In a ChristianSRE press release earlier this year, the organisation’s CEO Murray Norman claimed that ChristianSRE had evidence that some NSW public schools have been failing to follow the new enrolment process for SRE, thereby potentially ‘robbing‘ parents of the choice of SRE. He stated –
If a parent doesn’t want religious education for their child that’s their choice. However, if they didn’t even have the opportunity to choose because they weren’t provided with a form, the school has denied them that right by stealth…We are calling on all schools to make sure the correct forms are provided to each parent, not left on a counter or stuffed in a child’s school bag. Furthermore, schools need to be proactive in chasing up forms not returned. (emphasis added)
Like ChristianSRE, FIRIS wants schools to follow the new enrolment processes for SRE, Special Education in Ethics (SEE) and ‘alternative meaningful activities’ (AMA – aka ‘non-scripture’).
Unlike ChristianSRE, FIRIS is quite prepared to share evidence to back up our claims that schools are failing miserably to do so.
Since March this year FIRIS has been conducting audits of NSW public primary and secondary school websites in order to find out if schools are following the 2019 Special Religious Education Procedures correctly.
For example, schools were made aware in December 2017 that by the beginning of Term 1 2019 their websites were to provide links to the approved SRE providers’ authorised curriculum scope and sequence documents.
However, audits of the websites of primary and secondary schools in the Metropolitan North (Sydney) and Regional North (Hunter) school districts in February this year found that –
- of the 486 primary school websites visited, less than 8 (1.64%) contained the required links to the curriculum scope and sequence information of the relevant SRE curricula.
- of the 116 secondary school websites visited, only 7 (6%) had links to curriculum scope and sequences.
Now whether this can be regarded as ‘robbing’ parents and carers of their right to information, FIRIS will leave it up to the reader to decide.
Further comprehensive audits of secondary schools in Metropolitan North and primary schools in Rural North in August to October, have yielded more results giving rise to little faith that the right of parents/carers to make an informed choice is being respected by schools or that the new enrolment process for 2019 has been implemented correctly.
A prime example is Castle Hill High School (CHHS) in the Metropolitan North school district.
Provision of general information about SRE, SEE and AMA
The Procedures and the supporting documents state that if a Government school offers SRE its website is to contain general information about SRE, SEE and AMA on the ‘Learning at our school’ page.
The ‘Religion and ethics‘ page on CHHS’ ‘Learning at our school’ page states –
Special Religious Education (SRE) will be provided for students in Year 7 – 10. The seminars are organised by the Australian Christian Churches, operating as Castle Hill Christian Education Association, which is a collective of local churches.
– and provides the following links –
However, the ‘Religion and ethics’ page provides no information about AMA so parents/carers are not made aware of the alternative option/s for students who do not take part in SRE.
But wait – there’s more information regarding SRE on the ‘CHHS Scripture Organisation‘ page.
On this page, parents and carers are informed that scripture seminars are organised at least once a term for students in Years 7, 8, 9 and 10. They are also told that scripture is co-ordinated by a person employed by the local churches who is on the school site three days a week. The page states –
The Scripture Co-ordinator is located in the Library, organises the teachers of Scripture, oversees the content of classes and acts as a general pastoral care contact for all students. The Scripture Co-ordinator acts in conjunction with Welfare personnel attending school social activities, school camps, and liaising with the staff at staff meetings.
However, once again, no mention is made of AMA.
Links to the approved providers’ curriculum scope and sequence(s)
As mentioned above, the Procedures and the supporting documents state that if a Government school offers SRE its website is to contain links to the approved providers’ authorised curriculum scope and sequence(s).
A direct link is provided to the scope and sequence document of the SRE curriculum used at the school (see image below).
However, it should be noted that the Procedures state that curriculum scope and sequence documents should have “sufficient detail for parents/caregivers and schools to be able to understand what is covered in SRE lessons.”
FIRIS will leave it up to the reader to decide whether the scope and sequence document above fulfills this requirement.
The SRE Participation Letter
In 2019, the ‘SRE and SEE Participation’ became available for use as the means of enrolling students in SRE, SEE or neither, rather than the religion question on the general enrolment form, the ‘Application to enrol in a NSW Government school’. In February 2019, the SRE question was removed completely from the form, so in 2020, the ‘SRE and SEE Participation Letter’ will be the sole means of enrolling a student in SRE, SEE (if available) or AMA.
Regarding the participation letter, the Department’s ‘SRE and SEE Flowchart’ (November 2018) states –
The participation letter needs to be updated with the name of the approved provider(s) working in their school. If a combined arrangement, the school needs to make it clear which approved providers are involved. (emphasis added)
The CHHS ‘Special Religious Education (SRE) Participation Letter‘ linked to the school’s ‘Religion and ethics’ page fails to include all of the approved providers involved in the combined arrangement at the school (see image below).
Similar to the information provided on the ‘Religion and ethics’ page, it is simply stated that ‘SRE is organised by the Australian Christian Churches, operating at Castle Hill Christian Education Association, which is a collective of local churches‘.
However, despite mentioning the approved provider Australian Christian Churches, the school fails to identify on the SRE Participation Letter all of the approved SRE providers forming the combined arrangement.
It also needs to be noted that ‘Castle Hill Christian Education Association’ is not an approved provider of SRE in NSW Government schools and that the association may not be the same as the combined arrangement.
The letter also provides the option – ‘Please check this box if you do not wish for your child to attend SRE. Your child will participate in alternative meaning activities.’
However, note that the letter makes no mention of what will occur if the letter is not returned to the school.
This is where it gets very interesting.
The ‘tucked-away’ SRE Participation Letter
The letter stated –
If you do not want your child to take part in SRE for 2019, please complete the information below, and have your child return it to the box outside Ms Dane’s (Deputy Principal) office by 1st March 2019. Those students not participating in SRE will be supervised by a classroom teacher during SRE seminar time.
If the information below is not provided to the school, we will assume that you are comfortable with your child attending SRE during 2019.
However, this is a clear violation of the Procedures as described in its supporting documents.
The Department’s ‘SRE and SEE Flowchart’ (November 2018) states –
If the student starts school before the return of the participation letter, the student is to participate in alternative meaningful activities pending a response.
– and the Department’s ‘Principal Checklist – SRE & SEE’ (December 2018) states –
Update the SRE and SEE Participation letter with the name of the approved provider(s) working in their school and ensure it is given to parents/carers in the enrolment pack or at the time of enrolment. Students participate in alternative meaningful activities pending a response and principals make all reasonable attempts to receive a response from parent/carers and keep the written response on file. (emphasis added)
Now given that the tucked away letter reveals the high likelihood that CHHS has been placing students in SRE without the express consent of parents and carers, a reasonable member of the NSW public may think that the adjective ‘stealthily’ may be quite apt here.
More concerning, however, not only is this letter evidence that the school failing to follow the Procedures, it is also a clear indication that the Directorate responsible for the provision of SRE is failing to monitor what is going on in schools and thereby rendering its own policies and procedures worthless. The findings of FIRIS’ audits make it clear that the Directorate’s frequent reply to our complaints, that is, that principals are responsible for the implementation of policy at the school level, obviously includes the option of ignoring them without consequences.
This breach of the Procedures may go some way to explaining why CHHS had the abnormally high SRE attendance rate of 84% in 2019 as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald in July this year, particularly given that in 2018, of the 1724 students at CHHS, 398 students (23.1%) had ‘no religion’ declared on their enrolment form, 292 students (17%) did not make their choices known and 223 (13%) students belonged to non-Christian religions.