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My Opinion - Ethics Education in NSW Schools

By Catherine Suttle - 12th August 2010

In the New South Wales public school system, parents are asked to select an SRE (Special Religious Education) class for their child to attend for up to one hour each week. Each class focuses on one religion. Parents and children who are not religious or whose faith is not represented by the classes offered at their school can opt out of the classes.

My view is that this presents a problem; the children who opt out are prevented from participating in any lessons during that period. Consequently, schools are faced with a group of children who cannot be taught during that time, and therefore have to occupy them with non-educational content. According to parent reports, this may include colouring-in, reading quietly, sitting in the corridor, picking up litter or watching videos. My children, for example, have always watched videos, many of them so meaningless that I would not allow them to waste their time with them at home.

While reliable figures are not available, I have read that it has been estimated that about 25% of children in the NSW public education system opt out of SRE classes. I find it outrageous that government policy has resulted in a situation where a significant proportion of children in their schools are prevented from learning for up to one hour per week.

Government policy on SRE was established many years ago at a time when many families would have identified with a religion. Now, I think our society is more secular and diverse, and many families choose not to select a religion for their child.

For some years, parents across NSW have been calling on the state government to change the policy so that children who opt out of SRE classes can do something meaningful during that time. This parent-driven call has continued and strengthened with the support of the NSW Federation of P&Cs and the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney.

In 2009, the government agreed to trial a course of ethics-based classes as an option for children not attending SRE classes. The course curriculum has been developed by Associate Professor Philip Cam of The University of New South Wales, and includes discussion on issues such as fairness and telling the truth. The course has been offered to all children in years 5 and 6 at ten primary schools across NSW for a period of ten weeks.

The ethics classes ran alongside the usual SRE classes, which continued to be offered in the usual way. At each of the schools, volunteer facilitators (in most cases, parents at the school) were trained by Assoc. Professor Cam.

The trial course has triggered extensive discussion and debate on this topic in the media. A poll by the Sydney Morning Herald found that only 3% of respondents were opposed to the ethics classes, with 65% in support. Discussion in the media also indicates wide support for this option to SRE classes, from the general public and from some Church representatives.

At my children’s school, the response from most parents has been very positive. The trial ended last month, and it is now being independently evaluated. The evaluation will be sent to the Minister for Education, Verity Firth; it’s Ms Firth’s role to decide whether to change the current policy. If the policy is changed, an ethics-based option will exist alongside SRE classes, with no change to the system of SRE classes.

During the trial, a group of parents established parents4ethics  The site includes links to media discussions and posts by parents.

Comments (1)

A welcome alternative

As my oldest only entered kindy this year (and I was raised in the US) I had no idea about the existence of SRE classes in public schools. My husband and I aren't religious, so the thought of teaching our children from a specific religion that we don't follow isn't too appealing since our home conversation afterward would be limited. Nor is "free time" an acceptable alternative for learning time. I hope that the ethics classes are picked up and broadened for my own boys once they reach year 5.

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