner set here. There can be a world of difference between, say, a 12-year-old me, and a very sociable six year old student who thrives in a class environment that emphasises and valorises group activities.

  20. tigtog

    I just wanted to emphasise that many people here are talking about their school experiences at least ten years ago.

    For some of us it’s significantly more than that – I’m talking about more than thirty years ago for my own experiences (ten years ago for my kids in infants school).

    we skew toward the bookworm-in-the-corner set here

    To a degree for me as a child that alarmed people around me. I was the kid who raced through the classroom exercises so that I could get on with finishing the novel I was reading under my desk, and the rare teacher who said “finish and you can read your book until the rest finish” so that I could hold the book above my desk were treasures whom I adored for understanding. A free period set aside to read, just read? Absolute bliss.

    There can be a world of difference between, say, a 12-year-old me, and a very sociable six year old student who thrives in a class environment that emphasises and valorises group activities.

    Exactly. Not everybody is an introvert who prefers to entertain themselves. For extrovert kids and especially younger kids who want group approval, being excluded and stigmatised can be devastating.

  21. tigtog

    Mindy, my comment was just an elaborate ruse to make Hoyden turn up in Google when one searches for “shadow puppet porn”.

    That is a cunning plan worthy of Baldrick, Sam.

  22. Amanda

    Many parents know that opting out of SRE means their kid could feel left out, as discussed and/or will sit around doing potentially less than useful things to while away the time. Therefore if the numbers actively opting out are on average small (obvs would vary from place to place) it is not necessarily an indication of a lack of interest but that parents would prefer them doing “something” over “nothing.” (and dare I say it gives the kids a bit of a religious education without the parents having to bother to go to church themselves!) Certainly the churches think they will lose a fair number of current SRE kids to ethics, as that was one of their main arguments against it, so they must think a fair number of kids/parents of kids who currently attend scripture have a fairly shallow attachment to it. Level up the playing field, let it run for a while and see what the numbers are.

    As an aside, the topic has gotten me thinking about varied the experiences are form place to place. I mentioned above my high school which didn’t run it at all, contrast to the public primary school down the road I attended where we actually said the Lord’s Prayer at assembly. Not all of course, I had some friends who were Jehovah’s Witnesses who didn’t. Quite remarkable when I think back on it, presumably it was a particular desire of the principal.

  23. lauredhel

    I was the kid who raced through the classroom exercises so that I could get on with finishing the novel I was reading under my desk, and the rare teacher who said “finish and you can read your book until the rest finish” so that I could hold the book above my desk were treasures whom I adored for understanding.

    Same here. In upper primary school, I actually got a comment on my report card that said I should spend less time reading.

  24. Bri

    Lauredhel: Me too! My 6th grade teacher wrote on my report that I should not read so much and should join in with the other girls more. Naturally I wasn’t going to choose to associate with the very people who made my life a living hell for 7 years.

  25. moz

    Favourite ever parent-teacher meeting comment “it’s not that he reads in class, it’s that he giggles at what he’s reading”. My standard two teacher was somewhat understanding, but in retrospect I do wonder at how much of that was fear of having to deal with my mother – a very involved member of the PTA and a teacher herself.

    Best memory is a famously grumpy old guy who half the primary school was terrified of. He was my teacher in my last year of primary school. I loved him because he was so explicitly supportive. “finish the official work then go to the library and write me a project on the solar system” and similar exercises. That he would read and give me feedback on (talk about above and beyond the call of duty). I never had time to read fiction in his classes!

  26. Beppie

    Something about the country situation is different. Possibly the churches in country towns are more interwoven into the fragile social fabric.

    I don’t know that it’s this so much as it is that in rural areas, you simply have fewer people to volunteer to run SRE lessons, so you end up with a lot less variety. At least, that was my experiences with rural NSW, over ten years ago. :P

    Also, I was another “reading under the desk” type! I never got in trouble for it though — I think my teachers were probably too distracted by the kids who were doing stuff like throwing bananas at the ceiling fans to notice me reading my books when I was supposed to be doing my maths exercises.

  27. Sam Bauers
    Mindy, my comment was just an elaborate ruse to make Hoyden turn up in Google when one searches for “shadow puppet porn”.

    That is a cunning plan worthy of Baldrick, Sam.

    Currently on page three of a Google search, me lord.

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