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Antique religious education policy needs reform

Teresa Russell |  29 September 2009

Religious Education, by Chris JohnstonUnless you have sent a child to a public school in New South Wales, you won't have come face-to-face with the madness that is known as 'non-scripture'.

For one hour each week, usually first thing in the morning during prime learning time, every public primary school in the state must divide its students into different faiths to receive 'special religious education' (SRE) from a wide assortment of adults, known collectively as 'scripture teachers'.

If a parent wants their child to opt out of SRE, that child is not entitled, under existing education policy, to any instruction during this period. The policy specifically states that learning in the areas of 'ethics, values, civics or general religious education' must not occur.

These non-scripture children are supervised in classrooms, school halls, and corridors. In many schools, even access to the library is prevented in order to ensure these children don't learn anything that their SRE counterparts might miss out on.

The policy relating to scripture classes dates back to a century-old agreement between the churches and the state of NSW. When the state made a bid to assume the primary responsibility for education, the churches agreed, on the condition that one hour each week be reserved exclusively for scripture education.

While there is little doubt that this agreement would have reflected community sentiment at the time, it is not relevant today in NSW where an estimated 25 per cent of students sit idle each week. In some schools, the opt out rate is as high as 80 per cent and teachers must stop their classes while just a few students leave to attend scripture.

In Australia's 2001 Census of Population and Housing, 20.7 per cent of people described their religious affiliation as Anglican, 26.6 per cent as Catholic, 20.7 per cent as other Christian, 4.9 per cent as other religions, 15.5 per cent as having no religion and 11.7 per cent as not stated or inadequately described.

Schools that have very high opt out rates usually have a parent body that is unhappy with the quality of religious instruction in their affiliated faiths or else there is no access to education from their own faiths.

In 2003, St James Ethics Centre in Sydney was approached by individual parents and the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations in NSW to create a secular, ethics-based course to serve as an alternative to scripture. Andrew Refshauge, the then Minister for Education, rejected its introduction on the grounds that there was 'neither scope for implementation, nor was there a community-wide call'.

In 2004, a resubmission, which included evidence of strong community support, was again rejected, this time by Carmel Tebbet.

Today's NSW Minister for Education, Verity Firth, has just received a joint submission from St James Ethics Centre and the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations in NSW. It asks the minister to amend the policy that requires non-scripture students to remain idle, and proposes a pilot of an ethics-based option to scripture in interested public schools.

On what grounds could a rational person oppose the teaching of ethics to a group of idle primary school children? Surely religious education of children aged five–11 is faith-based ethics education, lots of great stories and a bit of selective history teaching.

Denying these children access to ethics education is a social injustice. Every child is entitled to ethical instruction, regardless of religious affiliation. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that many children who opt out already feel excluded during this hour, thanks to treatment by their peers and more surprisingly, by the interpretation of the policy by individual principals.

In one Sydney primary school last year, access to chess, knitting and other craft was removed from non-scripture class. It was replaced by sitting still and having to read quietly for the hour, after religious parents complained to the principal that non-scripture was more fun and their children were pushing to go to that class instead.

Recently, parents at Bungendore Public School created and taught a curriculum of comparative religions and societal beliefs to the non-scripture attendees, which was half the school. The NSW Department of Education closed down the course after several years — once it found out about it.

At the very least, ethics education will do no harm, and recent research shows it is likely to do a lot of good. A research review undertaken by St James Ethics Centre indicates a link between a child's sense of purpose or meaning, benevolent behaviour and vital mental health.

'By denying children the right to explore fundamental themes and virtues, we are essentially denying them the right to contribute to their own wellbeing and, by extension, to that of the community,' states the centre's 'Rationale for an Ethics-based Complement to Scripture'.

The people of NSW anxiously await Minister Firth's decision about finally removing this redundant and discriminatory policy from her department's books. How could she possibly refuse?

Teresa RussellTeresa Russell is a freelance business writer whose two children attend non-scripture every Wednesday morning in a Sydney public school. She is an early signatory to a petition to the minister in support of an ethics-based complement to scripture. 


Teresa Russell


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Submitted comments

Perhaps the children could be assigned to read a couple of books by Marc Bekoff; The Emotional Lives of Animals, and Wild Justice provide a solid foundation for a course in ethics. The children being instructed in religion would be well-served to read these texts as well.

They would all also learn something from Charles Darwin; readings from Richard Dawkins may, however, have to be carefully selected..

David Arthur 29 September 2009

Again we see religion being a divisive force rather than inclusive. Surely the messages we all want to get across to our children are contained in all the major religions and for that matter are agreed upon by all people of good will.

Bill Armstrong AO 29 September 2009

An hour a week for Scripture would be luxury - most schools I am aware of get only a nominal 1/2 hr which, by the time the children are settled probably means around 20 mins a week. (The law specifies a maximum amount of time, and not the minimum.) The school where I teach does not have non-scripture children sitting idle, unfortunately, and I have received notes saying that children do not want to attend anymore because they are missing out on something more interesting - like dancing or games. We have scripture straight after lunch, not first thing in the morning. We are dedicated volunteers and it could be very difficult to compete with a sophisticated program taught by professionals. I can see that it's a problem for those not going to scripture but you couldn't ask Church groups to support a program which could result in an erosion of our ability to pass on the faith we believe in so ardently!

Maryanne 29 September 2009

MaryAnne, I do expect Church groups to honour their own mandate from the Founder! We're told to take the Good News to every creature - the children who don't attend Scripture class are missing out completely. We should rejoice that here is an opportunity to spread the message of God that comes through good systems of ethics, especially if the children can't receive the message through our own religious structures. 'He who is not against me is for me'!!

Joan Seymour 29 September 2009

I read this article with some distress because of the nonsensical provision in the Regulations or Act (I am not sure which) that those opting out should not engage in learning activities that the others miss out on. It is interesting that the figures Teresa quotes from the 2001 Census suggest that about 2/3 of the population self-identify as Christian. It is not surprising, therefore, that a Gallup Poll in 200 found about 2/3 of parents of school-aged children wanted weekly religious education in public schools.

In WA, where I oversee a Christian Religious Education Program in Public schools, the Regulations require that opt-out children be engaged in meaningful education activities during the lesson.

Teresa's comment that "At the very least, ethics education will do not harm" is often echoed by parents when asked if they want the children to do Religious Education.

I do hope Minister Firth is able to step up to this one and rectify what really is a nonsensical situation.

John Clapton 29 September 2009

Religious instruction in many schools is ecumenical where children learn the basics of their faith. It is up to the various faith groups to provide teachers for this. Would it be possible for parents who want ethics teaching to provide the teachers as well? In any event every curriculum area in NSW schools has a morals and values component so students are not existing in a morals/ values desert.

Jorie Ryan 29 September 2009

I think that we are under the misconception that SRE is about ethics teaching when it is not. It is about instruction in the customs, practices and theology (elementary theology) of a specific religion.

In my own recent private correspondence with the minister I was informed that ethics was already integrated into the day to day coursework and that there was no need for additional ethics instruction to children who were opted out of SRE. The implication of this reply from the minister was either that children of religious parents were in need of additional special teaching in ethics in their SRE classes or that SRE has nothing to do with ethics.

Kenneth Cooke 29 September 2009

As a Catholic School RE teacher, who used to be a SRE in State high schools in NSW in the early 1990s, I believe any religious education is an important part of an holistic education. Faith is not simply learned, but needs to be dialogued with.

Also in my present school I am part of a pilot programme with our Year 11 students that includes social ethics investigation and, as one of a team of Year 12 teachers, I teach Ethics as an element of the 2 Unit SoR in Victoria.

I believe both ethics and religious education should play a vital part in all school curricular planning, teaching and learning. The real question is how vital we think a broad based education is for the future of our nation and the world!

Ryan McBride 30 September 2009

Teresa Russell fails to inform readers that the issue of Scripture in NSW Public Schools is governened by The Constitution of the State of New South Wales.

While I respect Teresa to place her views and the views of those who also support some other form of 'religious education for public school children' before readers, I do think there is much need for a 'right of reply' article so the whole issue can be properly investigated.

In the Constitution, the legislators put to the people in 1881, I believe, the compromise needed to get the people's support for a public education system.

The Constitution states that Confessional Religious Instruction (that is, classes specific to Churches, run by instructors from those Churches) sessions of forty-five minutes per week would be allowed.

So, working with both the allowances as well as the constraints of the Constitution on this matter, the issue is far more complex than this article pretends to present.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW 30 September 2009

Offspring who feel excluded in Non-scripture classes have only parents to blame who disallow them the ability of choice and who prefer to blame the education system rather than themselves.

The Bible cannot be proved or disproved beyond a shadow of a doubt for two reasons. Firstly it is 'Oral" stories handed down from generation to generation before being put into written word and therefore should be read/taught with that knowledge. Secondly, none who are alive today were alive when the events depicted actually happened.

God is the pivotal point of scripture. Ethics can be taught without God but become another set of rules with no real reason for adhering to them. With God they become a faith that carries through for the rest of one's life whether one attends Church regularlly or not.

The official religion of this country has been Christian since European occupation. History bears witness to the fact that non-God ethics lead to dictatorial States. Unless people start speaking out against such surreptitious moves to de-Christianise this country, we will have it foisted on us with no public debate just like we have had so many other things foisted on us over the past 30+ years.

Gemma 30 September 2009

New South Wales does not have a constitution, Fr Mick Mac Andrew. That is why I did not refer to it when writing this article. My beef is with the NSW Department of Education's policy (it is not a part of the Education Act) that prevents children who opt out of scripture classes from receiving any instruction at all, and especially none in ethics, values, civics or general religious education. All of the department's policies should respond to 21st century society's needs, not those of 1881.

Please understand that this issue is not about any faith's right to offer its followers religious instruction. It is about the rights of those children whose parents opt them out of SRE, to access formal ethics education - or something else more meaningful than knitting or colouring in.

There is no need to "compete with a sophisticated program taught by professionals," Maryanne. St James Ethics Centre (SJEC) will offer its curriculum to all faiths, as well as those in non-scripture classes.

If you would like to support this submission to Minister Firth by SJEC and NSW P&C, go to this website and then click on "sign this petition".

Teresa Russell 30 September 2009

I think this may be of some interest to you ? There was an article in the SMH paper last weekend , if you can't access the article, I think I still have the paper ?

Carole Withers 02 October 2009

Teresa I was puzzled by your comment "NSW does not have a constitution" to Fr MacAndrew. NSW most certainly does have a constitution of its own as well as being included as part of the Australian Constitution 1901. It initially dated from 1856 with many updates since. The current Act is the Constitution Act 1902(NSW). Also you should read The Constitution of NSW by Anne Twomey, Published by Federation Press.

Gemma 02 October 2009

In my last post, I was referring to the fact that NSW does not have a Constitution in the traditional way one would think of a Constitution that has evolved over time, given the history of the way the State came into existence. Rather, NSW has an Act of Parliament, the Constitution Act 1902 that sets out the parliamentary processes which came into effect after Federation and which replaced the The NSW Constitution Act, 1855, which provided for the creation of a bicameral legislature, consisting of a nominated Council and an elected Assembly.

Nowhere in this Act is there any reference whatsoever to the Confessional Religious Instruction. I would be happy for you to point out the section of the Act that provides this if you believe otherwise. It deals only with parliamentary and government matters.

Under the Federal Constitution Section 116, the Commonwealth is not to legislate in respect of religion. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Teresa Russell 17 October 2009

We recently relocated to London for a two year stint with our primary aged children. Our children were corridor dwellers prior to leaving. I was infuriated with scripture teaching within our school, after the Cronulla riots I was asked by one of my children if I believed in God to which I said no, I was asked if that meant I was one of the "bad" people, on further investigation this meant Muslim. I was outraged. This came direct from a "teacher" all be it a scripture teacher but someone my child gave an authority. On examination of the "teaching material" I saw the ditties that were sung ie: I got the bad king blues, a little ditty about how God killed people for believing in false idols. One buddhist girl was taunted after this lesson. My child also asked if God made it stop raining - the text in her book suggested again he did because of false idol worshipping. Look up the "connect" material, it is all there. I reviewed the book and indeed this government sanctioned text contained all these things and more - and all this in the year of tolerance. So she became a dweller. I sent my other child reluctantly as she was worried about the stigma of not going. Fortunately we talk about ethics regularly at home. And now to London - at my girls very racially and culturally diverse school they truly learn about many religions. There is a huge difference between learning and indoctrination. A secular instructor celebrating the positive aspects of many faiths. With this we have children growing up accepting, respecting and valuing differences. Why can't we have in Australia what Bungendore had and London has with ethics and philosophical questions thrown in. It is not an enormous leap of faith surely?

Linda 27 October 2009

Linda, your post is sad. I felt sad that you have no belief in God and therefore have decided that you can not risk letting your children believe in Him either; I felt even sadder at the crap being taught by teachers at their former school. I personally was born to parents who were Protestant and Jewish but went to any available church each time we moved house. For many years I espoused Salvation Army and now have found great peace/happiness in Catholicism. Over the years I have taught scripture and Sunday School on and off but even today, I refuse to teach church dogma or doctrine. I am unaware of any "Education Dept sanctioned syllabus" on the topic, my lessons are based on the wonder of God's Creation (us)/the love of Jesus Christ/"Love thy neighbour as thyself"/"Do unto others as you would have them do to you/the Crucified and Risen Lord/Ten Commandments and the fact that no matter what the 'religion', there is only ONE God and ONE Bible even if it is written in different formats. God works through diverse people in mysterious ways, sometimes we have to listen hard to get his message. God Bless you.

Gemma 27 October 2009

The treatment of students opting out of religious instruction is nothing short of mental bullying. Why do so-called Christians always think that 'values' and 'ethics' can come only from their own particular brand of religious belief? And why is it that they see any necessity to intrude into the area of secular education of children anyway? Could it have something to do with the fact that it is well recognised that children are more susceptible to indoctrination of ideas? I have always wondered what values are to be learned from a recounting of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of scientists such as Galileo, for daring to report on their factual observations, or the brutal persecution of the Irish Catholics by the English Protestants when they took over their country. The petition does not go far enough.

Eric The Red 04 December 2009

where do i sign this petition?

carla 04 March 2010

Look, Ethics do NOT come from religion. Religion includes some ethics yes but to suggest it is the source is laughable.... If you teach god in school then you MUST teach it as the mythology that it is and NOT as fact. stop praying in our schools and we wont think in you church.

Shane 08 May 2011

GEMMA, opt out chilren feel excluded because the SCHOOLS exclude them for an hour. The children opt out of religious indoctorination and the SCHOOLS tell them they are to be uproductive. I think what you meant to say is "children who atend scripture classes and miss out on extra study or ethics classes only have thier parents to blame" It's the policy of exclusion that is the problem, not parents who rightly want protect thier kids from this mind polution.

Shane 08 May 2011

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