SCRIPTURE material endorsed by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and taught to NSW public school children as young as five includes dissecting an animal, encouraging children to have secrets with adults, linking a man’s blindness to his parents’ sins and reminding scripture teachers not to see children with disabilities as “unintelligent”.
There are calls for NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes to immediately suspend scripture in schools, and release a long-awaited NSW review of special religious education (SRE), after a Queensland Department of Education review raised serious concerns about Anglican “Connect” scripture content used in both states, including lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour” and advice to scripture teachers about punishing children.
The calls come after confirmation Mr Stokes has no power over the content of scripture lessons under the Education Act, and controversial changes to NSW public school enrolment forms in 2015 removing ethics classes as an option, and leaving scripture as the default position in some state primary schools.
The Queensland review in August recommended removing an animal sacrifice lesson for children aged 10-12, which suggested scripture teachers “bring in a dead animal to dissect”. The review found other lessons had the potential to be upsetting, inappropriate or likely to affect the social and emotional wellbeing of children, including a lesson for children aged 7-9 about a man born blind, which asked: “Was it a punishment from God because his parents or someone else had done something wrong?”
The material also included a lesson requiring children aged 7-9 to list ways to “get rid of” a person, after a Bible story about people “getting rid of” Daniel, and a concluding prayer where children “pray that we may not be like the Israelites”.
The review noted Connect producer, the Sydney-based Anglican Youthworks, amended lessons about Indigenous children and children with disabilities after community anger that scripture teachers were told “SRE, a barbecue and an afternoon’s sport would be the most pleasurable experience Aboriginal Primary students could imagine”. Scripture teachers were also reminded not to see children with disabilities as “unintelligent”.
You know something is wrong in this state when even Queensland is more proactive in releasing information.
– NSW Greens Justice spokesman and barrister David Shoebridge
Youthworks conceded the instructions were “dated and clunky”.
Connect presented the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, as a “factual, historical document”, with scripture teachers reminded to “emphasise that these events are historical and true”, the Queensland review found.
Calls for the immediate suspension of scripture in schools comes after the NSW Department of Education confirmed it had Crown Solicitor’s advice that a NSW education minister “does not have the power to control the contents of SRE under the current provisions of the Education Act”.
A group challenging the application of scripture guidelines across three states, Fairness in Religions in School, letterboxed houses near Hunter and Sydney schools on the weekend with information about enrolling children in scripture and ethics classes, after accusing the NSW Department of Education of failing to act on the Queensland and NSW reviews.
“We can’t believe the Department of Education hands over its duty of care to children in state schools to religious groups that are unaccountable, even to the minister, for what they teach,” said FIRIS spokesman Darrin Morgan.
On January 16 the department rejected a FIRIS freedom of information request for the $300,000 NSW review, which has been with the NSW Government for 12 months, on public interest grounds. While releasing the review would “promote open discussion and informed debate” on special religious education in state schools, the NSW Government was still considering its response and releasing it would have “a negative impact on the department’s functions”, the department said.
The Queensland review found that while the “vast majority” of Connect material aligned with Department of Education guidelines, it raised concerns about parental consent, the lack of data on scripture numbers and the lack of legislation to allow “centralised regulation” of scripture content.
Greens Justice MP David Shoebridge called on new Education Minister Rob Stokes to immediately suspend scripture in schools, release the NSW review and allow debate on whether scripture legislation reflected community views about state education in 2017.
“You know something is wrong in this state when even Queensland is more proactive in releasing information,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Parents put an awful lot of trust in schools when they leave their children at the school gate, and that trust is breached by a system that makes attendance at unsupervised and unchecked scripture classes the default position.”
Lessons for children about keeping secrets with adults and having “special friendships” with them were particularly concerning because “We know from the Royal Commission that encouraging ‘special friendships’ and secrets with adults endangers children and plays into the hands of predators”, Mr Shoebridge said.
“Keeping children safe must be the number one priority in our schools, not pandering to extreme religious views.”
A spokesman for former Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said the NSW review of SRE was “currently being considered by government”.
A spokesman for Mr Stokes, who was sworn in as minister on Monday afternoon, did not respond to questions. The Anglican Diocese of Sydney did not respond to questions.
In a statement on Monday Youthworks said all “inconsistent” lesson material identified in the Queensland review had been amended to the standard required by Queensland Department of Education.
“The changes required by Education Queensland have also been applied to our material sold in NSW, and our teachers are being trained to use the new material accordingly,” the statement said.
Youthworks did not respond to a question about whether a scripture teacher had ever dissected a dead animal during a lesson at a NSW primary school.
The NSW Department of Education said it was the responsibility of special religious education approved providers to authorise scripture material, provide an annual assurance to the department that authorised teachers were only using authorised material, to make lesson content accessible on a website and provide information about lessons when requested by parents or principals.
“The department takes its duty of care to students seriously. If an allegation is made against a person providing SRE in a government school, it will be investigated with reasonable action taken to protect students from foreseeable risk of harm,” it said.
“Parents/caregivers seeking information about lesson content for their child’s SRE class, or prospective SRE class, should contact the relevant provider of SRE.
“The NSW Department of Education does not keep a central database of what materials are being used at schools by approved providers.”