This is the third part of a three-part investigation into the presence of ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction in NSW public schools in the form of Special Religious Education (SRE – aka ‘scripture’).
The Sydney Anglican’s John Dickson has claimed that NSW Department of Education-employed teachers will never understand the Bible as well as a ‘middle-aged mum from the local church who’s been reading scripture for decades’.
Rather than risking choosing a ‘rogue’ SRE instructor, and considering Dickson’s acknowledgement that ‘there’s some nuttiness out there’, FIRIS thought the best way of getting a picture of what Dickson has in mind would be to look at the Sydney Anglican’s own Tim Clemens.
Clemens’ curricula Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians must be a prime example of what Dickson means when he talks about ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction, given that they were apparently used by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in SRE up until 2016, and are both still sold by them through their publishing arm, Christian Education Publications.
Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians have been discussed in the first two parts of this blog-series. This part will focus on the concerns and issues FIRIS has regarding the two curricula and the presence of ‘believed-in’ religion in NSW public schools.
Issue 1: The NSW Minister for Education and the NSW Department of Education have no control over the content of ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction
Given the provisions for SRE in Section 32 of the NSW Education Act 1990, the Minister for Education and the Department of Education do not have the power to control the content of SRE (see the letter and email below below.) –
Another letter from the Department states –
Aside from being satisfied the material is authorised, the Minister has no power under the Act to direct what is taught as part of SRE.
This means that the Minister and the Department cannot prevent an SRE provider choosing ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction materials such as Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians, and using them in NSW public schools.
Issue 2: The Anglican Diocese of Sydney, in whatever form (including Youthworks and Christian Education Publications) has no power to control the content of SRE delivered by other providers
Given that the Minister for Education and the Department have no authority over the SRE curricula chosen by providers, it must be the case that SRE providers, curriculum publishers, lobby groups and supposed ‘quality control’ groups (such as All Faiths SRE) also have no authority over (other) SRE providers.
In response to FIRIS’ Facebook posts about Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians, Youthworks wrote –
They went on to amend the post to state that FIRIS’ claims that the two curricula are being used in Stage 4 Anglican SRE are not true. However, the author pointed out to them that they cannot speak for other Anglican Dioceses (as will be demonstrated below). They then wrote –
Issue 3: As long as Christian Education Publications (CEP) continues to sell this material there is the likelihood that the materials will be used in NSW public secondary schools.
The local priest may authorise specific CEP material for use in high school SRE classes. Please note that CEP produce a wide range of materials for use in a number of settings. Only material complying with DoE guidelines, suitable for use in public schools, should be used in SRE classes.
– but how is ‘the local priest’ to know what CEP materials are suitable? What would make them unsuitable? What ‘DoE guidelines’ are the dioceses referring to?
The Special Religious Education Implementation Procedures say only that SRE instructors are to receive training in how ‘to implement the approved provider’s authorised curriculum sensitively and in an age-appropriate manner‘.
The 2019 Annual Assurance requires SRE providers to assure the Department that ‘the special religious education teachers are teaching the curriculum with sensitivity and in an age appropriate manner.’ Note that this is not saying that the curriculum materials must be ‘sensitive’ and ‘age-appropriate’, only that they must be taught in such a manner.
Both Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians say very clearly that they were designed for use in Years 7 and 8 SRE in ‘State’ schools and given that Youthworks claims that the materials remain on sale for private schools, it is clear that Youthworks believes the curriculum materials are age appropriate.
The most important ‘guidelines’ saying how schools are to deal with controversial issues, including religion, and oversee the activities of, and the messages promoted by, ‘visiting speakers’ etc., the Controversial Issues in Schools Policy and its Procedures, do not apply to SRE.
So, it seems that all of the materials sold by CEP for secondary schools may be being used in secondary schools in the two dioceses mentioned above.
This is a fundamental problem created by the provisions for SRE in the NSW Education Act.
Furthermore, in addition to the likelihood that the two curricula are being used based on the information currently available on the websites of the two Anglican Dioceses, FIRIS has also found specific references to Radical Jesus in the curriculum scope and sequence documents of at least one other SRE provider.
The ‘Religion and Ethics‘ page of Rouse Hill High School states –
Special Religious Education classes (SRE) are provided in public schools during school time by authorised representatives of approved religious groups. ‘Kellyville and Rouse Hill Christian Education Employer’ (KARHCEE) and the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta provide SRE at Rouse Hill High School.
Despite the fact that KARHCEE is not an approved SRE provider, and the approved SRE provider is not identified on the school’s website, there is a link provided to the curriculum page of KARHCEE where there is a link to the following document –
Note the following references –
– and note the similarities with the contents page of Radical Jesus –
Issue 4: ‘Believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction as a vehicle for proselytising
John Dickson argues that ‘so long as there is a commitment to education not proselytising‘ adherents to a religion will do a better job at teaching it than professional Department of Education employed teachers.
But here is where it gets really interesting.
There is no statement in the Department of Education’s Procedures that proselytising is not allowed in SRE.
In fact, the Department has informed FIRIS that –
Given that parents/caregivers have indicated their preferred religious persuasion for their child on enrolment, proselytising should not occur in SRE classes.
However, the Department cannot state that only children belonging to the religious persuasion of the SRE instructor are in an SRE classroom. In fact, the Department, at the behest of the SRE lobby on its ‘consultative’ committee, had, since 2015 ensured that intentional omissions in the Procedures and its supporting documents, maximised the chance of children ending up in SRE without express consent (see here and here for more information).
Changes to the enrolment process in 2019 requiring parents to provide express consent are a step in the right direction but FIRIS has serious concerns that the processes are not being implemented correctly or consistently in many schools. FIRIS still sees principals telling parents that all students will be placed in SRE unless there is a written objection.
In addition, John Dickson believes that ‘many without Faith (and so without connection to a church) choose to enrol in SRE, because it is felt that religion is important‘.
Therefore, proselytising is a problem in SRE classrooms and if Tim Clemens’ curriculum Hard Core Christians is an example of what ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instructors do and say in SRE classrooms, John Dickson may have a problem in his own backyard.
One of the main outcomes of the final chapter of Hard Core Christians is to invite the students to start attending a local church. In the Student Handbook, students are asked if they attend church and if they reply ‘no’ they are then asked to say what’s stopping them from trying it out.
Now, is this educational or is this proselytising?
It is interesting to note that the only mention of proselytising in a Department of Education document is in the Other Activities of a Religious Nature in Schools implementation document. In relation to ‘voluntary student activities of a religious nature in schools’ (VSA), such as lunchtime prayer groups, it says –
…students or members of religious persuasions do not engage in attempts to proselytise or convert non-adherents of their religion to their faith during school authorised activities. Proselytising or converting non-adherents refers to behaviours intended to put pressure on students who do not have permission to participate in VSA.
While employed as an SRE instructor at St Ives High School in Sydney, Clemens also led the VSA Jesus Over Lunch Time (JOLT). His JOLT Leadership Manual states –
The Scripture teacher is like a sprinkler, in that he ‘sprays’ the gospel message over every student he comes into contact with. Christian students on the other hand are like cups that ‘pour’ the gospel message directly into the lives of their friends…Students must see it as their responsibility (not the Scripture teacher’s) to invite their ‘gospel-saturated’ friends along to JOLT.
– and –
The leadership of JOLT reﬂects these student driven principles, and so it is the role of the Scripture teacher to oversee and support the students as they reach out to their peers. His role is like that of a coach.
– and –
Finally, there needs to be a culture within JOLT that everyone should go to church. That means if you don’t currently go to church, you should. We want people who are welcomed into the community at JOLT to be convicted of their need to join a church. This will almost deﬁnitely only happen if somebody within JOLT invites them along, and consequently members need to be constantly inviting those people in JOLT who don’t go to church to join them in going along.
In Hard Core Christians Clemens writes –
If you’ve never tried going to a youth group before, ask your teacher if he or she can recommend one. Grab a few friends and go together. Who know? You may actually discover that you really like it!
Parents and caregivers are not informed in any of the documents related to SRE that the NSW Department of Education allows this. In a letter to FIRIS, the Department has stated –
SRE and VSA volunteers may inform the students who participate in that SRE class or VSA group of related extra-curricular activities including local church groups.
Now back to John Dickson.
In the opinion piece mentioned in Part One, Dickson wrote –
None of us wants our children proselytised. That’s a given, and the program was never set up to convert anyone.
However, in the article ‘Schools key to the goal‘, the then-Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney wrote that –
To convert ten per cent of the population, schools ministry must be a priority.
The Archbishop went on to say that –
Schools ministry is a key to the success of our mission and goal. Scripture in public schools and the work of our independent schools must be given high priority. (emphasis added)
– and –
Given all the scripture teaching and the efforts of our church schools, may we not by now have expected a greater inflow of people into our churches? Can we do more? I know that this is a matter of concern to Youthworks and others as well. Is there anything we can do to improve the bridge from school to church?
In the article ‘The forgotten mission field‘, Bryan Cowling, Sydney Anglican and then-Executive Director of the Anglican Education Commission, wrote –
Did you know that within the geographic boundaries of this Diocese there are over 1000 public primary and secondary schools as well as 130 non-Catholic or non-Islamic schools? All told, this represents more than 550,000 students between the ages of 5 and 18; probably some 300,000 families, and over 20,000 teachers…has anyone thought about the connections we already have as Anglicans with this incredible mission field?
It seems that members of the school’s executive at Clemens’ own St Ives High School heard Cowling’s call, declaring the high school a ‘great mission field’ on a video published by the Sydney Anglican church, Christ Church St Ives.
It also needs to be noted that the Dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia in the Province of NSW are members of the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Public Schools (NSW) Inc (ICCOREIS), an SRE lobby group made up of 15 Christian denominations. It should also be noted that the CEO of Youthworks, Mr Craig Roberts is the organisation’s Honorary Treasurer and one of the Representative Members for the Anglican Church of Australia, NSW Province.
ICCOREIS has made its intentions quite clear –
Issue 5: When it comes to SRE curricula, the devil is in the detail
The provisions for SRE in the NSW Education Act 1990 establish a system in which SRE providers are required to self-regulate their behaviour.
The 2015 Review of SRE and SEE in NSW Government Schools noted that –
…the procedures set out what is essentially a form of self-regulation for the delivery of SRE in government schools. Self-regulation in public policy always involves rights and responsibilities. For SRE the rights relate to the ability of SRE providers to access schools, determine teachers and the curriculum. [p. xvi]
– and –
Under the responsibilities of self-regulation, providers also have a responsibility for transparency to parents, the Department, school communities and the wider public, through publication of important information and the provision of regular monitoring. [p. xix]
According to Youthworks, the materials developed by Tim Clemens has been superseded by the curriculum Think Faith.
Given that the Queensland Department of Education and Training’s review of Youthworks/CEP’s Connect was the result of the parents group Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools purchasing the materials and reviewing them, it is unfortunate that Youthworks do not allow parents to purchase access to the Think Faith materials for ‘private use’.
Therefore, FIRIS cannot say whether or not Think Faith contains similar messages to the one’s expressed in Radical Jesus, Hard Core Jesus, or any other of the Jesus Foundation Series materials developed by Tim Clemens.
Education about religion is far too important to be left in the hands of over 10,000 volunteers who expose students to materials and activities the NSW Minister for Education and the Department of Education have no authority over.
Given John Dickson’s insult to the professionalism and capabilities of NSW Department of Education employed teachers, and given the examples of ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathethic’ religious education discussed in the three blogs, it is no wonder that the NSW Teachers’ Federation wants SRE out of NSW Government schools.