Joanne McCarthy –
2 Feb 2017, 9 a.m.

SCRIPTURE in public schools is not an issue about religious views or what you believe about the historical accuracy of the Bible, which is where a lot of the argument seems to settle these days given the heavy involvement of evangelical Christian churches.

The scripture debate is about a more basic issue than that – child protection.

For more than three years the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has considered how institutions – churches, schools, sporting organisations, welfare providers, government departments, police, the justice system – have responded to child sexual abuse.

What can be said today, without any doubt, is that an institution with responsibility for children that fails to make child protection the top priority, is an institution where children are potentially at risk.

As a principle, child protection includes protecting children from sexual, physical and emotional harm.

What we also know from the royal commission is that institutions need to be crystal clear about lines of responsibility when it comes to the care of children. In too many cases we’ve heard evidence from people unclear about their responsibilities, unaware of rules and regulations, unable to obtain information and ultimately, unresponsive to the risks faced by children in their care.

The operation of scripture in NSW today ticks just about every box on that list, which is why I keep writing about it. What is the point of campaigning for a royal commission when we appear to be deaf, dumb and blind to the fundamental messages it is telling us about keeping children safe?

How many parents know that the scripture material their children are taught is not investigated, vetted or approved by the Department of Education? How many parents know the Minister for Education Rob Stokes “does not have the power to control the contents of Special Religious Education (scripture) under the current provisions of the Education Act”?

Without knowing the above, how can we say parents signing their children’s enrolment forms – and remember these are Department of Education forms giving parents the sense that everything involved is approved/endorsed by the department – have given informed consent?

Why is that an important issue? Because under current arrangements responsibility for what parents have signed their children up for, is up to parents. It is parents’ responsibility to contact the scripture provider to find out what their children will be taught.

The provider – and finding who or what that is, is an exercise in itself – will point you to a website with a curriculum framework. Go to the Youthworks website and see its scripture curriculum framework. Then read Newcastle Herald articles about what is actually taught to children, and decide for yourself whether parents are actually able to make an informed consent.

The duty of care for children in public schools ultimately rests with principals. But as has become clear this week, a disturbing number of principals appear unaware that scripture material is not approved or vetted by the department. And that’s ultimately an issue for the department.

Scripture has been in NSW schools for a long time, but the influence of evangelical Christian groups with a strident reliance on long-ago laws to maintain their “right” to have access to children is, as Anglican priest Rod Bower said, “an echo of a bygone era” that needs to be reconsidered.

It will require legislative change. Ultimately this is a test for the NSW Parliament.