Is This The Dumbest Education Policy In Australia?

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It’s not a good time to get a comment from certain church groups in NSW.

Last week it emerged that they were opposing a plan to give kids who don’t go to scripture classes something to do instead. At the moment, an archaic clause in NSW’s Education Act prohibits students who opt out of scripture from being taught anything while others receive religious instruction. At some schools, that means more than half the students are basically doing nothing.

It’s as absurd as it sounds. Responding to growing frustration, The NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens Association (P&C) has funded the St James Centre for Ethics to develop a pilot program to teach ethics to students who don’t want to learn scripture. But the program had barely crossed the Education Minister’s desk before the Government’s religious education advisory panel sounded the alarm. Approving the proposal would require the Parliament to kill that archaic clause, and the churches clearly fear this may be the crest of a very slippery slope.

But if you want to get some kind of detailed defence of the current policy from those church groups represented by the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools (ICCOREIS) which advises the Government, you’ll be disappointed, because apparently church spokespeople have gone to ground. When newmatilda.com sought comment from the ICCOREIS, the Catholic Archdiocese and the Anglican Church, none were willing to comment on the issue (and have only put up a very basic defence on their website).

Their reluctance is understandable. Last week the ICCOREIS acting chairman, Reverend Mark Hillis, dismissed the proposal, apparently calling the P&C "a small interest group coming in and ramping things up". That’s the same P&C that represents an enormous number of committed and active families of children in thousands of public schools all over the state. Not surprisingly, his attempt to kill the plan backfired, and now the churches he represents have pulled the blinds.

Actually, one person did get back to me, from the Anglican Church, and said they’d been following the case with interest. "Interest"? I suggested that far from being "followers of the case", they were protagonists in it, and had been for over a century. Apparently I was not speaking to "the right spokesperson". And the right one, not surprisingly, still hasn’t got back to me. That could well be because the bodies involved know they don’t have a leg to stand on.

It’s not clear how much influence the ICCOREIS really has on the Department — certainly Education Minister Verity Firth’s spokesperson wouldn’t comment either way. But the question is: Should they have any say in what non-religious students do or don’t learn?

The NSW Education Department has twice rejected similar ethics programs for schools. In any given week these students can be found in libraries or, in one case described by Helen Walton of the NSW P&C, picking up rubbish.

The current arrangement goes back over a century to when the State took over public education from the Catholic Church. The public of that time was more worried that the State, not the Church, had too much control over education. There were as many approaches to religion in schools as there were colonies.

While the colony of Victoria wanted religion out of schools altogether, NSW was more pious. Its Public Instruction Act of 1880 allowed for it, but stipulated that "not more than one hour" of "general religious teaching" remain. Although a loss for the Church — the previous Act had required "not less than one hour" — religious teaching was built into our state system. While rarely needed at the time, the Act maintained the rights of parents to withhold their children from these classes.

By the 1970s, NSW had become so ethnically diverse — and increasingly atheistic — that many students were either opting out of Scripture or finding it denominationally exclusive. This pressured the government into reviewing the role of religion in education. The Rawlinson Committee’s 1980 review responded to a complex mix of community desires. Some wanted "Special Religious Education" (SRE), which is denomination specific and includes worship. Others desired "general" instruction about the history and concepts of religions. Some wanted both, and others neither.

While Rawlinson’s report recognised the limitations of SRE in a multi-ethnic society, it endorsed its continued presence in state schools. The report recommended "that pupils withdrawn from SRE be provided with opportunities for purposeful secular learning." But the state government was in the thrall of you know who, and kept the Act intact, prohibiting secular learning.

The outcry against this prohibition has gradually become louder. In 2003, the St James Ethics Centre approached then-premier Bob Carr proposing an ethics-based course for primary school students. The then-minister for education Andrew Refshauge rejected the proposal claiming it lacked public support.

Sensing the minister had misread the community, the P&C Association surveyed parents to discover their attitudes towards such programs. It revealed a strong majority (59 per cent) who thought their kids should have the option of a non-religious ethics class. An even higher proportion supported exposing students to faiths other than their own. Again the proposal was submitted and again rejected, this time by Carmel Tebbutt.

In 2004, one group of parents and students in Bungendore, just outside Canberra, decided to take matters into their own hands. They organised a volunteer program of supervision for a course on World Religions. The program came to the Department’s attention when a parent wrote a letter about its success to the Sydney Morning Herald. In 2006, without any consultation, the Department shut it down.

One of the Bungendore parents behind the program, Allan Donnelly, still believes their program was in line with the Act. "It met the recommendations of the Rawlinson Committee, did not create a ‘conflict of choice’ as proscribed in the Act, and followed exactly the same format under the same criteria as the faith-based groups," he said. "We want the same opportunity as the faith-based groups."

Howard Packer, a Sydney barrister, is president of the P&C at Rozelle Public, one of seven schools that have volunteered to trial the program developed by the St James Centre for Ethics. An active member of the Uniting Church (which supports the program), he sees the issue as one of social justice.

Packer describes the churches’ opposition as a "knee-jerk, paranoid reaction to anyone treading on what they regard as their territory. It’s strange that they would rather children get nothing than talk about values."

Packer says the Church Commission should stop worrying. "Rather than stealing students from the religious classes, the interest in ethics would inspire some students to get more involved in religion."

And what if the State Government refuses permission to trial the program? "If approval isn’t given, we’ll lick our wounds. But it’s not an issue that’s going to go away. There is strong community support for this."

Some church representatives have been quick to raise fears about the ethics pilot. Who will teach these classes? How will the teachers be selected? Who will select them? Who will scrutinise what they teach? I put these to P&C Association spokeswoman Helen Walton, who explained that "the process for ethics classes will be identical to that used to establish scripture classes." As envisaged by the P&C, the classes will be voluntary and, rather than oppose the existing religious classes, they would run as a complementary alternative. Students would be free to continue doing nothing, to attend religious classes or even to move back and forward between the ethics program and the existing religion classes.

What the opposition from church groups truly reveals is a distinct lack of faith in their own product. They’re worried that, given the option, students will drift away from scripture towards programs presenting ethics in a secular context. Instead of relying on their message to sell itself, these church groups seem to put more faith in using political influence to maintain the place they still enjoy in the school system.

So what are the prospects for the St James Ethics program actually getting up? The NSW ALP’s track record of doing everything it can to avoid doing anything at all doesn’t bode well. On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that apart from the Government’s own colossal policy inertia there is no credible community resistance to this program. The long silence from the churches looks very much like an admission that they’re fighting a policy that even they can’t argue against convincingly.

Getting kids talking about ethics instead of sitting idle? How can you argue with that?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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