All posts by Darrin

Cherrybrook Technology High School – Special Religious Education Report Card – FAIL

In the second of FIRIS’ Special Religious Education (SRE) School Report Cards, Cherrybrook Technology High School (CTHS) gets an ‘F’ for failing to demonstrate to the citizens of NSW a respect for the rights of students and their parents / caregivers as well as a respect for the secular nature of NSW public schools.

Respect for choice – F

CTHS states clearly in the note sent home to parents in Semester 1, 2018 –

All students attend Christian Studies lessons unless their parents requests that their child not do so.

As in the case of Chatswood High School, CTHS’ statement is at odds with ChristianSRE’s smoke-screen claim that SRE is ‘opt-in’ and that no child is in scripture without permission from parents.

The members of the scripture lobby making this disingenuous claim know full well that the current Religious Education Implementation Procedures (the Procedures) and all of its supporting documents, including the flowchart mentioned in the image above, currently enable principals to make the SRE enrolment process work on an ‘opt-out’ basis. CTHS is able to state the above without breaching the Procedures and this is exactly what the scripture lobby have wished for.

The history of the amendments to the Procedures make it very clear that the claim that ‘parental choice is necessary for any child to attend SRE’ is grossly misleading given that the current enrolment process dismisses a declaration of ‘no religion’  and then subjects those parents and caregivers to an intentionally flawed process aimed at maximising the chance that a child ends up in scripture without informed and express consent.

Therefore, to try and protect the rights of all students, in July this year FIRIS sent to the principal of every public school principal in NSW, including the principal of CTHS, an important statement from the Minister (intentionally omitted from the Procedures), that directs schools to provide the children of parents who have not made their express wishes known with alternative activities to scripture. FIRIS amended the Department’s enrolment flowchart so it was aligned with the Minister’s statement, something that the both the Minister and the Department have refused to do.

FIRIS will be watching whether the principal of Cherrybrook Technology High School does better next year.

Respect for parents’ rights to information – F

The current Procedures state –

Parents/caregivers have the right to know how special religious education will be organised each year and which
religious organisations will deliver it.

This information is provided through enrolment information, the school website and school newsletter. 

FIRIS has not found any information available to the public regarding scripture on the CTHS website or in any of the 32 newsletters released by the school in 2018.

Honesty and integrity – F

Taking pages from the ‘how-to-embed-scripture-in-NSW-public-schools-and-blur-the-boundaries-between-evangelists-and-professional-teachers’ guidelines written by the scripture pressure-group, the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools Inc. (ICCOREIS), CTHS, like Chatswood High School, has no problems blurring the boundaries between the scripture instructor at CTHS and professional educators.

Rather than ensuring that parents and caregivers are provided with clear information using names and terms used in the Religious Education Policy and the Procedures, it seems that the principal of CTHS has no problem with the SRE instructor, Mr Peter Murphy, referring to SRE as ‘Christian Studies’, and to himself as the ‘Christian Studies Teacher’.

The following images from CTHS’ Moodle site seem to demonstrate the failure of CTHS to present SRE in an honest way –

 

 

Given that Mr Murhpy has been provided with a Department of Education email address and given the lack of information available to the public on the internet regarding SRE and Mr Murphy, FIRIS has concerns regarding the extent to which Mr Murphy may be fulfilling ICCOREIS’ aim that he become a ‘fixture’ at the school.

A parent or caregiver of a child attending CTHS might be excused for confusing Mr Murphy for a professional teacher employed by the Department to teach a subject developed by the state government education board, NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA).

But that he is not!

Transparency and accountability – F

As stated above, parents have the right to information regarding SRE and this information should be provided in enrolment information, in school newsletters and on the school’s website.

In addition, the Procedures state –

It is the responsibility of the school to ensure parents/caregivers and the wider community are aware of special religious
education and alternative activities offered at the school.

Any changes to special religious education, alternative activities or special education in ethics options should be
communicated to the school community.

FIRIS has not found any information regarding SRE available to the wider community on the CTHS website or in any of the 32 newsletter released so far in 2018. Members of the wider community cannot determine who the approved SRE providers are responsible for SRE at CTHS.

The note sent home to parents and caregivers identifies Pennant Hills & Cherrybrook Christian Education Association (PHCCEA) as the providers of ‘Christian Studies’ at CTHS.

However, PHCCEA is not an approved provider of SRE. Furthermore, based on statements made by the Department and Generate Ministries, parents and caregivers of students at CTHS, and the wider community, cannot assume PHCCEA is the ‘combined arrangement’ (as mentioned in the Procedures) responsible for the supply of Mr Murphy to CTHS. .

Some of the background to the issues related to ‘combined arrangements’ are pointed out in the SRE Report Card for Chatswood High School.

FIRIS has found no information regarding the combined arrangement/s responsible for the delivery of SRE at CTHS on the school’s website or in any of its 2018 newsletters.

The note sent home to parents and caregivers by Mr Murphy does not identify the approved provider/s making up the combined arrangement at CTHS. Furthermore, the note does not identify, the approved provider/s responsible for –

  • authorising the SRE instructor (Mr Murphy) at CTHS
  • monitoring the Working With Children Check clearance of the SRE instructor (Mr Murphy) at CTHS
  • authorising the SRE curriculum used at CTHS.

The note also does not provide information about how parents and caregivers can locate and access the approved curriculum’s outline and its scope and sequence documents. It seems that if parents and caregivers want information they must ring or email Mr Murphy.

However, over the last two years, FIRIS has found it very difficult to obtain information regarding combined arrangements from various schools throughout NSW, the Department of Education and others, such as Generate Ministries.

On 13 September 2018 FIRIS wrote to the Director, Early Learning and Primary Education (the Director responsible for monitoring the provision of SRE) requesting information about the combined arrangement at CTHS –

Download (PDF, 106KB)

On 2 October 2018 FIRIS received the following answer –

Download (PDF, 312KB)

In response to the perceived lack of appropriate responses to the six specific questions, FIRIS has lodged a complaint with the Executive Director, Learning and Teaching –

Download (PDF, 212KB)

This complaint is currently under investigation.

On 16 October 2018 FIRIS also wrote to the principal of CTHS –

Download (PDF, 104KB)

FIRIS has not received any response from the principal and on 12 November 2018 FIRIS lodged a complaint with the Director, Educational Leadership responsible for CTHS.

Download (PDF, 135KB)

At this point in time, FIRIS has not received a response from the Director.

In consideration of the above correspondence, and all other previous correspondence with the Department and other stakeholders, FIRIS suspects that no one knows what the hell is going on or if they do, they have no interest in fulfilling an important obligation of stakeholders in self-regulating systems, that is, transparency to the public.

It seems that the Procedures’ nebulous concept of ‘combined arrangements’ enables a ‘confusopoly’ readily exploited by Christian churches and organisations and a system in which responsibility and accountability can easily be avoided.

Although FIRIS is aware that PHCCEA is not an approved provider of SRE and that it is most likely not to be regarded as the combined arrangement, it needs to be noted that the website of PHCCEA does not identify itself clearly as the ‘combined arrangement’ and the association does not identify the approved providers making up the combined arrangement responsible for the delivery of SRE at CTHS. Furthermore, it does not even identify the local churches making up PHCCEA.

Information regarding PHCCEA on Generate Ministries’ ourSRE website identifies 13 ‘supporting churches’ from up to seven Christian denominations, but as Generate Ministries have been quick to point out, this information cannot be used to try and determine whether CTHS or approved providers are adhering to the Department’s Procedures.

As stated in the Chatswood High School Report Card, if no one knows what is going on, the Department is at risk of not fulfilling its duty of care to all NSW public school students.

Despite our best efforts, FIRIS has been unable to determine which approved provider/s

  • authorise/s Mr Murphy to be the SRE instructor at CTHS
  • is/are accountable to child protection legislation, particularly the monitoring of Mr Murphy’s Working with Children Check clearance
  • is/are responsible for handling complaints regarding Mr Murphy
  • is/are are accountable to the Department.

Despite the fact that the SRE curriculum authorised by the relevant approved provider/s is not identified

  • in the note sent home to parents/caregivers
  • on the publicly accessible areas of the CTHS website
  • in any of the 32 newsletters released so far in 2018

– the PHCCEA website does identify and provide a link to the SRE curriculum.

For once, parents, caregivers and the wider community are given some important information. The curriculum document identifies that the curriculum was authorised in 2013 by the Baptist Union of NSW, an approved provider of SRE in NSW, under the delegated authority of the Pastor of Pennant Hills Baptist Church.

So, it seems that parents and caregivers can assume that the combined arrangement is made up of, at least, the Baptist Union of NSW.

Now, apart from the duty of care of principals to ensure only authorised personnel are accessing NSW public school students, and in consideration of the risks associated with the messages promoted in SRE, principals also have a duty of care to ensure that only the children of parents and caregivers belonging to the ‘religious persuasion’ of the members of the combined arrangement are enrolled in SRE.

The current 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.

In 2018, there were 1986 students enrolled at CTHS.

Given the absence of any other available information FIRIS will once again assume that the denominations identified on the ourSRE website are possibly approved providers forming part of the combined arrangement, in addition to the Baptist Union of NSW.

The 2018 enrolment data for CTHS indicates the following declarations –

  • 225 Anglican
  • 290 Catholic
  • 34 Protestant
  • 24 Baptist
  • 34 Presbyterian
  • 83 Uniting

Enrolment data does indicates that 151 students were enrolled as ‘Christian (Other)’ but, according to the Procedures, these students should not be enrolled without knowledge of which specific Christian denomination the students belong to.

Based on the enrolment figures above, FIRIS estimates that the maximum number of students who should be enrolled in SRE at CTHS is 841 (approx. 42% of school population).

According to the the PHCCEA website, Mr Murphy and the SRE instructor at Pennant Hills High School have ‘fortnightly contact with about 3000 students’, however FIRIS hopes that this is reference to casual contact with the total student population and not to actual SRE participation figures. FIRIS is aware that some high schools have claimed SRE attendance figures of between 90-100%.

Regardless, given CTHS’ ‘opt-out’ enrolment process, FIRIS has concerns that far-too-many of the students attending scripture lessons provided by Mr Murphy are most likely there without the express and informed consent of parents and caregivers. FIRIS finds the following 2011 comment from Mr Murphy in as further grounds for concerns that all is not right at CTHS –

For many students, coming from families of other faiths or no religious belief, Christian Studies classes provide them with their first real opportunity to explore and examine the claims of Christianity.

It should be noted that in 2018 there were the following numbers of non-Christian enrolments at CTHS

  • 333 ‘no religion’
  • 163 ‘unknown’
  • 13 ‘not stated’
  • 289 Hindu
  • 114 Buddhist
  • 123 Muslim

FIRIS finds very suspect the claims by the scripture lobby that the parents of these children are making a choice to have their children attend Christian SRE.

Unfortunately, the Department refuses to collect actual participation figures despite two independent reviews recommending that they do so. Therefore, it is not possible to make any definitive statement about how many of the above cohort of students have ended up in SRE.

Protection of the secular nature of NSW public schools

As in the case of Chatswood High School, the seeming failure of CTHS to act with honesty and integrity may easily be regarded by a reasonable member of the NSW public as an intentional failure to preserve the secular nature of NSW Government schools.

When it comes to preventing NSW public schools serving as ‘mission fields’ for Christian churches, CTHS also gets an ‘F’.

PHCCEA is identified as a ‘link missionary’ on the website of St Matthews Anglican Church (West Pennant Hills).

PHCCEA is also identified as a ‘mission’ of Cherrybrook Anglican Church.

In 2012, the chairman of PHCCEA stated that

students need to know Christ!

In 2012 the PHCCEA Secretary stated –

Our motivation comes from the fact that we know that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17). We know, from our own experience, the transforming power of the Gospel, and this compels us to make the most of the opportunity we have been provided to share the message of salvation through Jesus Christ with the more than 3,000 students who attend Christian Studies classes at Pennant Hills High School and Cherrybrook Technology High School each fortnight.

In 2013, a past chairperson of PHCCEA and the then Vice President of the Pennant Hills High School P&C said –

…do you believe that we, the church, have been entrusted to make known the good news of Jesus? Do you believe that by ourselves we are separated from God, dead in our transgression and sin, without hope and without God in the world? Do you believe that God, at his initiative, because of his great love for us, has acted to bridge the gap created by our sin and rebellion that keeps us from him? Do you believe that when Jesus said ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me?’, that he meant it? Do you believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is very good news; as the old hymn says ‘strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow’? Do you believe that knowing Jesus is transformative and glorious? I do. I really do.

Well then if you believe that, then you must also believe that those who live in our community need to hear this good news about Jesus? Of course some will misunderstand and many will reject our message, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the basic message of the Christian faith is still good news that we have a responsibility to share. I think we all believe this because I’m sure your church talks regularly about mission and community engagement. What’s more, I’m sure that we all have a passion to share this good news with young people who today are confronted with so many choices and competing world  views. Don’t we want the young people in our community, amidst all the noise and competing voices, to hear clearly the good news of Jesus? 

OK. Let me ask, do you believe that the Special Religious Education (SRE) provisions in NSW are not just good public policy, but a wonderful opportunity to share the basics of the Christian faith in our local public high schools?…We must make the most of the opportunity provided for us to teach the basics of the Christian faith in our public high schools. We must not let this privilege slip through our hands through indifference...

We must never let it fail.

It is such an outstanding opportunity for mission in our local area, within our community. 

In 2013 the chairman of PHCCEA, Mr Gavin Poole, proclaimed –

It’s too easy! The local schools invite the local churches to teach the Scriptures to their students once a week. All that is asked is that the content of the classes be authorised by the relevant religious body. There is no impediment, a few common sense guidelines and access is not only allowed but encouraged. It has to be the one of the best provisions given to churches in NSW. Through, cooperation, organisation, generosity and hard work the opportunity is grasped with both hands. [emphasis added]

Final comment

For ensuring that ‘it’s too easy’ for evangelists to turn NSW secular public schools into ‘mission fields’ for Christian churches, CTHS gets a resounding ‘F’.

Chatswood High School- SRE Report Card – FAIL

In the first of FIRIS’ NSW School Report Cards, Chatswood High School (CHS) gets an overall resounding ‘F’ for being a prime example of everything that is wrong about Special Religious Education (‘SRE’ aka ‘scripture’) in NSW public schools.

Respect for Choice

When it comes to implementing NSW Department of Education (the Department) policies and procedures in a way which ensures the rights and choices of all parents are respected, CHS gets an ‘F’.

Despite the smoke-screen mantra chanted by ChristianSRE and other SRE apologists that the choices of all parents are respected and that SRE is ‘opt-in’, CHS states clearly on its website and in the scripture letter parents have to complete –

Where a withdrawal form is not returned, the school will include your child in Christian SRE. 

Surely, after reading this statement, a reasonable member of the NSW public would be justified in concluding that CHS  regards enrolment in scripture as an ‘opt-out’ process?

In fact, this is exactly what the scripture lobby have wanted, as seen by in the following document, tabled by ChristianSRE’s Mr Murray Norman at the 11 November 2014 meeting of the Department’s SRE ‘Consultative’ Committee, obtained using freedom of information legislation –

It is most likely that the following of such a procedure at CHS in 2018 resulted in far-too-many violations of a child’s right not to be instructed in a religious belief contrary to the wishes of their parents, but it seems that the Minister, the Department, and the scripture lobby have no problems with that. After all, in our supposedly ‘Judaeo-Christian’ society what does it matter if the rights of those belonging to minority religions or those who have non-religious beliefs are trampled on.

As one Newcastle Anglican Reverend and scripture instructor has said about the current enrolment process – SRE for the win.

However, CHS’ statement is contrary to information provided by the NSW Minister for Education (the Minister) and his Department that –

If the parents ⁄ caregivers do not return the letter, the student will engage in alternative meaningful activities during time allocated for SRE.

So it now seems that, ultimately, SRE is technically ‘opt-in’ because in the absence of information regarding a parent’s choice students should not be placed in a scripture class.

However, this is where the Kafka-esque shenanigans begin.

In alignment with the wishes of the scripture lobby, the Minister has ensured that the Procedures, as well as all of its supporting documents, do not contain or reflect his statement made above. FIRIS has seen no evidence that either the Minister or the Department has communicated the direction to principals of NSW public schools.

It seems that despite the Minister’s claims of respect for parental choice, including the choice to not have their children take part in scripture, a reasonable member of the NSW public might begin to suspect that the aim of leaving the statement out of the Procedures is to funnel students into Christian scripture classes without express consent from their parents or caregivers.

Therefore, it might be possible to excuse CHS’s statement on its website and in its SRE participation letter, given that the Procedures provide no direction about what to do if a SRE consent form is not returned.

However, in July this year FIRIS sent the Minister’s direction to the principal of every public school principal in NSW, including the principal of CHS.

There can be no more excuses.

Honesty and integrity

When it comes to demonstrating honesty and integrity regarding the place of scripture in the school, CHS gets another ‘F’.

It seems that CHS is prepared to accept and facilitate many recommendations from the ‘how-to-embed-scripture-in-NSW-public-schools-and-blur-the-boundaries-between-evangelists-and-professional-teachers’ guidelines written by the scripture pressure-group, the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools Inc. (ICCOREIS).

The ICCOREIS guidelines encourage Christian scripture instructors to become a ‘fixture’ in the school by –

  • being identified with regular staff and engaging generally with school activities, such as attending school camps and participating in school excursions
  • providing extra welfare, support and attention to students, particularly students at risk and those needing assistance with learning and participating in peer support and personal development programs
  • volunteering and assisting in co-curricular activities including sport, debating and public speaking, drama and musicals, dance and rock festivals, excursions, school formals, clubs, and social activities
  • taking part in playground duty, roll call, carnivals and other ‘extras’
  • teaching General Religious Education or other Board of Studies courses.

According to the CHS website, the SRE Christian (Combined Churches) co-ordinator is Mr Matthew Pettett.

Mr Pettett has a Department of Education email address provided on the CHS website (matthew.pettett7@det.nsw.edu.au) and is found on the school’s staff list under the heading ‘Religious Education’.

It also seems Mr Pettett is active in the school’s sports program.

A parent or caregiver of children attending CHS might be excused for confusing Mr Pettett for a professional teacher employed by the Department to teach a subject developed by the state government education board, NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA).

But that he is not!

The blurring of boundaries between scripture instructors and professional teachers employed by the Department disguises SRE and increases the risk of contact between scripture instructors and students without the informed consent of parents/caregivers and without any policy direction preventing them from attempting to recruit students into scripture classes.

Nonetheless, at the very least, a reasonable member of the NSW public might consider ICCOREIS’ recommendations above, particularly the statement that SRE instructors may teach GRE or other formal courses, as the pressure-group’s complete lack of respect for professional boundaries in NSW public schools and the choices of parents and caregivers who have not consented to interaction between scripture instructors and their children.

Protection of the secular nature of NSW public schools

When it comes to preventing NSW public schools serving as ‘mission fields’ for Christian churches, CHS also gets an ‘F’.

The seeming failure of CHS to act with honesty and integrity regarding the place of scripture and the position and status of Mr Pettett in the school may easily be regarded by a reasonable member of the NSW public as an intentional failure to preserve the secular nature of NSW Government schools.

Mr Pettet is identified on the website of Willoughby Park Anglican Church as a ‘mission partner’ in reference to his role as the scripture instructor at CHS.

Mr Pettett’s ‘SRE employment board’ REACH (referred to on CHS website) is identified by Willoughby Park Anglican Church as a mission organisation supported by the church.

The ‘Mission Links’ page of the church’s website states:

Our Lord Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For this reason, we want everyone, everywhere to know Jesus Christ, and so we gladly support mission beyond our church.

In its Mission and Aid Policy the church cites Matthew 28:18-20 –

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

and then states –

Our church’s involvement in mission is in joyful obedience to this call…All members of Willoughby Park have an obligation to pray or serve in some way with the shared goal of the spread of the gospel to all nations and people.

The appeal to Matthew 28:19-20 is in alignment with ICCOREIS’ vision for Christian instruction in Government schools –

 

 

No wonder representatives from one of the member churches of ICCOREIS have been bold enough to state –

Picture walking into a classroom full of children who have never heard about Jesus and taking a government-endorsed half hour to tell them all about Him! Scripture provides an excellent opportunity to take the living and active word of God to children throughout our city. As Jesus said in Matthew 9:37, the harvest is ready! Students are hungry and eager to hear God’s word!

SRE changes lives for eternity – here’s proof!

NSW is one of the few states in Australia with legislation that supports SRE. Schools are an open door to the gospel. A SRE Teacher is not just a teacher, but a government-endorsed evangelist! SRE also presents an excellent opportunity to connect with schools, children and whole families.

Research reinforces that ministry to children is an effective and powerful way to grow the Kingdom!

Primary school children, those aged 5-12 years are NINE times more likely to accept Christ as their Saviour than people 12 years and above.

Transparency and accountability

When it comes to transparency and accountability regarding scripture in the school, CHS gets another ‘F’.

Mr Pettett is referred to on the school’s website as the SRE Christian (Combined Churches) co-ordinator.

SRE Christian (Combined Churches) is also identified on the school’s website as REACH Inc. and a link is provided to its website – http://www.reachinschools.org/.

FIRIS assumes from this information that Mr Pettett is a scripture instructor supported by a ‘combined arrangement’.

The Department’s Procedures state –

Religious persuasions may decide to provide a combined arrangement. If this occurs, each religious persuasion must be an approved provider of SRE in NSW Government schools.

Despite the seeming simplicity of the statement, FIRIS has found that ‘combined arrangements’ are nebulous and unmonitored entities which create a ‘confusopoly’ benefiting Christian scripture providers. The combined arrangement at CHS is a typical example.

The information provided to parents and caregivers of students at CHS directs them to the incorporation REACHHowever, REACH is not an ‘approved provider’ of scripture in NSW public schools.

The CHS website does not identify the approved providers forming the combined arrangement which supplies Mr Pettett as a scripture instructor to the school.

The REACH website also does not identify the approved scripture providers forming the combined arrangement that supplies Mr Pettett to CHS. It does make reference to the ‘Combined Churches of Willoughby’, ‘a REACH Board, comprised of representatives from the Willoughby Ministers Association and supporting Churches’. However, none of these organisation are approved providers of SRE in NSW Government schools and little-to-no information can be found out about them on the internet.

However, information regarding REACH and Mr Pettett is available on Generate Ministries’ ourSRE website, which identifies five Anglican and three unidentified-denomination churches, as well as single Baptist, Presbyterian, Uniting and Salvation Army churches, as ‘supporting churches’.

However, both Generate Ministries and the Department of Education have made it very clear to FIRIS that the REACH board, as well as all of the other boards, associations etc. on the ourSRE website, are not combined arrangements.

Therefore, at this point, it seems that it is not possible for a parent, caregiver or citizen to find out who the approved providers are that are responsible for the delivery of scripture at CHS without contacting the school and/or the Department of Education itself.

However, recent attempts by FIRIS to obtain information from the Director responsible for the oversight of scripture in NSW public schools regarding other combined arrangements have not been fruitful. In fact, the seeming reluctance of the Director to answer FIRIS’ questions has resulted in a formal complaint from FIRIS which is currently being investigated by the Department.

FIRIS will be writing to CHS and asking the school to identify the approved providers making up the combined arrangement. However, recent attempts by FIRIS to obtain information from principals regarding combined arrangements in other Sydney high schools have met with no response.

Could it be a sign that no one knows what the hell is going on?

If no one knows what is going on, the Department has a serious problem on their hands.

The current Procedures state –

SRE lessons in combined arrangements must be delivered by authorised representatives who are authorised by at least one of the approved providers within a combined arrangement.

The biggest problem seems to be the lack of a centralised register of combined arrangements enabling principals, parents, caregivers and citizens to identify which providers are accountable to child protection legislation, particularly the monitoring of the Working with Children Check clearances of scripture instructors.

The failure to establish and maintain a register results in a lack of accountability and significantly increases the risk of unauthorised adults entering NSW public school classrooms.

No one connected to any of the combined arrangements FIRIS has investigated, including individual scripture instructors, has been willing to state who the member providers of the relevant combined arrangement are and which providers are responsible for monitoring the Working with Children Check clearance of the instructors.

In addition, parents and caregivers need to know which approved providers are authorising the scripture instructor and the curriculum used in order to know where to find information, and where to direct complaints or concerns.

The 2019 Procedures state that all scripture providers are required to have their complaints process available on their website. However, such a requirement is pointless if parents are unable to determine who the approved provider is.

The current Procedures also state –

The curriculum delivered through a combined arrangement must be authorised by at least one of the approved providers.

From 2019 onwards scripture providers are to make their curriculum scope and sequence(s) accessible on their website in sufficient detail for parents/caregivers and schools to be able to understand what is covered in SRE lessons.

At least, it seems parents can learn from the REACH website that the curriculum apparently used by Mr Pettett is the Sydney Anglican’s Think Faith curriculum. Nonetheless, parents and caregivers are unable to determine who has authorised the use of this curriculum.

FIRIS will leave it up to the reader to decide whether the information provided on the REACH website regarding Think Faith will satisfy the ‘sufficient detail’ requirement in 2019. However, this is the curriculum scope and sequence document provided –

Download (PDF, 88KB)

In consideration of the child safety and age-appropriateness concerns regarding the Sydney Anglican’s Connect curriculum, FIRIS finds the limited information provided on the REACH website particularly concerning.

It is also essential for principals to be aware of which approved providers make up combined arrangements in order to ensure enrolment processes are correctly followed. The current 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.

FIRIS will go out on a limb here and assume, until told otherwise, that Mr Pettett is authorised by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. Therefore, FIRIS will assume that students enrolled as ‘Anglican’ or ‘Protestant’ may be enrolled in Mr Pettett’s scripture class.

Given the absence of any other available information FIRIS will also assume that the denominations identified on the ourSRE website are possibly approved providers forming part of the combined arrangement.

The 2018 enrolment data for CHS indicates the following declarations –

  • 95 Anglican
  • 29 Protestant
  • 0 Baptist (none identified)
  • 7 Presbyterian
  • 8 Uniting
  • 0 Salvation Army (none identified)

Therefore, FIRIS questions whether all of the reported 400 students attending scripture lessons provided by REACH’s scripture instructor are there with the express of consent of parents and caregivers.

Enrolment data does indicates that 155 students were enrolled as ‘Christian (Other)’ but, according to the Procedures, these students should not be enrolled without knowledge of which specific Christian denomination the students belong to. If the denomination is not known it cannot be guaranteed that the rights of students are being protected and that students are being instructed in accordance with the wishes of the parents.

Final comment

FIRIS will monitor CHS’s implementation of the new Special Religious Education Procedures which commence implementation on 30 January 2019.

We will continue to try and determine the approved providers connected to the delivery of SRE at the school.

Watch this space.

When it comes to the marketing-spin of ChristianSRE, it pays to Question. Explore. Discover.

ChristianSRE (read Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools – ICCOREIS) has recently commenced a saturation-marketing campaign seemingly targeting all NSW public school students, particularly those students enrolling in Kindergarten or Year 7 in 2019, with their grand claims that Special Religious Education (SRE – aka ‘scripture’) offers students an education in ‘values’.

In order to assist ChristianSRE / ICCOREIS provide parents with information, FIRIS, under the banner ‘Real Christian SRE | Believe. Fear. Obey.’ has started revealing the actual content of SRE lessons authorised by scripture providers for use in NSW public schools. To counter the ‘we-teach-good-values’ marketing-spin of ChristianSRE, FIRIS’ Real Christian SRE campaign has discovered, and made public, evidence that what children as soon as they reach reading age may be exposed to messages that they are born sinners, that sin must be paid for in full, that the penalty for sin is death and ‘separation from God forever in the Lake of Fire, and that they belong to Satan and Hell unless they declare their faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, ChristianSRE / ICCOREIS would like parents and caregivers to believe that such  messages will only be found being promoted by ‘rogue’ churches or ‘rogue’ SRE instructors.

As part of her testimony to the General Purpose Standing Committee No. 2 regarding the Education Amendment (Ethics Classes Repeal) Bill 2011 on Monday 27 February 2012, Dr Ann Maree Whenman, the then chairperson of ICCOREIS, responded to a question regarding the practice of threatening children and creating an atmosphere of fear within SRE classes by stating that ICCOREIS would not condone that style of teaching.

 

 

In response to these comments, a letter was sent to ICCOREIS in December 2013 asking Dr Whenman to comment on the following Youtube video found here.  This clip published by FIRIS in April 2013 is a compilation of video material published by Mr Graham McDonald, or ‘Mr Mac’, an elected advisor to ICCOREIS, on the Children of the World website.

In this Youtube clip, Mr Mac states –

  • all have sinned and  sin must be punished
  • young children should be taught an age-appropriate concept of sin, for example, a child who does not put his or her shoes away when told by a parent is committing a sin.
  • seven-year-old children, and maybe even younger, have reached the ‘age of accountability’ and therefore may go to Hell.
  • that people need to stop living their way and start living God’s/Jesus’ way and to ask Him to come and be the ‘boss’ of their lives –
  • the Church has ignored what the Bible says when it comes to discplining children (Spare the rod and spoil the child) and there needs to be some form of physical hitting of the child.
  • divorced parents are not following God’s plan for men and women (Mr Mac then describes the distress caused to a child as a result of this comment and how he acted as an unqualified counsellor).
  • that in such cases when ‘ministering (read ‘counselling’) children is required, the curriculum can be ignored.
  • there is only one God and all other gods are ‘figments of people’s imaginations’.

Dr Whenman was asked to confirm or deny whether Mr Mac’s statements and actions, if made by a scripture teacher of an ICCOREIS scripture provider, would be condoned by ICCOREIS or whether they would be treated as the statements and actions of a ‘rogue teacher’?

She was then asked, if ICCOREIS did not condone these statements, if she could provide information regarding the extent of Mr McDonald’s influence on ICCOREIS and explain why he was accepted as an advisor to the organisation.

Furthermore. she was also asked to explain how parents would be able to determine whether such messages were being passed on to NSW school children through the curriculum material or teaching practice of an ICCOREIS affiliated scripture provider?

Neither Dr Whenman nor any other representative of ICCOREIS provided any answers to these questions or replied in any way to the correspondence.

In October 2014 the correspondence was resent to the then Chairperson, Mr Neville Cox.

It was pointed out to Mr Cox that following the publishing of FIRIS’ Youtube clip, Graham McDonald’s teaching resources had been removed from public access on the Children of the World website and that specific references to elected advisors to ICCOREIS on its website had been replaced by the general statement

ICCOREIS has a pool of advisors who provide information and advice on a range of issues related to religious education in public schools.

Mr Cox was asked to respond to the following questions –

  1. Does ICCOREIS approve of Mr McDonald’s comments in the Youtube clip mentioned above?
  2. Given that the Youtube clip comprises clips from Mr McDonald’s materials for religious instruction teachers, would the statements and actions mentioned by Mr McDonald be condoned by ICCOREIS if made by an SRE teacher of an ICCOREIS affiliated SRE provider or would they, in the words of Dr Whenman, be treated as the statements and actions of a “rogue teacher”?
  3. If ICCOREIS disapproves of anything that Mr McDonald claims in the video, please provide two or three examples and describe the steps you have taken to ensure that no scripture teacher makes these claims in future.
  4. What is the nature of Mr Graham McDonald’s current relationship to ICCOREIS?
  5. What is the significance of the removal of the above-mentioned material from the Children of the World website and the removal of references to elected advisors on the ICCOREIS website?

Once again, neither Mr Cox nor any representative of ICCOREIS provided any answers to these questions or replied in any way to the correspondence.

Now you might be wondering what the point is in bringing up all of this old material.

The point is that it seems Mr Mac can be seen in the ChristianSRE campaign-launch image above where he, along with the others in the image, is described as a ChristianSRE representative –

 

When asked, neither ChristianSRE nor Eternity News were willing to confirm or deny that the man above is Mr Mac.

Nonetheless, FIRIS believes that the man in the photo above is Mr Mac. We will leave it up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusion.

If it is Mr Mac, in consideration of his statements, his declared actions while engaging in children’s ministry and his advisory role to ICCOREIS / ChristianSRE, a reasonable parent or caregiver of a NSW public school student has very good reason to doubt and question all claims made by ICCOREIS / ChristianSRE regarding the content of the scripture classes and the conduct of scripture instructors offered by those scripture providers represented by ICCOREIS and ChristianSRE.

The member organisations of ICCOREIS / ChristianSRE are –

  • Australian Christian Churches in NSW
  • Baptist Union of NSW
  • Christian Community Churches of Australia
  • Dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia in the Province of NSW
  • Dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church in NSW
  • Fellowship of Congregational Churches
  • Fresh Hope (Churches of Christ in NSW)
  • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia
  • Lutheran Church of Australia, NSW District
  • Presbyterian Church of Australia in the State of NSW
  • The Salvation Army
  • Serbian Orthodox Church in Australia and New Zealand – NSW and ACT Deaneries
  • Seventh-day Adventist Church, NSW Conferences
  • Uniting Church in Australia NSW/ACT Synod

Reasonable parents and caregivers would be justified in concluding that if ICCOREIS / ChristianSRE condone the views and actions of Mr Mac to the point that he was (and remains) an elected advisor, God only knows what they condone when it comes to the 10,500 Christian scripture instructors.

Parents and caregivers should not have faith in the marketing-spin of ChristianSRE but put their words into action and Question. Explore. Discover. what their children are being exposed to in Real Christian SRE.

 

 

 

 

 

Enrol your child in scripture in NSW public schools for a ‘firm foundation’ in animal and blood sacrifice: or, fun and games sacrificing a stuffed toy lamb

As part of FIRIS’ ongoing commitment to provide parents and caregivers with information regarding Real Christian SRE rather than leaving them to make their decisions based on the sales-pitch offered by Christian SRE providers, we will continue our exploration of the Firm Foundations scripture materials.

Before we start there are a few things which must be kept in mind as you read the following –

  1. Neither the NSW Minister for Education nor the Department of Education have authority over what is taught in a SRE classroom, how it is taught, or who scripture providers authorise to deliver it.
  2. The Department of Education relies on nothing more than an ‘annual assurance’ from providers that their SRE instructors are using the provider’s authorised ‘age-appropriate‘ curriculum ‘with sensitivity and in an age appropriate manner‘.
  3. The Firm Foundations curriculum was declared age-appropriate and authorised for use by the Fellowship Baptist Church of Blacktown for use in NSW public schools in its 2018 Annual Assurance.
  4. The Firm Foundations curriculum developers state – ‘Once a child has a learned to read, he can participate in all the aspects of the lesson material.’ Book 1, p. 64

Let’s now begin to see what the Firm Foundations lessons have to say about blood and animal sacrifice.

FIRIS has already made available the ‘doctrinal themes’ taught in the Firm Foundation materials, but will do so again asking the reader to focus on the sections relating to animal and blood sacrifice –

Download (PDF, 95KB)

Make no mistake, the theme of animal and blood sacrifice is core to Firm Foundation’s message that God demands the ‘death of the sinner as the payment for sin’ and that animal sacrifice served as a constant reminder that ‘nothing less than death could satisfy God’s holy and just demands’ (Hebrews 10:1-12)

At the end of Book 2 children learn about the first blood sacrifice for sin, that is, ‘God’s gracious act of clothing Adam and Eve‘.

The SRE instructor is reminded that

….the Word is very clear in stating that God killed animals in order to make acceptable coverings for Adam and Eve. Although the blood of animals could never pay for sin, from this time until the death of Christ, God accepted the blood of animals as a type, or picture, of the punishment that all sin deserves. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death….” Hebrews 9:22 says, “…without shedding of blood is no remission.” p. 149

The point of the lesson is that ‘God is establishing the fact of man’s helplessness to save himself and providing an analogy regarding the coming Deliverer.‘ p.  149

The children are taught that the first death in the world was brought about by sin. God killed the animals and took their the skins off in order to remind Adam and Eve ‘that disobedience to Him brought death into the world.’

Here the instructor is provided with the note –

Here God is preparing a redemptive analogy of the truth presented in Isaiah 61:10, “…he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness….” Later, we will draw on this analogy to reveal the truth of substitution and the covering of the righteousness of Christ received through faith…Just make it clear that God would not accept what Adam and Eve had made but that God provided them with clothing, and that what we do outwardly cannot make us pleasing to God. p. 152

At the end of the lesson, the children are asked ‘Why did God kill animals to make clothing for Adam and Eve?‘ and the answer provided is ‘Because God was reminding Adam and Eve that the punishment for sin is death.‘ 
 p. 157

Download (PDF, 226KB)

The theme returns in Lesson 13 in Book 3.

Instructors are told to have on hand, ‘a realistic stuffed toy lamb

This lesson focuses on animal sacrifice as the means for Abel to come to God in the way the prescribed by God, that is, to sacrifice a sheep as an offering. While drawing the children’s attention to the stuffed toy lamb, the instructor is told how the lamb had to be sacrificed in order to remind them that the punishment for sin is death and ‘that they would die and go to everlasting everlasting punishment unless He saved them.’

The instructor is encouraged to say to the children –

God was not being cruel to require the death of a lamb. No, the reason the lamb had to die was because of man’s sin. God loves man and wants man to know that the penalty for sin is death. The lamb was a sacrificeone who died in the place of the sinner. (emphasis in original) p. 6

– and the instructor is told –

This is important for children to understand. Most children are very tender. They must realize that the reason for the lamb’s death is man’s sin. p. 6

The children are told that the ‘Bible clearly says that blood must be shed for sin’ and that Abel brought one of his lambs, the firstborn of its mother, killed it so ‘its blood ran out‘ and offered the sheep, along with the fat, to God.

The children are asked ‘Why did Abel bring this offering to God?‘ and the answers –

  1. Because he agreed with God that he was a sinner.
  2. And he believed that only God could save him from everlasting punishment. 

The instructor is told –

These two concepts…are very important. Be sure to stress them and to make sure that the children are hearing what you are saying. You may want to have them repeat these two lines with you. p. 6

The instructor is told to explain to the children –

It is important to understand that the blood of animals could never pay for sin. God did not accept Abel’s lamb as the payment for his sin. But God forgave Abel’s sin and accepted him because Abel trusted, not in himself, but in God who had promised to send the Deliverer.

– and then the instructor is told –

It is important in every story that your students be taught grace. They must come to realize that man cannot contribute anything to his salvation. Make certain that they understand that the blood of animals could not and did not pay for sin. Sin must be paid for by human life being given. Animal blood, or life, is not equal to human life (Hebrews 10:4,5). Be sure to make it absolutely clear that God will not overlook sin. Sin must be paid for in full. The soul that sins, it shall die (Ezekiel 18:4), that is, be separated forever from God. (emphasis added) p. 7

The children are told –

God has not changed; He is still the same today. He does not command us now to sacrifice sheep, but He is still the only One who can make a way for us to come to Him. We must come God’s way; otherwise, He will reject us as He rejected Cain. p. 8

The suggested activity ‘Coming to God’ (p. 14) gets the children to create cutouts of sacrificial altars, the offerings, and Cain and Abel while a discussion is going on reinforcing to the children that ‘man must come to God according to God’s way and not his own. Man must have faith in
order to please God.’ p. 14

In the skit for the lesson, Uncle Don tells Jessica and Travis that ‘believing and obeying are extremely important.’

Download (PDF, 313KB)

The theme of animal and blood sacrifice in the context of having faith in order to please God is found in Lesson 18 regarding Abraham and Isaac. Once again, the stuffed toy lamb is to be at hand.

The children are asked to consider Isaac’s situation and to remember that he had most likely seen many sacrifices (‘SHOW THE STUFFED TOY LAMB‘).

Apparently Isaac ‘knew that the penalty for sin is death, and that the only way to come to God was by faith, offering the blood of a lamb or sheep as a sacrifice in man’s place‘ and he ‘could not understand why they had not taken a sheep with them.’

The children are told Isaac was tied up and laid on the altar and how Abraham lifted up the knife to kill his son –

God had commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, and there was no way for Isaac to escape once he was on the altar. p. 74

The children are asked –

Is there any way that we can save ourselves from death and everlasting punishment for our sins? No! We cannot save ourselves. God will punish all sin. No one can escape from God.
God and only God can make a way to escape. Do you know what God did for Isaac? 

Because Abraham had not brought sheep with him as a suitable sacrifice, God ‘graciously’ provided a ram which could be sacrificed in place of Isaac.

Animal and blood next appears in the Firm Foundations materials in Lesson 22 as the children learn about God passing over Israel.

Download (PDF, 244KB)

The lesson materials begin by providing the instructor with a perspective on the materials –

What a tremendous story this is! We live in a day when many “religious scholars” are repulsed by any emphasis on blood. God was not repulsed by it; rather, He tells us in this passage that only those protected by the blood of a lamb would be spared the loss of their firstborn. Not only was the lamb’s blood spilled out, it was also applied to the top and the sides of the door frame of each house. 
We who know the story of the Lamb of God realize the tremendous implications of this passage in Exodus. Indeed, we too are spared the wrath of God because, by faith, we have been placed under the protection of the shed blood of Jesus Christ. p. 115

Once again, the ‘realistic, stuffed, toy lamb‘ is required as a visual prop.

After hearing about the nine plagues sent by God the students are told that God warned Moses that ‘the Israelites must prepare  for the final and most terrible plague of all‘, a plague that would destroy the firstborn in the Egyptian homes.

The children hear about how Moses was told by God to get the head of each Israelite home to choose a lamb or goat ‘without blemish’ (‘SHOW THE STUFFED, TOY LAMB‘), kill it and catch its blood in a basin. The instructor tells the children –

When the Israelites killed the lambs and the blood flowed out, the people were reminded that the punishment for sin is death. Just as the ram died instead of Isaac, the perfect lambs which were chosen and killed by the Israelites died instead of their firstborn children. p. 121

The children learn how the blood of the lamb was put on the doorposts and over the door of the house where the lamb was being eaten that night. The instructor tells the children –

The Israelites were to stay inside their houses on which they had placed the blood. It was just as if they were to hide behind the death and blood of the lamb which God said they must kill in place of the firstborn. p. 122

The children are asked –

What do you think would have happened if an Israelite had said, “It’s a shame to kill this good lamb. I won’t kill it. I will just tie it up at the door. God will see the living lamb, and He will not kill my child by the plague.” Do you think God would have passed by the firstborn of that house?

No! The lamb had to die. The blood must be shed. They must not forget that the punishment for sin is death.

It all had to be done the way God had told Moses. p. 123

The children learn that not one of the firstborn of the Israelites’ children or livestock died. They learn the lesson that ‘God always does what He says‘ and He ‘will punish those who fight against Him, but He will show His mercy to those who trust Him.’ p. 124

But the fun begins when the children get to step through the Passover Story, including the sacrifice of the ‘realistic, stuffed, toy lamb’ –

Given that NSW public school teachers do not have to remain in the classroom while SRE is being held, who knows what actions children are encouraged to carry out as they re-enact the Passover Story.

Animal and blood sacrifice appears in Lesson 26 of Book 4 as children learn about the role of animal and blood sacrifice in the Tabernacle.

Download (PDF, 114KB)

Once again they are told that the blood of animals could not ‘pay for sin‘ and that it was ‘only a reminder, or illustration, or pattern, of the punishment demanded for sin.’

Could the blood of animals pay for their sins? No! The blood of the animals could not pay for their sins.

— The punishment for sin is death, and that includes the sep­aration of the sinner from God forever.

— Sin must be paid for in full.

Nevertheless, God promised to hold off the judgement they deserved and forgive their sins for the past year, if they came to Him in the way He had told them. They must come to him believing Him and bringing a blood sacrifice for their sins. p. 11

This message carries on into Lesson 28 as the children learn about the role of animal and blood sacrifice in Solomon’s Temple. Once again, it is emphasised –

The Israelites were never to forget that they were sinners, that God is perfect, and that the punishment for sin is death. Because the blood of animals could not pay for their sin, the blood had to be placed before God every year. 

Every year, God forgave their sins and held off His judg­ment, waiting for the time when a perfect and complete pay­ment for sin would be made. p. 39

In Lesson 46 in Book 5 Jesus is presented to the children at the ‘Passover Lamb who died to save all men.’

In the Lord’s Supper, the bread represents His body, broken for men. The cup represents His blood, shed for the sins of all men. p. 81

At the beginning of the lesson the following skit is read out, with an adult performing the role of ‘Uncle Don’ –

Jimmy says to his Uncle Don –

Well, I still don’t understand about all the lambs and other animals used for sacrifices in the Bible. It just seems kind of cruel.

To which Uncle Don replies –

Well, the killing of a lamb or other animal was first of all a reminder that the penalty for sin is death. (emphasis in original)

– and –

The Bible says that without the shedding of blood, sin cannot be paid for. (emphasis in original)

– and Uncle Don concludes by reminding Jimmy and Jessica that Jesus was the final lamb to be offered as part of the Passover sacrifice.

This message is driven home in the suggestions for activities for the lessonwhich include –

In Lesson 48 the children are reminded that the punishment for sin is death, not only physical death, ‘but separation from God in Hell,‘ and that ‘the only way Jesus could deliver is was for Him to take our place before God and be punished for our sins.’ (emphasis in original)

The children are told that Jesus came into the world ‘to deliver sinners from Satan, sin and death.’

He finished this work by being separated from God and by giving His blood and His life as the full payment for our sins. (emphasis in original) p. 110

The suggestions for activities for this lesson ‘The Death Penalty’ and ‘Jesus took my punishment’ drive home that the punishment for sin is death and that the blood of animals could not pay for sins. The instructions for the activity ‘Full price’ are –

Give each child paper and pencil. Ask them to write what we can do to make ourselves acceptable to God. (We can do nothing. Jesus paid the full price for sins in His body. It is finished!) p. 114

Lesson 49 in Book 5 presents the meaning of Christ’s death from the Old Testament.

In relation to God’s killing of animals and his clothing of Adam and Eve, the children are reminded that there is nothing they can do to make themselves acceptable to God –

Going to church, doing good deeds, giving to the needy, taking care of the environment — all of these are things we should do. But none of these things will make us acceptable to God.  p. 119

How then must a person respond to God in order to be accepted by Him?

In relation to the story of the animal sacrifice of Abel, the children are told that the message is that ‘God will accept all those who put their faith in the Lord Jesus and His blood that He shed for their sins.’ p. 121

When revisiting the story of the Passover, the instructor tells the children that they can be ‘absolutely certain that, if they trust in the  Lord Jesus and His death for them, they will never face eternal punishment for their sins.’ p. 124

In Lesson 42, children are told –

The Bible makes it very clear that all who refuse to believe Jesus will be separated from God and punished forever in the Lake of Fire. p. 41

At the end of Lesson 49 the instructor is told to offer a personal testimony along the lines of –

I have agreed with God that I am a sinner and have trusted in the Lord Jesus and His death for me. I know I have eternal life because Jesus paid for all my sin. But it was not only for me that Jesus died; it was for you too. So, if you trust only in Him and accept His death as the payment for your sin, God will forgive you and give you everlasting life. p. 126

A note for the instructor states –

Some students may express their desire to put their trust in Jesus Christ and His death for them. Explain to those who seem ready that Jesus not only died but was raised from the dead on their behalf. p. 126

A small handout for students says –

– and if, after their journey through the blood-soaked account of the scriptures presented in the Firm Foundations materials, the instructor and Christian SRE can declare their ‘Mission accomplished’.

What the NSW Minister for Education and the scripture lobby do not want principals of public schools to know.

After three years of correspondence with both the previous and current Minister for Education and the Department of Education, FIRIS has exhausted all formal and bureaucratic means to have the Minister include a simple but very important statement in the Religious Education Implementation Procedures.

Not only has the Minister granted the scripture lobby’s wish to have a declaration of ‘no religion’ on the enrolment form ignored, he has also chosen to not make the necessary amendments which would ensure students are not placed in scripture classes without express consent from parents and caregivers.

See here for a detailed discussion of the history of the history of the changes to the enrolment processes.

By deciding not to amend the Religious Education Implementation Procedures and its supporting documents prior to the 2018 school year, of the 803,580 students enrolled in the 2018 school year, the Minister exposed  –
  • 230,157 students whose parents/caregivers declared ‘no religion’ and
  • 7,827 students whose parents/caregivers were recorded as intentionally not stating their religion or belief and
  • 107,321 students whose parents/caregivers left the enrolment form blank

– to the risk of being placed in a scripture class ‘deemed most suitable’ if the SRE Participation Letter was not returned.

Given that the Minister has still not made the necessary changes to the Procedures and its supporting documents, FIRIS has decided to take more direct action to try and prevent students being exposed to this risk in 2019.
Today FIRIS started forwarding the letter below to every public primary and secondary school principal in NSW to directly inform them about the important step in the enrolment process which the Minister and the scripture lobby do not want them to know about.
FIRIS is now calling upon its supporters to help us to bring this matter to the attention of every Parents and Citizens Association active in a NSW public school. FIRIS would like to enable P&Cs to take the necessary action to ensure that the rights and choices of all students and their parents and caregivers are respected and that schools are following the Minister’s and the Department’s procedural advice contained in the letter.
Therefore, FIRIS is asking its supporters to support us in one of the following ways –
  • Forward the contact details of the President or Secretary of the local P&C Association to FIRIS so we can contact them and request that the letter above be tabled and discussed at the next meeting, or
  • Request that this issue be placed on the agenda for the next meeting, and present the letter in person and put forward a motion requesting that the principal ensure that the rights and choices of all students and their parents and caregivers are respected. FIRIS would also liked to be informed of the outcome.

For non-NSW supporters wanting to help, please send an email to FIRIS and we can let you know how you can support us.

It is time to make it very clear – When it comes to scripture in Australian public schools, it is not a ‘yes’ if it is not a clear and informed ‘yes’.

 

 

The smokescreen mantra of ‘choice’: or all choices are equal but some are ‘more equal’ than others

Last month the NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley announced that Labor wants to make it easier for parents to choose between scripture (aka ‘special religious education’ or ‘SRE’), ethics (aka ‘special education in ethics’ or SEE’) classes or neither (aka ‘alternative activities’) in NSW public schools.

Shadow Minister for Education Jihad Dib sees it as a very simple thing to do, that is –

 ….go back to the [enrolment] form that was in use before the Liberal-National government changed it. Allow parents to just tick the box, without the need to write additional letters – or creating more confusion. 

The Minister for Education, Rob Stokes, is reportedly ‘pleased that Labor supports our view’ and has claimed that he has spoken to the Department of Education’s Special Religious Education Consultative Committee (the SRE-CC – mainly made up of religious organisations) and they have indicated that they too are happy for the enrolment form to change.

The Minister’s newfound willingness to consider changing the enrolment form is good to hear given that he has previously chosen to not support the recommendation in the 2015 independent review of scripture and ethics that his Department should ‘assess the suitability of the new school enrolment form (October 2015) and processes to ensure these are clear and working as intended.’

So, it seems ‘choice’ is the mantra with both sides of NSW politics and scripture providers all eager to declare their respect for the rights of all parents and caregivers to choose between scripture, ethics, or alternative activities.

Therefore, FIRIS believes it is timely to make public the results of more than five years of tracking changes to the enrolment process, corresponding with the Ministers for Education and the Department of Education and using NSW’s freedom of information law to get important documents such as the minutes of the SRE-CC.

What FIRIS has found reveals a a very different picture to the one painted by the Minister and the scripture lobby when it comes to a respect for the choices of all students and their parents/caregivers..

We will start by looking at the SRE-CC and what its members’ past actions and statements can tell us about their respect for parent/caregiver choice. In particular, we will consider the statements and actions of the scripture lobby’s most frequent spokesperson, Murray Norman.

Murray is the Presbyterian Church’s representative on the SRE-CC, a board member of the pressure group, the Inter-Church Commission of Religious Education In Schools (ICCOREIS), the CEO of ChristianSRE (an offspring of ICCOREIS) and the Deputy Chair of Generate Ministries, the main employer of scripture instructors in NSW secondary schools.

According to ChristianSRE, ‘Murray brings a business mindset to thinking strategically about ministry’ evident in ChristianSRE’s marketing mantra ‘It’s your right of choice. Because faith is an individual thing.’

In response to NSW Labor’s commitment to return the option of ethics to the enrolment form, ChristianSRE claimed that they ‘are keen to work with all stakeholders, to ensure that parents get a choice’ –

Furthermore, following a recent report  that a high school in northern NSW was ignoring the choice of parents and caregivers and placing their children in scripture against their express wishes, Murray claimed in an interview that scripture providers respect the choices of parents and caregivers and that scripture providers and schools follow the Department’s ‘sound’ procedures. According to Murray –

It’s not actually for the churches or the SRE providers or the principals to choose where they go, it’s up to the parents. And what we’re keen to do is encourage everyone to be following that…

See here for a full transcript of the interview on Hope 103.2 FM (14 March 2018).

But alas, when we consider the scripture lobby’s response to the first roll-out of the enrolment form that Labor is now proposing we return to, all is not what Murray would have us believe.

The controversial version of the enrolment form including the option of ethics was originally released in June 2014.

 

 

On 10 November 2014 Murray Norman sent an email with attached documents to Dr David Cullen, then the Department’s Director responsible for scripture and ethics. The documents outlined the scripture lobby’s desired changes to the enrolment form above and enrolment processes.

 

Download (PDF, 876KB)

 

Murray’s email was also sent to the following people who are still current members of the SRE-CC –

  • John Donnelly (then representing the Catholic Church – now representing ICCOREIS)
  • Jude Hennessy (Catholic Church)
  • Alison Newell (Catholic Church)
  • Dr James Athanasou (Greek Orthodox)

Dr Cullen then forwarded Murray’s email and its attachments to all members of the SRE-CC with the statement – ‘Murray Norman will be talking to these documents at our meeting tomorrow’. The minutes for the Committee meeting on 11 November 2014 record these documents as having been tabled and discussed.

The following attendees at this meeting remain as current members of the SRE-CC:

  • Murray Norman (Presbyterian Church)
  • John Donnelly (then representing the Catholic Church – now representing ICCOREIS)
  • Jude Hennessy (Catholic Church)
  • Alison Newell (Catholic Church)
  • Rachele Schonberger (then representing the NSW Board of Jewish Education – now representing All Faiths SRE)
  • Emma Parr (Uniting Church of Australia)
  • Shoko Creedy (Baha’i Council)
  • Rob Walker (Primary Principals’ Assoc.)
  • Jane Simmons (Department of Education – Chair)

The table in the attachment to Murray’s email named ‘141106_DEC Enrolment Form Procedure.docx’ states very clearly how the scripture lobby on the SRE-CC wanted the enrolment process to work.

The SRE Participation Letter had been introduced by the Department earlier in 2014 in response to Recommendation 12 of the Final Report of General Purpose Standing Committee No 2, Education Amendment, (Ethics Classes Repeal) Bill 2011.

What is important to note at this point is that the table above indicates a declaration of ‘no religion’ or ‘none’ was no longer regarded by the scripture lobby on the SRE-CC as evidence that a parent/caregiver was objecting their child receiving religious instruction.

In response to such a declaration, the scripture lobby wanted the SRE Participation Letter sent home listing the available scripture options at the school and providing parents/caregivers with the option to withdraw (most likely for the second time).

Furthermore, in the days following the SRE-CC meeting on 11 November 2014, a member [or members] of the SRE-CC argued for the removal of the prompt to write ‘no religion’ on the enrolment form because responding to the question ‘What is the student’s religion?’ was ‘already optional’ and the ‘answer will likely be one of the major religions represented around the table at our meetings’. It was also argued that –

The inclusion of ‘no religion’ is to prejudice or bias the results by suggesting a category and thus to skew data collection. As the question is now optional, the fact that the parent or caregiver writes something indicates an existing religious awareness or preference.

– but more on this later.

Now this is where it gets very interesting and where the smokescreen mantra of choice clears and the lack of respect for the rights and choices of a large number of students and their parents and caregivers is exposed.

What to do if the SRE Participation Form was not returned?

This question is important because the answer will make clear the Department’s default position regarding the scripture enrolment process. Is it the case, that in the absence of a clear direction from parents/caregivers, the Department’s default position is that the children of such parents are placed in a scripture class? Or, is the default position to place such students in alternative activities thereby respecting and protecting the rights of such students and parents as outlined in international human rights instruments?

It is clear from the attachments to Murray Norman’s 10 November 2014 email what he and other members of the scripture lobby on the SRE-CC wanted. Once again, the table in attachment 141106_DEC Enrolment Form Procedure.docx is very revealing.

If the SRE Participation Letter was not returned, the student was to be ‘enrolled in the SRE program deemed most suitable‘.

The scripture lobby’s suggestion for the SRE Participation Letter (141106 SPECIAL RELIGIOUS EDUCATION PARTICIPATION FORM local School.doc) also makes it clear –

If no preference is indicated, the school will enrol your child in the SRE program deemed most suitable unless the school is informed otherwise by you, as the parent/caregiver.

– as does their suggested amendment to the REIPs (Attachment: 141106 DEC Implementation Procedures.doc) –

When the school has informed parents/caregivers of the options for special religious education and the parents/caregivers have not exercised their right to select an option, the student is enrolled in the Special Religious Education class deemed most suitable.

A reasonable member of the NSW public might now want to ask Murray to explain all of this in the context of his recent March 2018 statement –

It’s not actually for the churches or the SRE providers or the principals to choose where they go, it’s up to the parents.

Many parents and caregivers may be confused about who the scripture lobby expects to be doing the deeming if the SRE Participation Letter is not returned. One thing is certain though, it is obviously not the parents or caregivers.

However, you might be thinking at this point that these were only the suggestions of the scripture lobby on the SRE-CC. Therefore, let’s now have a look at what the previous and current Minister for Education, and the Department have done in response to these suggestions.

In December 2014 the REIPs were changed.

The statement in the previous REIPs  –

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

 – was replaced by –

Where a religious persuasion was not nominated on enrolment, or the nominated religious persuasion is not available as a special religious education program at the school, parents/caregivers are informed of other special religious education options available at the school. [emphasis added]

The REIPs also now included a reference to a letter template – the SRE Participation Letter – to be used to offer parents/caregivers ‘the available special religious education options, where a religious persuasion was not nominated on enrolment.’ However, neither the REIPs nor any of its supporting documents said what a school should do if a parent/caregiver chose to leave the SRE Participation Letter blank or if it was not returned at all.

Based on information obtained using NSW’s freedom of information law, it appears that in response to a complaint from an unknown person about the impact of the new enrolment form on the number of students enrolling in scripture and direct involvement and pressure from the NSW Premier’s office, in mid-December 2014 a memorandum to schools was issued to all public school principals.

The memorandum directed principals to send the SRE Participation Letter to all parents of students enrolling in Kindergarten or Year 7 for the 2015 school year but did not say what a principal should do if a parent/caregiver chose to leave the SRE Participation Letter blank or if it was not returned at all.

The memorandum did make it very clear that scripture does not compete with alternative activities or ethics –

It is important to note that both information about SEE where it is available and an offer for parents/caregivers to nominate for their child to attend SEE should not be made until a parent/caregiver has formally withdrawn their child from SRE.

The minutes of the 11 November 2014 SRE-CC meeting also made it very clear that the scripture lobby were not prepared to tolerate ethics being ‘set up against‘ scripture. The attachment to Murray Norman’s 10 November email (141106_Issues with SRE – compiled.docx) also demonstrates that the scripture lobby took issue with ethics and scripture ‘being offered together as equal options‘.

In late July 2015 further changes were made to the REIPs by replacing the statement –

Where a religious persuasion was not nominated on enrolment, or the nominated religious persuasion is not available as a special religious education program at the school, parents/caregivers are informed of other special religious education options available at the school.

– with –

Where a religious persuasion was not nominated on enrolment or 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 [i.e. SRE Participation Letter] which outlines all special religious education options available at the school. [emphasis added]

Once again, there was no statement about what was to happen if the ‘special religious education preference form’ – the SRE Participation Letter – was not returned or was returned blank.

So it seems the Department granted the scripture lobby and thus the SRE-CC’s wish that the SRE Participation Letter be sent home in response to an ‘Incomplete religion question on the enrolment form’ (see the first table above ‘141106_DEC Enrolment Form Procedure.docx’).

In August 2015 a complaint was sent to the Department regarding these amendments to the REIPs. It was pointed out to the Department that the removal of the explicit direction to place a student in alternative activities if a scripture class was not nominated on the enrolment form enabled schools to place a child in scripture without the express consent of the students parents/caregivers.

Furthermore, it was pointed out that in the event of this happening, parents and caregivers could not appeal to the REIPs as part of a complaint.

The complainant requested that evidence that the letter had been tabled and discussed at the next meeting of the SRE-CC be provided along with an outline of any actions to be taken in response to the complaint.

Dr Cullen, the then Director responsible for scripture and ethics, responded by saying:

Schools follow their normal procedure if a parent does not return their preference for a SRE class or to withdraw their child from SRE. Recommendation 41 from the Rawlinson Report 1981 states that a parent must notify the school of changes in enrolment or intended withdrawal in writing.

Nonetheless, Dr Cullen wrote that the complainant’s comments had been taken on notice and would be considered in any future review of the REIPs. He also confirmed that the complainant’s letter and concerns had been added to the agenda of the next SRE-CC meeting. Therefore, we can assume that those present at the SRE-CC meeting on 10 November 2015 were made aware of the contents of the complainant’s letter and the concerns that the rights of students and their parents/caregivers were being violated.

It is important to note here that the following attendees at that meeting remain as current members of the scripture committee:

  • Murray Norman (Presbyterian Church)
  • John Donnelly (then representing the Catholic Church – now representing ICCOREIS)
  • Jude Hennessy (Catholic Church)
  • Alison Newell (Catholic Church)
  • Rachele Schonberger (then representing the NSW Board of Jewish Education – now representing All Faiths SRE)
  • Emma Parr (Uniting Church of Australia)
  • Dr James Athanasou (Greek Orthodox Church)
  • Shoko Creedy (Baha’i Council)
  • Roslyn Deal (then representing the P&C Federation – now representing ICCOREIS)
  • Rob Walker (Primary Principals’ Assoc.)
  • Michael Rathborne (Secondary Principals’ Council)
  • Jane Simmons (Department of Education – Chair)
  • Joshua Chenery (Department of Education – SRE & SEE Officer)

 

Early in October 2015 the current version of the enrolment was released.

The choice was supposedly simple – parents and caregivers seemed to have the option to identify the student’s religion if they wanted the student to participate in scripture and also the option to leave it blank which one would assume would be enough to be saying ‘no’ to scripture. It should be noted that is how it has been explained by Christian scripture pressure groups, such as Generate Ministries.

Granting the wish of the scripture lobby on the SRE-CC to have the prompt to write ‘No religion’ removed, furthered the perception that leaving the section blank would be regarded as an objection to scripture; falsely it turned out…

Because the REIPs current at the time said that if parents did not complete the section of the enrolment form related to scripture they were to be sent the SRE Participation Letter. Furthermore, those REIPs still failed to include a statement about what was to happen if parents/caregivers did not return the SRE Participation Letter or returned it blank.

However, the seeming lack of respect for the rights of all students and their parents/caregivers does not end there.

Despite being made aware of potential violations of the rights of a large number of NSW public school students and their parents and caregivers, not only did the Department and the SRE-CC choose to not make the REIPs more robust, they chose to increase the number of students at risk of having their rights violated.

In April 2016 the Department granted yet another significant wish of the scripture lobby on the SRE-CC.

Even though the Department had removed the prompt to write ‘no religion’ from the October 2015 enrolment form, the choice of parents who used their own initiative to do so was now to be ignored. A declaration of ‘no religion’ in response to the question  ‘Please identify the student’s religion if you want the student to participate in SRE’ was no longer to be regarded as an indication that the parents or caregiver did not want their child to participate in scripture.

The statement in the SRE and SEE fact sheet released in April 2015

If ‘no religion’ is written, students participate in meaningful activities

– was replaced in the April 2016 fact sheet by –

If ‘no religion’ is written, or where there is no nominated persuasion or the persuasion is unavailable, then the principal is to send a letter containing general information about how SRE, SEE and alternative meaningful activities are organised, as well as a SRE participation letter to parents/caregivers. The SRE participation letter outlines the options available for SRE including the option to withdraw. (emphasis added)

The statements in the April 2015 Implementing Special Religious Education (SRE) and Special Education in Ethics (SEE) in NSW Government schools flowchart –

The parent/caregiver has written ‘no religion’ on the enrolment form → Student engages in meaningful activities during SRE time.

– were replaced in the April 2016 flowchart by –

The parent/caregiver has left the religious persuasion blank or has written ‘no religion’ on the enrolment formPrincipal to send letter to the parent/caregiver containing general information about how SRE, SEE and alternative meaningful activities are organised, as well as a SRE participation letter. The SRE participation letter outlines the options available for SRE including the option to withdraw. (emphasis added)

There was, and still is, no statement in either document about what is to occur if the SRE Participation Letter is not returned or if it is returned blank. The only statement in the flowchart relating to the non-return of a form/letter is in reference to a parent/caregiver not returning the letter offering them an opportunity to enrol in ethics SEE. Only if that letter is not returned is the specific direction given to place the student in alternative activities.

The sending of the SRE Participation Letter to parents and caregivers who have already declared ‘no religion’ or ‘none’ thereby requiring them to opt-out again is an unjustified and unconscionable act by the Department. By doing so, the Department has significantly increased the number of students at risk of being exposed to the religious instruction of others without express consent from parents/caregivers, and in many cases contrary to the expressed wishes of their parents and caregivers.

What part of ‘no religion’ do the Minister and the scripture lobby not understand?

In consideration of the information above, in September 2017 FIRIS sent a letter of complaint about the enrolment processes to the Minister for Education. In addition to the issues raised immediately above, FIRIS also pointed out that from April 2016 onwards both the Principal Checklist – SRE and SEE and the SRE–SEE–VSA FAQs did not, and still do not, tell parents and caregivers what happens if the SRE Participation Letter is not returned or if it is returned blank.

Dr Paul Wood, the new Director responsible for scripture and ethics, replied on behalf of the Minister that ‘if ‘no’ religion is written…then the school should send a SRE participation letter to parents/caregivers which outlines the options available for SRE including the option to withdraw.’ Given the ongoing reluctance from the Department to say what was to happen if the SRE Participation Letter was not returned, FIRIS wrote to Dr Wood and asked him the direct question:

“What advice would you recommend be provided to a principal who asks ‘where should a student be placed during the time allocated to Special Religious Education when their parent/s or caregiver/s have been sent the ‘SRE participation form’ but the form has not been returned or it has been returned blank or without a clear statement of the parent’s intentions?’ ?”

After waiting 6 weeks for an answer, and following advice from the NSW Ombudsman, FIRIS wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Education,  Mark Scott, and asked the same question.

In mid-November, Rod Megahey, the new Director responsible for scripture and ethics, responded on behalf of the Secretary. His letter repeasted sections of Dr Wood’s letter but added:

If the SRE participation letter to parents/caregivers is not returned, it is expected that the school would made all reasonable attempts to seek a response from the parents/caregivers regarding whether the student participates in SRE at the school.

If the parents/caregivers do not return the SRE participation letter, the student will engage in alternative meaningful activities during the time allocated for SRE. Suitable activities include reading, private study and completing homework. (emphasis added)

On 21 September 2017 Ms Jo Haylen, Labor MLA for Summer Hill, asked the Minister for Education in the NSW Legislative Assembly:

What is the procedural response from the Department of Education and ⁄ or the Minister for Education if a Principal requests advice as to how to enrol a student whose SRE Participation Form is not returned?

The Minister for Education responded over a month later:

If the parents ⁄ caregivers do not return the letter, the student will engage in alternative meaningful activities during time allocated for SRE. 

Now a reasonable and principled member of the NSW public might think that since both the Minister and his representative have finally clearly stated what is to happen if the SRE Participation Letter is not returned they would make sure that the REIPs were amended accordingly.

Unfortunately, this was not the case.

No changes were made to the REIPs before the beginning of the 2018 school year. This means that of 803,580 students enrolled in the 2018 school year  –

  • 230,157 students whose parents/caregivers declared ‘no religion’ and
  • 7,827 students whose parents/caregivers were recorded as intentionally not stating their religion or belief and
  • 107,321 students whose parents/caregivers left the enrolment form blank

– were exposed to the risk of being placed in a scripture class ‘deemed most suitable’ if the SRE Participation Letter was not returned or returned blank.

Furthermore, those students whose parents/caregivers nominated a religious persuasion not available at their school were also exposed to this risk, particularly the 105,556 students that had a specific religious persuasion declared on their enrolment form for which there was, and is, no available scripture provider in NSW Government schools approved by the Minister.

In February 2018, in consideration of the fact that the REIPs had not been amended prior to the beginning of the 2018 school year FIRIS wrote another letter of complaint to the Secretary of the Department, Mark Scott.

FIRIS was also alarmed that proposed Special Religious Education Procedures scheduled for implementation on 30 January 2019, also did not contain measures to protect and respect the rights of all parents and caregivers and referred to documents which had not been amended in consideration of the Minister’s response to Jo Haylen.

FIRIS also sent a copy of this letter to the Shadow Minister for Education, Jihad Dib, who then wrote to the Minister for Education and who received the reply:

Download (PDF, 400KB)

Compare this letter word for word to the one received by FIRIS from Rod Megahey mid-November and note the glaring omission.

Download (PDF, 2.61MB)

The Minister has failed to include the statement –

If the parents/caregivers do not return the SRE participation letter, the student will engage in alternative meaningful activities during the time allocated for SRE.

Needless to say, at the time of writing (6 July 2018) neither the current REIPs (dated December 2016) nor the proposed 2019 Procedures or any of the supporting documents have been changed to reflect the Minister’s responses to Jo Haylen or his Department’s response to FIRIS.

So what does all of this reveal about those rushing to declare their respect for parent and caregiver choice now that NSW Labor has made the enrolment form an election issue?

The information above demonstrates that the current Minister for Education’s newfound commitment to respecting parent and caregiver choice is questionable given –

  • his decision to dismiss the 2015 recommendation to review the current enrolment form thereby indicating that he believes the enrolment form and its associated processes were ‘clear and working as intended’
  • his decision to not amend the REIPs to ensure a declaration of ‘no religion’ on the enrolment form is respected as a ‘choice’
  • his seeming willingness to allow his Department’s policies, procedures, processes and practices to enable students to be placed in a scripture class without express and informed consent from their parents or caregivers

It seems the Minister is OK with parents and caregivers having a choice, but it seems he is not so interested in ensuring that that choice is respected, protected and acted on in with any integrity by his Department.

The history of the changes to the enrolment process reveals that the senior Department of Education representatives have amended policies and procedures resulting in the increased risk of the rights and choices of a significant number of students and their parents and caregivers being dismissed at the school level and violated.

In consideration of the audits completed by FIRIS demonstrating the failure of the Department to monitor scripture in any meaningful way and the failure of far too many scripture providers to fulfill their obligations in a self-regulating system, the failure of the Department to develop robust policies and procedures exposes it to the risk of failing to fulfil its duty of care obligations by minimising the risk of students being exposed to the content of scripture lessons and the actions of scripture instructors without express and informed consent from parents and caregivers.

The minutes and associated documents of the SRE-CC, particularly those relating to the enrolment form – and the process Labor is proposing a return to – demonstrates

  • at best, the inability of the SRE-CC to recognise, respect and protect the rights of all students and their parents/caregivers, or
  • at worst, a deliberate dismissal of the rights and the choices of a significant cohort of the NSW public school community with the intention of  increasing the chance of students being funnelled into scripture classes without express and informed consent from parents and caregivers.

So what next?

Given that FIRIS has exhausted all formal and bureaucratic channels to have the Minister ensure that the rights of all students and their parents/caregivers are respected throughout the enrolment process, we are in the process of seeking legal advice based on a 125 page document outlining the history of amendments to the enrolment process including 79 pieces of supporting evidence.

Given that the Minister has chosen to not ensure that his reply to Jo Haylen is reflected in his Department’s policies, procedures and supporting documents FIRIS will be calling upon its supporters to participate in direct actions over the coming weeks and months aimed at ensuring the rights of all students and their parents/caregivers are respected in the 2019 school year.

It’s time to make it very clear, it’s not a ‘yes’ if it’s not a clear and informed ‘yes’.

 

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.

Download (PDF, 536KB)

Download (PDF, 175KB)

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.

Download (PDF, 2.07MB)

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.