All posts by Darrin

Do not rest ‘assured’ that children are safe when scripture instructors walk through public school gates

Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) has released its report containing concerning findings that far-too-many providers of Special Religious Education (SRE, aka ‘scripture’) in NSW public schools are failing to meet NSW Department of Education policy requirements related to child protection and parent/caregiver access to information.

The provisions for SRE in the NSW Education Act 1990 create a system which is self-regulated by providers because the NSW Minister for Education (the Minister) has no authority over the selection and authorisation of SRE instructors, the content of SRE curricula and lessons, or the instruction methods used.

Therefore, when it comes to matters related to child protection and child safety all the Department can do is ask SRE providers to give their word that they have child protection systems in place and that their lesson materials are age-appropriate and are being followed by their instructors. This is done by requiring SRE providers to submit a written Annual Assurance to the Department of Education that:

  • they have procedures to ensure compliance with the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012 and that they:
    • have evidence that instructors approved to teach SRE in public schools have obtained a NSW Working with Children Check (WWCC) clearance
    • keep copies of WWCCs on record.
  • only authorised materials and teaching methods will be used and that:
    • lessons will be taught sensitively and in an age appropriate manner
    • a copy of the age appropriate curriculum and/or the curriculum outline used in schools is provided to the public on a website.
  • a system of accredited initial and ongoing training for volunteer teachers includes training in classroom management and child protection issues is in place.

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In February this year, FIRIS wrote to the Department and, in accordance with the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009, obtained copies of all Annual Assurances submitted to the Department for the 2017 and 2018 school years.

An audit of the Annual Assurances was conducted and found that for the 2017 school year:

  • of the 107 religious organisations included in the Department’s list of approved SRE providers in NSW Government schools (17 January 2017):
    • 3 did not submit an Annual Assurance for the entire 2017 school year yet did not have their approval revoked by the Minister or the Department
    • 23 failed to submit an AA by the due date (27 Jan 2017) and, of these providers, 6 submitted their AA more than five months after the due date
    • 8 did not provide a URL identifying the location of their authorised curriculum in the appropriate space provided on the document.
    • only 4 provided a URL direct to a curriculum outline / scope and sequence document.

For the 2018 school year:

  • of the 107 religious organisations included in the Department’s list of approved SRE providers in NSW Government schools on 24 January 2018:
    • 27 failed to submit an Annual Assurance by the due date (29 January 2018)
    • 45, including three who did not provide a URL at all, did not meet the requirement to provide the online location of information regarding child protection training
    • one provider did not enter a URL in the appropriate space provided on the document for a location of their authorised curriculum
    • only four provided a URL direct to a curriculum outline / scope and sequence document.

The failure of far-too-many providers to lodge an Annual Assurance before the due date at the beginning of both 2017 and 2018, and the omissions and inconsistencies in information demonstrates that far-too-many of the 100-plus providers have little interest in or respect for accountability, and that the current system of self-regulation of SRE is woefully inappropriate, particularly as a significant aspect is compliance with the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012.

That three providers who seemingly failed to lodge an Annual Assurance for 2017 were allowed to provide SRE in NSW Governments throughout the 2017 school year calls into question the efficacy of the annual assurance process.

These findings are also concerning given that both the Department and scripture providers appealed to the annual assurance process in response to a number of the recommendations of the 2015 review into SRE and SEE, in particular those recommendations related to the provision of online curriculum information.

It has been a requirement of the Department’s Religious Education Implementation Procedures (REIPs) since June 2013 that providers of SRE ‘make lesson content accessible on a website or at least provide a program outline and curriculum scope and sequence documents.

In December 2014 the independent reviewers of SRE and Special Education in Ethics (SEE, aka ‘ethics’) commissioned by the Department found that only just 39% of SRE providers had curriculum information accessible on a website.

FIRIS’ first audit in June 2016 also found that 61 of the then 105 providers (58%) did not have the required information available at the web address provided by the Department.

When the Department had this brought to their attention they replied that the information did not need to be at the web address provided by them, but rather just on a website, so since then FIRIS audits have involved simply looking to see if parents can at least find the name of the curriculum being used so they can do an internet search.

In mid-February this year, FIRIS conducted an audit based on the Department’s list of approved providers dated 16 February 2018. This audit identified that of the 107 approved providers, 14 allegedly failed to even identify or mention the curriculum used by their instructors. Of these 14 alleged non-compliant providers, 12 had not been found compliant in any of FIRIS’ four previous audits.

This is not good enough! It seems that the Department has no problems not only not providing a direct link to a provider’s curriculum on their website but also not even ensuring a provider at least mentions which curriculum it uses on its website. In a Schroedinger-esque piece of policy writing, these 14 providers may or may not be fulfilling their obligations, and the Department can dismiss complaints that parents and caregivers have no way to make an informed decision as to whether their children should be exposed to the instructors and the content of the lessons of these 14 providers.

Scripture providers have had over five years to meet the simple requirement to have their curriculum information available on the internet. It must also be noted that FIRIS’ audit did not consider the quality of information provided, which in many cases is extremely inadequate.

With regards to compliance and quality, it is clear that many providers are not interested in ensuring time-poor parents and caregivers can make an informed decision regarding their children’s participation or non-participation in SRE. The independent SRE reviewers ARTD Consultants should not have had to restate the requirement (as one of their recommendations):

All providers to place in the public domain their curriculum scope and sequence and that this be in sufficient detail for parents/ caregivers and schools to be able to understand what is covered in SRE lessons. [Rec. 18]

Despite the Department’s SRE Consultative Committee supporting this recommendation and stating that ‘SRE Providers agree to post on their websites a direct link to the syllabus outlines of SRE Program(s) they authorise for use by their SRE Teachers’, FIRIS’ February 2018 audit found that, out of the 250 links to the 65 different curricula used, only 80 (32%) were directly linked to either a curriculum outline, syllabus outline, or a scope and sequence document.

Even in the case of the most used curriculum, only 4 out of the 53 links provided take parents directly to the curriculum outline. The rest require parents to navigate through the publisher’s main website or other websites, and one even takes parents to a completely different curriculum.

All of the information above calls into question the SRE Consultative Committee’s response to Recommendation 18 that ‘most SRE Providers already comply with this condition of the Annual Assurance Letter to the NSW Department for Education.’

FIRIS’ audits paint a very different picture.

The veracity of the Department’s oft-repeated statement in correspondence to FIRIS that its personnel continue ‘to work closely with providers of SRE in relation to their responsibilities and expectations’ is also highly questionable.

That the Department has little interest in holding SRE providers accountable is demonstrated by the apparent failure to verify the information provided in the Annual Assurances per se, and the failure to withdraw approval to the three providers who failed to submit an annual assurance for the 2017 school year.

In consideration of FIRIS’ findings – of failures of far-too-many SRE providers to meet the simple requirements of the annual assurance process – the NSW public should have little confidence that SRE providers are capable and/or willing to fulfil their obligations in a self-regulating system and that the NSW Department of Education is overseeing and managing child-protection and safety during the time allocated to SRE, and that it is failing to adequately mitigate existing and foreseeable risks of various forms of abuse of NSW public school students.

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Religious education in UK Government-funded Schools is under review

The UK is undertaking to review Religious Education (RE) in UK Government schools.

In the UK, RE is legislated to be provided by all government schools and it is supposed to be a fairly comprehensive programme, teaching the study of different religions, about key religious leaders and religious and moral themes according to local and national guidelines. In reality it is only provided in approximately 75% of schools and in those schools it is often parochial: the curriculum is required to reflect the predominant place of Christianity in UK religious life, so Christianity forms the majority of the content of the subject. Moreover, RE is determined and provided by local ‘Standing Advisory Councils on RE’ aka SACREs.

A preliminary report was published by the REC Council of England and Wales in late 2017.

The same council had published a review in 2013.

A book was recently published titled We Need to Talk about Religious Education

“Although Religious Education (RE) is a legal requirement in UK schools, it is an oft-neglected and misunderstood subject. It is important to seriously re-think this key subject at this time of low religious literacy and rising extremism, to protect communities from the consequences of hatred and misunderstanding. This book promotes a public discussion of what exactly is needed from a new model of RE within our education system to benefit wider society.

“.. It covers the most pressing and urgent issues for RE such as hate speech, educational reform, and the weakening of moderate religious institutions.”

The UK National Secular Society has recently provided commentary and conducted a one day conference on Saturday 14 April 2018.

This article provides commentary on that conference, based on tweets arising via #21RE4All


RE should reflect the real religious landscape: the importance of understanding the “dynamic and changing real religious landscape”, recognising that there is more believing without belonging, and [various] ways of ‘not believing’.

There was reference to “the risks of a narrow knowledge focus to the RE curriculum” and “an accountability structure that emphasises it”. There needs to be a change to the legislation around RE.

One panelist excoriated the arbitrary postcode lottery of [locally determined] syllabuses & the ‘inbuilt religious prejudice’ that [often] provides … if RE can be guaranteed to be objective, critical, and pluralistic then the parental right to withdraw their child from the subject should be removed [withdrawal from RE has increased in recent years, often by Anglo-Saxon parents withdrawing their children from the Islam components of RE].

“RE is labouring under 2 incompatible aims: learning about, and learning from religion. It was argued that they compete with each other and can cancel each other out.”

The focus on learning from religion can make it hard to teach critically about religions. One panelist said that the primary aim should always be understanding of religion & belief, & that pupils’ personal inspiration is not their aim as a teacher

There was reference to worldview literacy, rather than religious literacy: there should be a national entitlement for all pupils to an objective education about worldviews

High quality RE … does take place in many classrooms, but there are too many where it doesn’t … that’s why there needs to be a national entitlement for RE for all pupils in all schools

RE should be taken out of the hands of faith & secular belief communities in order to uphold its legitimacy (RE is increasingly being controlled and dominated by faith communities).

Prompts for table discussions –

      Image: c/o Rudi Eliott Lockhart @ThisisRudi

AC Grayling gave a keynote speech calling for teaching about “the history of ideas”.

There was the comment that ‘Good RE already uses the discipline of history (along with sociology, anthropology, philosophy, theology, at al.)’.  And reference Western-centric history of ideas, and ‘how then should we approach non-Western traditions[?]’

Reference to more great prompts, c/o Rudi Eliott Lockhart, CEO of Religious Education Council; “Where should RE fit in the curriculum & what should pupils learn about freedom of/from religion?”

One thing that was brought up in the table discussions was a necessity to teach [not necessarily in RE, but in PSHE/citizenship] the basis of [discussing] ideas, not the people that hold them: [to] get it in a respectable academic structure.

 Image: c/o Rudi Eliott Lockhart @ThisisRudi

Scripture in NSW public schools is not a ‘celebration of diversity’

In recognition of Harmony Day FIRIS would like to take the opportunity to remind parents and caregivers of children in NSW public schools, that special religious education (SRE – aka ‘scripture’) is not, as the scripture lobby would like them to believe, a ‘celebration of diversity’.

SRE is defined as ‘education in the beliefs and practices of an approved religious persuasion by authorised representatives of that persuasion.’

During the time allocated to SRE, students participating in SRE are separated from non-participating students, divided up and provided with faith instruction from a single religious persuasion or denomination or from a combined arrangement made up of various denominations. This faith instruction is not, and cannot be, provided by on-duty NSW Department of Education-employed teachers. It is provided by paid or unpaid representatives of religious organisations solely authorised by those organisations. The Department also has no say in what is taught or how it is taught.

Close to 90% of the 100+ religious organisations approved by the NSW Minister for Education to provide scripture in NSW schools are Christian. The 2015 independent review of scripture and ethics stated that of the 11,418 SRE instructors reportedly entering NSW public schools over 90% were Christian.

It is important that parents and caregivers do not confuse SRE with ‘general religious education’ (GRE). GRE is ‘education about the world’s major religions, what people believe and how that belief affects their lives’. It is taught mainly through the authorised school curriculum by Department of Education-employed teachers in an inclusive classroom setting.

But if there was any doubt that the scripture lobby’s claim that the divisive system of SRE is a ‘celebration of diversity’ is nonsense and a classic example of Orwellian 1984-esque ‘double-speak’, meet Pastor Keith Piper of Liberty Baptist Church.

Liberty Baptist Church is approved by the Minister for Education to provide SRE in NSW public schools.

Pastor Piper has also been a candidate for Reverend Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party in past NSW State elections.

Here is Pastor Piper speaking at the ‘Stop the Islamic School Rally’ in Penrith’ in May 2017.

Another YouTube video, his presentation ‘Incompatibility of Islam & Christian / Western values’ at an Australian Christian Nation Association’s forum (apparently hosted by Fred Nile in 2016), has been removed for violating YouTube’s policy on violent or graphic content.

FIRIS’ concerns after viewing the website of Liberty Baptist Church and the YouTube videos mentioned above, formed the basis of a complaint to the Minister for Education regarding the ongoing approval for Liberty Baptist Church to provide SRE in NSW Government schools. FIRIS questioned such approval given Pastor Piper’s activities and the messages promoted by him in the context of the Multicultural NSW Act 2000 and numerous Department of Education frameworks, policies and procedures, including the Values in NSW Public Schools Policy, the Multicultural Education Policy, the Controversial Issues in Schools Policy, the Community Use of School Facilities Policy, and the Wellbeing Framework.

See below for a copy of FIRIS’ letter to the Minister.

Please note that some screenshots from Pastor Piper’s ‘Incompatibility of Islam & Christian / Western values’ presentation included in this letter to the Minister have been censored due to their graphic and violent content, including beheadings, executions, and female circumcision. However, in order for readers to have an idea of the content of the images used in Pastor Piper’s YouTube video, the censoring is kept to a minimum, and therefore FIRIS still feels that it is necessary to warn readers to exercise their own discretion before viewing page seven (7) of the letter to the Minister.

Download (PDF, 816KB)

SRE apologists might try and defend Liberty Baptist Church by claiming that what Mr Piper thinks is not a problem because its SRE instructors are required to follow the SRE curricula authorised by Liberty Baptist Church, including the Sydney Anglican’s Connect curriculum. However, the problem with Liberty Baptist Church’s approval to provide SRE to NSW public school students is what the Department does not tell parents and caregivers is allowed to occur during SRE lessons.

The following statement was provided to FIRIS by the Director responsible for SRE:

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.

This statement does not seem to be present in any documents published by the Department related to the provision of SRE. This fact in itself demonstrates a profound lack of respect by the Department for the rights of parents and caregivers to informed choice and decision making.

In consideration of the messages their children might be exposed to by attending extra-curricular activities provided by Liberty Baptist Church, the Minister’s approval for Liberty Baptist Church to use NSW public schools as a means to attract young people to his church should be of grave concern to parents and caregivers.

Furthermore, the foreseeable risk that representatives of Liberty Baptist Church will not stick to the curriculum is high given that it has been reported that Pastor Piper was asked to stop teaching religion classes at Macarthur Girls High School in Sydney’s west in 2005 after a Muslim student complained about his comments on the Quran.

However, in the longstanding tradition of the Department of Education’s underachieving in the area of risk management when it comes to SRE, despite the information presented to the Minister regarding the activities of Pastor Piper, his departmental representative responded by stating: –

Liberty Baptist Church is an approved provider and has met the current requirements to maintain approval.

In doing so, the Minister and his Department have clearly demonstrated that the provisions for scripture in the NSW Education Act 1990, dating back to at least 1880, create a black hole in the NSW public education system where the spirit, principles and standards of other pieces of legislation, such as the Multicultural NSW Act 2000, and the Department’s own frameworks, policies and procedures are suspended or intentionally ignored in order to retain SRE in NSW Government schools.

It is time for the Minister to stop placing the self-interests of religious organisations over and above his duty of care to all NSW public school students.

It is time for him to pull his head out of the 1800s and to bring an approach to inclusive religious education developed by accountable education professionals which is appropriate to Australia’s 21st Century multicultural and multi-belief society.

Objecting to scripture is not as easy as made out to be

At the beginning of each school year, the allocation process for special religious education (SRE; scripture) becomes an issue for parents, caregivers and schools.

As seen in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article regarding Maclean High School procedures for opting out are often not applied properly. More often than not, poor compliance with policies and procedures comes at the expense of the rights of students and parents belonging to minority faiths and those who have non-religious beliefs.

In consideration of the self-regulatory nature of scripture in NSW, schools should ensure that students are properly categorised and placed in the right class based on information provided to the school by parents and caregivers.

Section 32(2) Education Act 1990 states-

The religious education to be given to children of any religious persuasion is to be given by a member of the clergy or other religious teacher of that persuasion authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs.

The main way the school identifies the religious persuasion of a child is using the information provided in the Application to enrol in a NSW Government school (the enrolment form).



It is concerning when it becomes evident that religious organisations involved in SRE in NSW public schools either do not understand the Department’s enrolment procedures for SRE or intentionally misrepresent them.

One worrying example is a Facebook post published on 30 January 2018 by ourSRE, a Generate Ministries support program for SRE instructors and ‘combined arrangements’ (a group of churches coming together to offer SRE).


That this post is being further shared by ourSRE supported combined arrangements who also are intent on presenting enrolling or not enrolling in SRE as a simple process, is evident in the following post from Campbelltown Area High Schools Ministry: –

Parents and caregivers deserve better information than what ourSRE and CAHSM seem prepared or able to provide.

So let’s have a look at the ourSRE post: what it says about enrolling a child in SRE is, prima facie, correct.

The Department’s Religious Education Implementation Procedures (the Procedures) state:

Where a religious persuasion was nominated on enrolment, the student is enrolled in a special religious education class of the religious persuasion identified on the student’s enrolment record.

If a parent writes a religious persuasion, for example, Baha’i, or a denomination, such as ‘Baptist’, in the lilac box, and that religious persuasion or denomination is available as an SRE option at the school, students are to be placed in the appropriate SRE class. That is, if ‘Baha’i’ is written and Baha’i SRE is available, the student should be enrolled in that class, or if ‘Baptist’ is entered and Baptist SRE is an available option at the school either by a single SRE Baptist SRE provider or as part of a combined arrangement of which a Baptist SRE provider or authorised church is a member then the student should be placed in that SRE class.

However, if Baha’i or Baptist SRE are not available options at the school, including if a Baptist SRE provider is not part of a combined arrangement providing SRE at the school, or if a parent writes ‘Christian’ (as suggested by HunterSRE below), the child should not be placed in any SRE class on the basis of the enrolment form.

That parents need to provide the school with specific information about the religious persuasion or denomination of the child, or provide separate written consent for their child to attend the SRE provided by another religious persuasion, is made clear in the context of combined arrangements.

The Procedures state: –

In a combined arrangement only those students whose parents/ caregivers have nominated them to attend SRE classes of one of the participating religious persuasions are to be included. (emphasis added)

This means that if a combined arrangement is only made up of a few providers, only students who have the religious persuasion (ie. denomination) of those providers declared on their enrolment form should automatically be placed in the SRE class provided by that combined arrangement. For example, the combined arrangement at Maclean High School is only made up of Baptist and Presbyterian providers, so only students who have ‘Baptist’ or ‘Presbyterian’ on their enrolment form should automatically be placed in the SRE class run by the SRE instructor employed by the combined arrangement.

Combined arrangements are very specific and children that are not of the religious persuasions part of the arrangement should not be dumped in classes provided by such combined arrangements for any reason, such as administrative and logistical convenience.  There are 20+ Christian religious persuasions on the Department’s list of approved providers and a combined arrangement could be 2 or more of any of these and differ from school to school.

So, given that the Procedures state:

Where …the nominated religious persuasion is not available as a special religious education program at the school, parents/caregivers are asked to complete a special religious education preference form which outlines all special religious education options available at the school.

Parents/caregivers have the right to choose any of the special religious education options available or to choose nonspecial religious education.

and given that principals should not make any assumptions about a parent or caregiver’s wishes, if a religious persuasion is written which has more than one denomination providing SRE in NSW Government schools, for example, ‘Christian’, the parent or caregivers should be sent the ‘special religious education preference form’.

The template ‘sre preference form/letter’ made available by the Department is available here.

Let’s now consider ourSRE‘s advice to parents who do not want their children to participate in SRE.

OurSRE seems to be saying that if a parent or caregiver does not want their child placed in an SRE class, it is simply a matter of leaving the box blank or writing something like ‘No, thank you’.

But it is not as simple as that, and ourSRE should, or do, know it is not.

The Procedures state:

Where a religious persuasion was not nominated on enrolment…parents/caregivers are asked to complete a special religious education preference form which outlines all special religious education options available at the school.

Parents/caregivers have the right to choose any of the special religious education options available or to choose nonspecial religious education.

So what ourSRE fails to mention is that if the box on the enrolment form is left blank despite parents and caregivers being told that filling it in is optional, parents should be sent the ‘SRE preference form’.

Even if a parent or caregiver writes ‘no religion’ in response to the request on the enrolment form ‘Please identify the student’s religion if you want the student to participate in SRE’  schools are instructed to send those parents and caregivers the ‘SRE preference form’, thereby giving SRE providers a second bite of the cherry.

Now this is where it gets very interesting and what follows might be the very reason why ourSRE want to make it seem simple to parents and caregivers.

There is no clear direction by the NSW Dept of Education to schools on what is supposed to happen if the SRE preference form/letter is not returned, is returned blank, or without clear parental directions.

The Procedures used to contain the statement

Where a religious persuasion was not nominated [on enrolment], the student is placed in alternative activities.

but it was removed in December 2014 and since August 2015 the Department has been asked to fill this gap in policy and they have chosen not to.

Furthermore, the minutes of the Department’s Consultative Committee for Special Religious Education (the Committee) make it very clear that the religious organisations on the Committee want students who do not return the SRE preference form or return it blank, placed in the SRE class ‘deemed most suitable’ (see image below).

The enrolment process is now a game of ‘guess or simply assign a religious persuasion’ and put a child into SRE without the consent of the parent!


So it seems the Minister and his Department are content to allow a situation geared towards maximising the numbers of students in SRE without explicit parent consent even if that means breaching Section 32(2) of the NSW Education Act 1990.

On the other hand, FIRIS knows that this is exactly what the SRE lobby want and this is why we do not believe Generate Ministries’ general manager’s reported statement:

The last thing we want is kids in classes whose parents don’t want them there.

and this is why FIRIS declares the ourSRE post a deliberate fail to tell the whole story.