Catholic: “Scripture kids would miss out on ethics”

Gack, if it’s possible for me to be less and less impressed with organised Christian churches and their attempts at changing the way the State runs, it’s happening.

They’ve been appearing to be increasingly panicked about the prospect of schools offering humanist/ethics courses alongside dogmatic Scripture classes (Special Religious Education (SRE), which is not to be confused with the non-dogmatic, comparative General Religious Education). The current situation varies slightly from State to State, but in many places it’s the case that students who have opted out of SRE cannot be offered any programmed education, which means they do things like spend the hour sitting in the library or colouring in. There have been lots of other issues about. These have included some kids being teased for opting out of Scripture classes, and young Scripture kids singing songs and being given lollies while the non-Scripture kids are sat down to do nothing.

In my State, the only way kids avoid Scripture class (if offered by their school) is by a written opt-out; Christian education is the State-sanctioned default. There are, it is said, a few non-Christian classes about (Islam or Ba’hai education is apparently offered here and there), but in general the choice looks more like ‘Catholic or Anglican?’

I wrote to my State Education Department a while back trying to find out what Scripture options may be offered and are offered by schools in WA, what syllabi are used, whether there is any syllabus oversight or definitions of acceptable content, what exactly happens when a child opts out, and how many children currently out. They had no idea. It’s all done on a school-by-school basis, and the State Education Department has absolutely no idea what is actually happening in their own State schools during this one hour a week.

The public discourse has ebbed and flowed, with a fair bit of silliness about the place. The silliness has included assertions like Scripture being the way to teach children about morals. Some people and groups have countered by proposing secular ethics education as an option. A few schools in NSW are trialling this as we speak.

Check out the ethics pilot programme here at

Session 1: “Getting Started”
Session 2: “Fairness”
Session 3: “Lying and Telling the Truth”
Session 4: “Ethical Principles”
Session 5: “Graffiti”
Session 6: “Thinking About Animals”
Session 7: “Intervening in Nature”
Session 8: “Virtues and Vices”
Session 9: “Children’s Rights”
Session 10: “Living A Good Life”

But the objections keep … evolving. Now, a group of churches including Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, and Uniting have decided that it’s not ok to offer ethics classes as an option for kids who don’t go to Scripture – because then the Scripture kids will miss out on being educated about ethics!

WA Today has Catholics try new tack in ethics row :

“We would love … if the government thought that ethics were a worthwhile addition to the curriculum, to enable Catholic kids to have the opportunity to attend it,” said Jude Hennessy, the director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Wollongong diocese and co-ordinator of the campaign.

“It is not fair they should miss this opportunity. Nor is it fair their parents should be caught in a dilemma about whether to send them to formation in their faith tradition or to choose ethics.”

Not fair? Not fair for all children to have access to an option that suits them? Not fair for all families to have equal opportunity to choose? In what way, exactly, is that “not fair”?

Also, Hennessy, do you realise that you have just said, out loud, that your Scripture doesn’t teach kids ethics? How do you reconcile this with ideas about your religion being The Divine Way To A Moral Life?

And lastly – have you ever heard of Sunday School? Or teaching your child about your own tradition? Do you seriously, truly believe in your heart that State school SRE programmes are the only way of teaching a child your faith? The only way this can make any sense – the ONLY way – is if you are dead set on instructing children in your particular flavour of dogma against their families’ will.

I can’t help but wondering if some of the panic is being occasioned after reading that one-tenth of the pilot programme involves teaching kids about their rights. Some people are really not very keen on that sort of thing.

Do schools in your area currently run ethics or values programmes? What would your ideal ethics programme include?

Categories: education, religion

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41 replies

  1. Did anyone watch the Insight programme about this?
    I found it somewhat infuriating that the Bishop thought that children whose parents have chosen not to have religious instruction during school time can have “atheistic religious” education instead of ethics.
    Besides either not understanding what an atheist is or thinking he is Incredibly Clever to call non-theism a ‘religion’; he also pulls the “it’s not fair” line, completely ignoring that it is currently “not fair” that children who don’t participate in religious instruction are being left with nothing to do for an hour, how “not fair” is that?
    Personally I would prefer for religion to be outside of public education altogether, but if it must remain, there needs to be an option for the increasing number of students who don’t attend SRE. Ethics seems to fit that bill nicely, I hope it is implemented more broadly.

  2. It’s a couple of years since I’ve taught SRE, but I’m familiar with what happens in the schools in my local area (inner west Sydney). A couple of observations about how it works there.
    In that part of Sydney the choice is wider than “Catholic or Anglican”, and reflects the schools’ demographics. Where I was teaching, the number of Islamic classes appropriately outnumbered the RC and Protestant (Anglicans, Baptists, Church of Christ and Presbyterian).
    Quite a few parents opted out of SRE. Their children joined some of the school teachers who chose not to stay in the classroom with the SRE teachers. Sometimes in the library, sometimes in a spare classroom, and on fine weather days sometimes outdoors. The activities offered to those children were determined by the school staff. Where I taught, sport was popular. There is no way that a child could be forced to attend SRE and be indoctrinated in anyone’s “particular flavour of dogma against their families’ will”.
    While it was true that programmed formal teaching didn’t occur for children who opted out of SRE, that was a non-issue because (in NSW at least) the teaching hours per week for each syllabus area take SRE time (which amounted to 30 minutes per week) into account. SRE time is not regarded as time sliced off the teaching hours. Many teachers treat that 30 minutes as bonus RFF time, and do task marking or class preparation.
    I’m not going to comment on the debate about the Ethics course currently being trialled in NSW because I haven’t yet got all the facts. (And I should make it a priority to do so).
    Except to say that your observation about Sunday School really strikes a chord with me.
    Sadly there are too many parents who think that sending their children to SRE is all they have to do to teach them about their faith. School-based SRE should never be the only teaching a child has in this area. There are others who think that Sunday School is all they need to do. Both approaches smack of hypocrisy to me, especially when the parents are not active in their congregations, but I wouldn’t use either to justify closing Sunday Schools or removing SRE from schools.

  3. Can I name another group of kids this whole business of school-based SRE is unfair to? It’s the ones who actually get formal religious education through attending the religious venue of their family’s choice on a regular basis. As a couple of examples, I submit firstly my mother, and then myself. Mum was raised Christadelphian (ie her parents were Calvinistic Protestant fundamentalists well before being a Calvinistic Protestant fundamentalist was cool) and part of their regular bible study included 1 chapter per week from both the Old and New testaments of the King James version of the Christian Bible. This fitted my mother very well with religious education – so much so that she could argue points of biblical provenance not only with her family, but also with my father (who was, until I was twelve, a minister in the Churches of Christ). Actually, she could generally out-argue Dad on biblical provenance – effectively reading through the entire text of the Old Testament and twice through the New Testament every year will tend to do that.
    I got my religious education in the congregation of the Church of Christ that my Dad was the minister for. Mum worked night shift as a midwife on Friday and Saturday nights, and this meant Dad was in charge of the childcare for Saturdays and Sundays. Since Dad had to be out of the house on Sunday mornings, so were my brother and I; and since we were the only two children in a rather small congregation, we wound up sitting through church services on a weekly basis. I was fortunate – until I hit year 5, SRE classes were reserved for the Catholics (I think they missed out on music instead); in year 5 I was off at extension classes on the day my class had Scripture. I only had to sit through it in year 6, and I found it as dull as all get-out. I didn’t even have my mother’s escape (she used to read Biggles books in Scripture class) because by then the scripture curriculum had become a bit more formalised, so I couldn’t just sit and read a book in the background.
    In year 7, I was in full-time extension classes, and I don’t recall religious education being on the curriculum at all. I strongly suspect the story was that all the religious ed teachers took one look at a class full of twenty extremely bright kids, and decided that saving our souls took second place to preventing their migraines.
    Further notes: Mum is now the type of atheist who doesn’t so much disbelieve in the existence of God as personally dislike him. I freely identify as pagan pantheist, and my strongest religious belief is that the universe was created by a committee of trickster deities (possibly while everyone else’s backs were collectively turned). Just how our school scripture classes were supposed to prevent this is completely beyond me.

  4. Sheryl,
    Your experience may be that children aren’t forced into religious indoctrination against their families will, but that is not the case in all public schools. Children are left in the classroom to overhear SRE, or have religious handouts left at their desks. My child has been told they “should just try religion” among other forms of pressure to participate in SRE both from their classroom teacher and the school chaplain. It’s certainly not impossible for religious indoctrination to seem ‘forced’ on your child in such circumstances.

  5. Y: Spot on. My child was sent home with a religious handout in grade One, after we formally opted out – twice – from any Scripture programming. The handout was given out in regular class time (his primary school currently doesn’t have Scripture class), with a statement of Jesus’ resurrection as fact. This was from a teacher who, when asked about the secular Values programme at the school, responded that she “tries to instil Biblical values into the children”, so I really don’t think it was an accident.
    Sheryl: I don’t need any “justification” for advocating for the removal of SRE from State schools other than “SRE has no place in the State schooling system”. If you want formal dogma instruction for your kid, you can use private religious schooling, do it yourself, send them to a class at the congregation of your choice, or find some other way.

  6. There is a difference between ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’. See an example of a definition here:
    I say this not because I agree with the RE specialists being allowed to have their cake and eat it too, but because ethics classes *really* would be good for all kids, irrespective of what RE programs are already in place, and who or who is not participating in them.
    You paint the picture of students being outcasts if they are opted out of the State sanctioned SRE classes. They do not have a legitimate alternative, and are left idly while those in the SRE class receive lollies and other positive reinforcement. This is a good point and one that is concerning, especially for younger students. It’s quite manipulative.
    My experience doesn’t negate that perspective, but it suggests that students can be stigmatised either way. For example, those who actually bothered to *participate* in SRE classes are often viewed negatively by peers. Even being part of a traditional Christian school (think ritualised hymn singing in assemblies and routinised prayer), about 95% of students would not be caught dead participating in a ‘religious’ activity where it appears to be of their own choosing.
    RE is known as the bludge subject, whether it’s specialised or not. It’s the prevailing attitude. If parents want their kids actively learning more, then yes, they certainly will have do something outside the school.

  7. That’s right. It is my experience. I think I did say that I was describing what happens in my local area. Just to illustrate that overt pressure is also not what happens in all public schools.
    Did you say the classroom teacher puts pressure on your child to attend SRE classes? I think you ought to dig a little deeper into that. Ask who supervises your child while SRE is being taught. Ask what they would be doing if they weren’t supervising your child. That is, what do they gain by having your child in the SRE class rather than with them in the playground or in the library?
    My experience was that some classroom teachers didn’t like being asked to supervise non-SRE children, because they had become accustomed to having the bonus RFF. “Encouraging” them to take SRE in order to get a 30 minute break from the classroom is the wrong thing to do.
    It might also be that your child’s school has a policy of classroom teachers staying in the room during SRE. There are benefits in this arrangement – the teacher is on hand for discipline assistance, for one thing. But it might mean that there are not enough staff to supervise the non-SRE children. Again, “encouraging” them to take SRE is a wrong response.
    Ask some more questions, and don’t assume that the people running SRE are the only ones who might want your child in the SRE class, or that their motives are anything like “indoctrination”.

  8. My parents opted me out of religious education automatically when I was in primary school. I opted back in (with their permission) because my friends got to do cool things in RE. Thus I became a Christian (to be fair, that wasn’t the school’s fault: I was crying out for boundaries, and found a ready-made way to become ‘a good person’.) It lasted from grade one until I was thirteen.
    A course in children’s rights would be nice. I always loved those ‘Streetwise Comics’ you used to get in school libraries that gave information on drugs, your rights if you’re arrested, information on what happens if your parents go guarantor for you, or if you overdraw money on your EFTPOS account – stuff like that. The facts I found the most interesting, when I was a primary school kid: there is no minimum age at which you can buy contraceptives in Australia. There’s a minimum age for having consensual sex, obviously, but if you need condoms you’re legally allowed to purchase them. And my very favourite: you have the right in Australia, at any age, to choose and practise your own religion, whatever that may be, and whether or not it’s your parents’. I bet a lot of people wouldn’t be pleased if they knew children have that right.

  9. Meg@6, you are quite right on the difference between ethics and morals. I’m of the camp that attempting to instill morals without having laid down a framework of ethics is very much hollow vessel territory (and that the most effective moral instructors have always included an ethical framework, but many of their latter-day followers seem to skip straight to the morals as if they stand on their own).
    If a secular ethics alternative gets the SRE curriculum to see the need to formally address ethics as part of their instruction I see only win-win. But on the bigger picture I’m with Lauredhel – I don’t think SRE should be in (eta: state) schools at all.

  10. Sheryl, that’s right. I acknowledged that it was your experience. Why we are now acknowledging that you acknowledged that it was indeed your experience after I had already acknowledged this is beyond me 😀
    I’m not disputing or questioning your experience, I’m sure that you and the school you taught at were very respectful towards children not attending SRE during school time. Please don’t dispute and question my experience by assuming I haven’t dug deep enough into the issue or asked enough questions to be able to make any claim as to my child feeling forced to participate in religion. The problems I have had with my child’s school have been dealt with, but this is not an isolated experience. The ‘encouragement’ by the classroom teacher included (among other things) the viewing of a short video of a preacher in a church service and teaching biblical genesis and creationism as an alternative to scientific explanations of the universe during non-SRE class time. Clearly, there was a greater motivation for her personally than getting a half-hour break.

  11. Vass, I can imagine what the political backlash would be if children’s rights were taught in the way you suggest, ultimately down to “I should be able to choose to keep my child ignorant of sexual facts for as long as I please.”
    Sheryl, my understanding from the media is that the providers of SRE could, and have been known to, object if the schools you teach SRE at are found to be offering organised “activities” for the non-SRE students because it would constitute “instruction”, which is forbidden. I believe they’re meant to offer supervision, only.

  12. There’s some interesting information to be found on the NSW Dept of Education and Training website. First up, there is a statement that the provision of time for SRE is a legislative requirement in NSW. Then there are instructions about how SRE is to be run.
    Under the Responsibilities of Schools of the SRE Implementation document I found this:
    “In times set aside for SRE, students not attending are to be separated from SRE classes.”
    and this
    “Schools are to provide appropriate care and supervision at school for students not attending SRE. This may involve students in other activities such as completing homework, reading and private study. These activities should neither compete with SRE nor be alternative lessons in the subjects within the curriculum or other areas, such as, ethics, values, civics or general religious education. When insufficient teachers or accommodation are available, the school’s policy on minimal supervision will operate.”
    So, to those who say “I don’t think SRE should be in state schools at all” … well, according to current legislation (at least in NSW) it does. To change the situation you will have to do more than voice an opinion. You will have to justify that opinion. You will have to change the law.
    To parents who have opted out of SRE for their children, but find their children left in the classroom to overhear what’s being taught there … they shouldn’t be! Take this up with the school’s SRE co-ordinator or Principal, because this is not permitted under the NSW DET policy.
    To Lauredhel’s original comment that
    “… the objections keep … evolving. Now, a group of churches including Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, and Uniting have decided that it’s not ok to offer ethics classes as an option for kids who don’t go to Scripture – because then the Scripture kids will miss out on being educated about ethics!”
    … I would say this: the current policy in NSW has already acknowledged that, and agreed!
    Perhaps the answer hangs on whether or not the teaching of ethics is regarded as “religious” education or one of the other curriculum areas that should be taught in schools. The current NSW policy quoted above clearly includes “ethics, values, civics” in those curriculum topics that are not to be taught during SRE time. So also is GRE (general religious education, or comparative studies of religion), which might explain why Y’s child was shown the creation video during non-SRE.
    I assume, then, that the NSW DET counts ethics as not “religious education”.
    A good question to ask is how, given the wording of this policy, the NSW DET can permit the teaching of the ST James Ethics Course in SRE time!!
    And that, I think, is precisely the question being asked by SRE teachers now. Ethics is an important subject for all students to be taught. To offer it in the SRE timeslot creates a conflict of choice that the NSW DET policy is designed to prevent. I can understand why some SRE teachers and parents see the offering of an ethics course instead of SRE as a way of trying to force children out of SRE. And I can understand why they are as annoyed about it as parents who object to attempts to force their children into SRE.

    • Sheryl, thanks for providing links to official policy. I wonder why you felt compelled to point out this though:

      “So, to those who say “I don’t think SRE should be in state schools at all” … well, according to current legislation (at least in NSW) it does. To change the situation you will have to do more than voice an opinion. You will have to justify that opinion. You will have to change the law.

      Do you really think anyone here is unaware that the current situation is mandated by legislation? That’s the core of the problem.
      As to the potential conflict between ethics classes and material that is not meant to be taught in class time, that’s
      a. why the ethics instruction is currently just a pilot program to evaluate the curriculum and responses to it
      b. if the ethics courses are being taught by community volunteers just like SRE is being taught by community volunteers, then it doesn’t count as part of normal class education and therefore doesn’t conflict with DET policy

  13. The SRE Implementation document for NSW can be found here:

    apologies for not including it in the post above 🙂

  14. It was a while ago now, but my family’s experience with SRE in NSW was pathetic. I was put in the first aid room unsupervised to read (it was quite small). My first brother couldn’t be left unsupervised, so he was forced to attend the general SRE class, and was given out of date lollies regularly, I think the Major got them free or cheap because they were out of date. My mother pushed a lot harder for my second brother as a result, and he was allowed to stay home. It was pretty pathetic all round, and this demarcation dispute is ridiculous. We go to school to learn, not sit around and do nothing while we wait for the religious folk to supposedly get an education.

  15. I echo – what are they teaching if they aren’t teaching the kids ethics in SRE? Also, if the churches want to get involved in what is being taught in ethics classes, then I and other atheists want a hand in what is taught in SRE. None of this creationism nonsense as equal to evolution. None of this old Testament stuff, and we’ll be a lot more respectful of women for a start. I can hear the howls of protest as I type.

  16. tigtog … Pointed it out because the basis of much of the discussion seems to be that “religious folk” are the people pushing the SRE courses. SRE has the support of “non-religious folk”, too. Hence it’s legislative protection.
    On your second point, the policy doesn’t make a distinction about who teaches ethics – it just says it is not to be taught in SRE time. In fact, the phrase “subjects within the curriculum or other areas” seems to be saying that subject matter like “normal class education” is not the only thing that cannot be taught in that time. Whether ethics is regarded as within or without the curriculum, the policy is clear that it cannot be offered as an altenative to SRE.

    • the basis of much of the discussion seems to be that “religious folk” are the people pushing the SRE courses. SRE has the support of “non-religious folk”, too. Hence it’s legislative protection

      SRE was legislated on the instigation of “religious folk”, Sheryl. That is still exists in our schooling system is a legacy of that time, not an indication that “non-religious folk” generally support it being provided in schools, just that so far there has not been a big enough push to get this outmoded legislation revoked.

      Whether ethics is regarded as within or without the curriculum, the policy is clear that it cannot be offered as an altenative to SRE.

      Sorry, that is nonsense. Obviously the accredited SRE teachers are allowed to teach ethics/civics etc as part of religious instruction to their own students in SRE classes. If the ethics curriculum pilot program is successful, it is a simple matter to extend DET policy to cover the ethics curriculum as a secular-ecumenical SRE alternative with teachers accredited by a body that meets adjusted departmental guidelines, then those teachers will be in exactly the same position to teach ethics to their students as any other volunteer SRE teacher/mentor/whatever the title is.

      Why do we speak of this as if SRE is only for Christians??

      Because apart from urban centres most schools in Australia still only offer SRE to their Christian pupils, because in most [eta: of these non-urban] communities only Christians have a large enough “body of the faithful” to provide volunteer SRE teachers, so that is what most people’s personal experience is?
      My own objections to SRE are indifferent to what religions are offering the instruction.

  17. Mindy, don’t confuse SRE with GRE. Clause 12 of the policy:
    “Only those persons authorised by approved religious persuasions may be involved in the provision of SRE.”
    By all means get involved in the teaching of GRE – that’s the place for comparative studies. But SRE … that must be taught by people who hold those beliefs, that’s the point of it.
    Speaking of the Old Testament … I have an exam to study for !!

  18. Ah, a subject that has made me so enraged I’ve written to the Educational department when my youngest was in a primary state school. Got the stupidest lamest letter back, but at least her school was forced to remove her from the class and put her in the library. Before that she was made to sit with her desk at the back of the class facing the wall. So very, very Christian don’t you think?
    Previously she was in a little country Catholic school and religious education was divided into religious education for all children and extra religious instruction for Catholic children.
    During the height of panicked ideas about Islam post September 11 she learned not only to respect Islam, but also other religions. I suspect that this little school may have been unusual. The priest of the church there was of the wise and humble kind that made one closely look at Catholicism and as a friend said ‘almost made me wish I was a Catholic’. ie pretty well oppposite in character to George Pell.
    So, after that experience I was incensed when my daughter came home with some crap from a Pentacostal volunteer, a colouring in picture ridiculing evolution and the announcement that either you are a scientist or a Christian. When she came home one day telling me that in answer to a classmate’s question why God hadn’t answered her prayers to save her Grandmother was because God doesn’t answer prayers of those who do not believe strongly enough I blew my top. Don’t you just love this ‘loving” God? Supported by your democratically elected government.
    To me, even if you are a full blown card carrying Christian of which ever denomination you’d want your little offspring indoctrinated in your own kind of Christian dogma, not necessarily one espoused by any of the Christians out there. Or that of a tax payer funded public school.
    To have to opt out in writing to religious indoctrination of your children in a state school is wrong, wrong, wrong. Whereas for some peculiar reason you have to give permission for sexual health education. It is truly bizarre.
    Education on ethics is what is required. Ethical behaviour and why it is important for a healthy happy personal life and healthy society for people to behave ethically.
    If you want religious education for your child, go to one of the many choices out there and enrol your child there.

  19. Why do we speak of this as if SRE is only for Christians??

    This is the list of organisations approved to teach SRE in NSW:

    Granted, there are more Christian organisations on that list than non-Christian, but as I said before, in my part of Sydney there are more students enrolled in Islamic SRE than Roman Catholic or Protestant.

    Is your problem with SRE, or with Christian SRE?

  20. Sheryl (re comments 12, 13, 17), what you have linked to is policy, not law.
    Sure, schools are still meant to follow DET policy, but it’s a lot easier to change and/or make an exception for a policy thing than a legal thing.
    The only legal requirement about students attending SRE classes, in section 32 of the Education Act 1990, is that students attending SRE classes be separated from the other children. (Which is an interesting piece of drafting, by the way – there is an implication there that the children not attending SRE classes are the normal ones – that’s actually also true in the name of the subject, ie special religious education.)
    In fact, SRE is not mandated by law, only by policy. The law just says that time needs to be available for it (and that the child must not attend if the child’s parents object – see section 33). So, sure, it’s protected – but there’s no legal requirement that it must be provided if there are no providers interested, and there’s also no legal requirement that students not be taught other things. That’s a policy requirement which reflects the political issues with the idea that some students might be taught something useful while the rest are in SRE.
    Anyway, I also find it interesting that there is nothing on the Curriculum Support site about the ethics course. Here is the Ministerial media release from November (NB: link is a pdf). Here is the media release about the classes starting. (NB: link is a pdf) I couldn’t find anything else (with a search for “ethics”) on the DET site between those two media releases.
    Still, support at the Ministerial & Premier level is enough to allow an alteration to policy, generally speaking.

  21. Jo … There are in fact 6 provisions in the Act, as seen in your link above. And the first is this:
    ”(1) In every government school, time is to be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion, but the total number of hours so allowed in a year is not to exceed, for each child, the number of school weeks in the year.”
    So, SRE is in fact mandated by law. Those who say it has no place in state schools will have to do more than change policy, they will have to change the law.
    It’s true that if there are no providers available, or no interest from parents, there’s no legal compulsion on the school to provide SRE. But where there is interest from both parties the law, as it stands, protects SRE.
    I don’t think I said the provisions about not teaching other subjects in SRE time were law … policy, is how I’ve described it. And until changed, it stands, does it not? My question remains on the issue of whether the teaching of the ethics course is a disregarding of policy.

    • My question remains on the issue of whether the teaching of the ethics course is a disregarding of policy.

      I can’t see how a pilot program can possibly be considered as “a disregarding of policy” – the whole point of pilot programs is to evaluate programs that are currently not part of policy to see whether the policies should be changed. By their very nature they are exempt from normal guidelines.

  22. ”Because apart from urban centres most schools in Australia still only offer SRE to their Christian pupils, because in most communities only Christians have a large enough “body of the faithful” to provide volunteer SRE teachers, so that is what most people’s personal experience is?”
    Generalisations, tigtog. Certainly not the case in my local government area.

  23. Sheryl, I apologise, you did refer to legislation vs policy, and I see now on a re-reading that you never said that the rule that students not be offered useful education if not attending SRE was in legislation. But nevertheless, referring to policy as if exceptions can’t be made is a bit disingenuous.
    [Also, following a refresh after typing this comment: what TT said about pilot programs.]
    Anyway, I did point out in my comment – referring to the whole of section 32, which, yes, includes sub-section (1), which you have quoted – that SRE was protected by law. I disagree with the law, but as tigtog says: do you really think anyone here doesn’t realise that that’s kind of the point? It’s actually a big part of what irritates me, and while I don’t want to speak for anyone else, my guess is that it irritates a lot of the others who speak up about this issue (whether here or elsewhere).
    Anyway, my challenge was to what I thought was your statement that it is mandated that students not be provided with other education if they do not attend SRE. That is not mandated by legislation, but by policy. I think that difference is incredibly important, and something which is too easily overlooked.

  24. ”because in most communities only Christians have a large enough “body of the faithful” to provide volunteer SRE teachers”
    Not the case in my local govt area. Nor the ones either side of it. Would that be reflected in other cities with similar cultural mixes? Worth investigating.

  25. If religious educators want a say on what happens in ethics classes then they have to expect that others will want a say on what is taught in scripture classes. I think this is a good way to prevent small children being told that their grandmother died because they didn’t believe in god enough or that you are either a scientist or a christian. You can’t have it both ways.

  26. Not the case in my local govt area. Nor the ones either side of it. Would that be reflected in other cities with similar cultural mixes? Worth investigating.

    Sheryl, my whole point was about the large number of Australian communities that are outside cities. Most of these smaller communities have one or more Christian churches but with a few well-known exceptions generally do not have synagogues, mosques or temples. I imagine that the number of volunteer SRE teachers in any particular faith correlates fairly well to the number of large buildings dedicated to worship that the particular faith has in the area.
    In any case, the people commenting on Christian SRE instruction in this thread are doing so because that is what they have personal experience with as students and/or parents. Surely you don’t want people to speculate about what goes on in SRE classes run by faith groups that they don’t have any personal experience with?

  27. SRE has no place in state schools. None. And I think it’s horrific that policy and legislation says that it does.
    You know what I want my kids* learning in school? Maths, English, science, S&E, acceptance, ethics, cooperation, teamwork, comprehensive sex Ed. This is not an inclusive list, but details things i think important to learn at school.
    You know what I don’t want my kids learning in school? Religion. Sure, teach them that different religions exist, discuss those religions, but don’t you dare tell them that your religion is the “right” religion.
    *I don’t yet have children.
    .-= PharaohKatt´s last blog ..I don’t owe you anything =-.

  28. It’s interesting that most of the discussion above centres on the Ethics course being an alternative to, or even a replacement for, the SRE programs. This is not the way the developers of the course, St James Ethics Centre, see it. Simon Longstaff’s article from 2004 gives the rationale behind the course. The Centre describes it as an “ethics-based complement to scripture” (my italics) on its website, not a replacement for SRE.
    Longstaff’s article says this:
    ”Let me be clear, in considering this matter we have no interest in diminishing the extent to which people participate in religious education. Nor would we want to set up a program that is seen to ‘compete’ for the interest and engagement of students. Religious and spiritual formation are important public and private goods that ought to be fostered.
    “But in the face of parental choice not to have their children attend ‘scripture’ are we to do nothing about further the opportunities for ethical development? Or could we complement the work of the churches and other religious organisations offering special religious education? Could we work to ensure that all students flourish at school and that no child is denied the opportunity to devote a focused hour each week to consider the deeper questions about how we are to live.”

    That was written in 2004, but I have no reason to think that the Centre’s position has changed in the intervening years – they still have the article on their website as part of the information publicly available to inform us in this debate.
    In fact, Longstaff was interviewed by AnglicanMediaSydney two days ago, and said this:
    ”In this regard, our policy is that parents would be asked to decide whether or not to choose to undertake a class in SRE. Having made that decision, then those who have chosen not to opt in to SRE would be offered a distinct and additional choice to opt in to an ethics class. That is our policy. I do not know if it will be acceptable to the DET.
    Given that those adversely affected by the decision not to attend classes in SRE are children from K-6, we do envisage a program being developed for years K-6. Should this be done, then all material would be made freely available to SRE providers, for use as they think fit – naturally amended to meet their own religious orientation.
    As previously stated, making the material available to all is a conscious decision to help ensure that no child is drawn away from SRE simply out of a desire to gain access to something new and different.”

    On the basis of what Longstaff has written and said, the agenda of the St James Ethics Centre, (and the NSW Federation of P and C Associations?) is able to incorporate the suggestions recently made by some churches: that SRE and the Ethics course can complement each other, and that both should be offered to all students in NSW.
    It doesn’t appear that the Centre’s intention in proposing the course is to remove SRE from state schools. But it does seem that some sections of the public are wanting to use it as leverage to achieve that goal. Why?

    • Given that they view it as a “complement” to SRE, to be only offered to those children whose parents have opted them out of SRE, taking place in “a focused hour each week to consider the deeper questions about how we are to live”, it’s fairly obvious that they envision these ethics classes taking place in the same hour that is set aside for SRE. And why not?

      It doesn’t appear that the Centre’s intention in proposing the course is to remove SRE from state schools. But it does seem that some sections of the public are wanting to use it as leverage to achieve that goal. Why?

      Because we (or at least I) think that the original legislation push by Protestant Christians for SRE in state schools (which was totally motivated by the rise last century of parochial Catholic schools* and panics about demographic shifts undermining the Church of England and thus the Commonwealth) was the wrong choice in the first place. Church and State ought to be separate, and that includes state schools.
      * The only reason that non-Christian faiths have SRE classes now is that recent Anti-Discrimination law over-rides the original bills mandating SRE, so that it has to be open to all faith groups.

  29. I’m interested in the idea that SRE is ‘opt in’ (as said by Longstaff). It hasn’t been my experience with my child that we had to ‘opt in’. There was some pressure in fact not to ‘opt out’. The only reason I haven’t is that we don’t want to isolate our son. Next year when his sister is there we may ‘opt them out’.
    @Sheryl – thank you for continuing to provide your perspective. I don’t agree, but I can see where you are coming from.

  30. Wow, I feel ignorant. I had no idea that religion was taught at state schools. Are these private schools? Cause I’ve not heard of it being taught at public schools. I must have gone to the post hippie-dippy schools in the country, then. Other than stuff at Christmas and Easter, religions weren’t really dwelled upon other than, “People from this place believe so and so.” Maybe it’s because both of the schools I went to had extensive immigrant-education programmes. My schooling experience was fairly multicultural.
    I agree with the point of this post though, and I second PharaohKatt: religion has no place in schooling unless it’s a reference to a cultural make-up a la social studies or something, or History, you know?

  31. Yep, we’re talking about State primary schools, napalmnacey. I put some of the WA law and policy on SRE here.

  32. Mindy, I feel for you not wanting to remove your son from SRE so that he does not feel the odd one out. I initially did the same with my daughter. Many parents, I believe, do the same thing. Because it is a fact that in this day and age, those children who cannot recite their passages from the bible, and who have been removed by their parents, miss out pubicly and humiliatingly from the reward lollies.
    I HAD to remove my daughter. I started feeling uncomfortable when she was proudly quoting some bible texts to me. If there is something that gives me the absolute creeps it is the quoting of bible passages wholly out of context according to somebody’s interpretation gleaned from a 6 weekend bible course. The ‘God only grants wishes to those who really and truly believe’ was the final straw. Her father is Catholic and about everthing she was getting in her religious ‘education’ was pretty well contrary to what she was told about before.
    Religious education of any sort has NO PLACE whatosoever in a state public school. This should be left completely to the religious private schools.
    It is different to teach children about ethics and philosophy and make them aware of the different religions and that some people obtain their notion of right and wrong through religion. It is probably important that children learn about the different strains of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism etc, etc, but not be taught a particular variety of said religions. It is also part of education that not all notions of living a good life, ethics are only ever derived from ‘natural law’ or ‘religious law’.

  33. Sheryl,
    The fact that SRE has been enshrined in legislation since 1880 does not put it above criticism. In fact, its age tends to suggest that it may be overdue for review. There are such things as bad laws, and the mandatory provision of SRE is worse than a bad law; it’s an anachronistic hangover from a less secular age, which even at the time of its inception represented an unwelcome compromise.
    The Public Instruction Act 1866, and the Public Instruction Act 1880, which first introduced the SRE requirement, brought revolutionary reform to the education system in NSW. At a time when half of all children went without formal education, and the efficient distribution of educational resources was all but impossible due to factional battles between schools of various denominations and a handful of Government schools, these Acts laid the foundation for an effective State run school system. The SRE requirement represented a necessary compromise with religious leaders who, at the time, wielded a great deal of power in the field of education.
    When the Public Instruction Act 1880 was repealed and replaced with the Education Act 1990, nobody thought to question whether these vestigial provisions should remain, presumably because s.33 ensures that no child whose parent objects will be forced into religious education (which is in itself problematic. Surely the child should be able to object him or herself?).
    Leaving aside the fact that religious education has no place in a secular state school, (I distinguish “religious education” from “education about religion”. The latter is probably quite useful, if only to inform discussion about some of the problems in the world today) the problem lies in the interpretation of s.33. At no point does the legislation dictate that the default position (as it currently is) is for children to receive religious education, with those who do not wish to receive such education having to opt out. This is policy, and bad policy, at that.
    In fact, s.32(1), which states “In every government school, time is to be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion…” rather implies that the onus is
    on the school to identify those “children of any religious persuasion” to receive religious education. If a note were sent out to each child’s parents at the beginning of each school year saying “Do you wish for your child to receive religious instruction? If so, which?”, that would also be consistent with the existing provisions.
    You’re right, the provision of SRE in secular schools is protected by law. And the relevance of that protection is long overdue for review.

  34. Sure. Put SRE in schools up for review. Then there might be some real debate in the community, not just opinions and generalisations based on personal prejudice and narrow experiences of what’s happening when SRE is taught in schools.

  35. I think everybody here does want SRE put up for review. Community debate would be great!
    I do understand why those with a positive experience of religion want to share it (even if it wasn’t part of their religious ethos, it’s natural to tell other people about things that make you happy in the hope that it might make them happy too).
    But negative experiences with religion have just as much evidence value as positive ones. Most religious people are kind and well-meaning, but those who are not well-meaning, or who are just blindly dogmatic, can and do cause real harm in the name of religion.
    Since people remain free to seek out religion for themselves and their families privately, I see no public advantage in having religious groups proselytise on public school premises and during time that is meant for a general education, and the potential for nasty social shunning of those who opt out is created unnecessarily. School has enough ingroup-outgroup challenges already.

  36. Hi all,
    I guess some athiest parents might seek to prevent their child from experiencing any instruction in religion, and it is their right to do so. My parents followed no religion but I was given religious instruction throughout school so I could see what it’s all about and make up my own mind. I thank them for that and wish to do the same for my kids.
    The RE workbook we purchased in our daughter’s grade one booklist was a real eye-opener. It was after reading the workbook that we opted her out. Being an athiest doesn’t make me anti-religion, but I am certainally anti-dogma. My mother is a support teacher at a catholic school where from the very beginning the lower grades are encouraged to investigate as many different religious beliefs as they can find. In one exercise class groups are each given a different religion to study and they must report back to the rest of the class about the religion’s god(s) and prophet(s) and the differing ways in which followers worships their god(s).
    I would definately encourage my daughter to participate in an introductory class which attempts to encompass the diversity worldwide of religious beliefs. Unfortunately the secular public system does not currently provide this (nor should it be required to, as religion is a very personal thing). We will provide such an introduction for our kids ourselves at home when we feel they’re ready for it. Only after that will we opt them back into religious education at school.
    Incidentally, opting our child out makes no difference at our school, we since found out she is sat a the back of the classroom with a few books while the teacher catches up on paperwork. A relief teacher once showed me she was actually still on the role and that day she had joined the class anyway!

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