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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.

 

 

NSW Labor left faction agitates to remove scripture classes from public schools – The Guardian

In NSW schools, scripture can be provided for no less than 30 minutes a week and no more than an hour. Teachers are volunteers or paid representatives of religious organisations. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

NSW Labor left faction agitates to remove scripture classes from public schools

Naaman Zhou – The Guardian
Monday 17 July 2017 11.26 AEST

A plan to remove scripture classes from New South Wales public schools will be put forward at Labor’s annual state conference by the party’s left faction.

All public schools in NSW have to provide at least 30 minutes a week for optional religious education classes, but students who opt out are not allowed to undertake any educational activities during that time.

The proposal’s backers are looking to emulate a move by the Victorian Labor government, which in 2015 removed scripture from the school curriculum, meaning the classes could only occur before or after school, or at lunchtime.

However, proponents have already encountered opposition from the party’s internal committees, with the education committee recommending its rejection.

A member of the education committee, Adam Shultz, who supported the removal of scripture classes, said it was reasonable to follow Victoria’s lead.
“We’re pouring so much money into Gonski, why are we throwing away valuable class time? We’re keen to see classroom time focused on the syllabus.
“If you held it outside class time, it would be a lot better for everyone,” said Shultz, a Labor councillor for Lake Macquarie City Council.
“We’re not the first movers on this. Victoria has already gone down this path, and we should in our view, follow suit.”

In NSW, scripture, known as special religious education (SRE), can be provided for no less than 30 minutes a week and no more than an hour, and is held during ordinary class time. Schools can also provide secular ethics classes alongside scripture, after they were introduced in 2011, but there is a shortage of qualified instructors.

But students who opt out of both must read or undertake private study instead of regular classwork.

Parents are also lobbying the Parents and Citizens Federation for changes to the rules governing what schools can do while scripture is being taught, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

The NSW Labor shadow education minister, Jihad Dib, said neither he nor the leader of the opposition, Luke Foley, had plans for the removal of scripture.
“It is a long-held position of NSW Labor that in recognition of the diversity of Australian society we support parental choice in educating children about their faith,” Dib said.

“Many policy suggestions are raised at conference [and] as a party our conferences have always been a robust forum to discuss a range of ideas.”
However Darrin Morgan, the NSW director of Fairness in Religion in Schools, a group which opposes school scripture classes, called for the laws to change.

“Students in scripture have the power to stop the learning of all other students – it’s ridiculous,” he said.

“That learning time, which is given to volunteer teachers or paid representatives of religious organisations, should be returned to professional educators and they can make up their mind how to fill that space.
“We are not against learning about religion in schools, it just should be taught by trained Department of Education teachers.”
A 2015 review into SRE in government schools, which was completed in 2016 but only publicly released in April this year, found 75% of parents were dissatisfied with the kind of activities their children did while others were in scripture or ethics class.

The opinion of educators was mixed, with 71% of primary school principals satisfied with the alternatives provided, but the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council expressed “serious concern” that scripture was “denying the opportunity for learning for others”.

The report eventually recommended that students should be allowed to continue regular classwork during scripture time.
Critical principals quoted in the report said SRE made “timetabling difficult” and “created logistical issues” in schools where the majority of students opted out.

“SRE is the only area where the choices made by some (often very few) prevents other students from exercising their normal rights to learning,” said one.

The Anglican archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, said Labor’s policy should not change.

“Previous Labor governments as well as the current shadow minister have always been supportive of special religious education and the involvement of various faiths and cultures in the school community,” he said.
“The recent independent report on SRE and ethics showed significant community satisfaction with the present system. I believe this support transcends political affiliation.”

The education minister, Rob Stokes, has argued scripture lessons are a tradition in NSW public schools.

“Religious education classes have been offered in public schools since 1848 and have been supported by all NSW governments since then,” Stokes said.

“There is a longstanding policy and legal framework supporting freedom of religion and conscience in NSW public schools.”

In June, at a meeting with Dib and Stokes, Bishop Peter Ingham of the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong said SRE in schools was a sign of “a mature and inclusive education system”.

SRE has been provided in NSW government schools since the 1800s. In 2015, the report found 92% of primary schools had SRE or ethics classes, as did 81% of secondary schools.

Seventy-one per cent of primary school students participated in scripture or ethics, compared with only 31% of secondary school students.

In Victoria, in-school SRE was replaced with a relationships education program that taught content on preventing domestic violence, appreciating diversity, and world histories, cultures and faiths.
However, the current NSW Labor proposal does not specify a replacement.
Shultz said he would advocate for the change at the state conference, which runs from 29 to 31 July, and “see how it goes”.

“We will agitate for change,” he said. “Fingers crossed we can get a result.”

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/17/nsw-labor-left-faction-agitate-to-remove-scripture-classes-from-public-schools

Adjournment speech: Freedom of Religion – Lee Rhiannon

lee-rhiannon.greensmps.org.au/articles/adjournment-speech-freedom-religion

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:29): I am an atheist. I grew up with a strong belief that freedom of religion is fundamental to democracy. In my teenage years, I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Young Humanists. There were some wonderful times that further strengthened my respect for and interest in different beliefs and different viewpoints.

I was growing up when the US, with Australian support, was waging war in South-East Asia. Millions of people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were killed. This brutality brought home to me that those who cannot countenance any views at variance with their own create a recipe for civil unrest, oppression and an authoritarian state. These days I am troubled by the intolerance political leaders like Prime Minister Turnbull and US President Donald Trump use to retain power. Today’s announcement by the Prime Minister that 18C is on the chopping block is an attack on the tolerance and respect our society is built on. We need to remind ourselves that Australia is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is worth remembering the exact words of article 18. It states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…

Everyone has the right—

… to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

And no-one will be coerced into or prevented from adopting or manifesting a religion or belief.

Belief refers to all personal worldviews, religious or otherwise, that influence our understanding of the universe and everyday behaviour. I certainly believe that is how we should interpret it. It also requires not only freedom of one’s own belief but also freedom from the imposition of belief by others. So it would seem that all modern states agree to the requirement that the state itself cannot impose or direct any religious position on its citizens. It must support religious tolerance and respect for minority views and ensure equality of all beliefs before the law. In other words, a secular state defends human rights and remains strictly separate from any religious institution.

However, these universal rights in fact are frequently and seriously eroded in many countries, including Australia. There are some startling examples around the world. Saudi Arabia, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, has recently imposed a new so-called terrorism law which prohibits any atheist thought in any form and any disloyalty to the country’s rulers or criticism of Islam. There is a death sentence for apostasy. Similar positions are espoused by Islamic nations wishing a strict form of sharia law. In India Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu fundamentalist BJP party have become associated with book banning and censorship that curtails other religions and viewpoints. The Buddhist government of Sri Lanka has systematically committed cultural genocide towards the Hindu Tamil minority, destroying temples, raping women and confiscating land.

These are just a few examples that arise when nation states are ruled by religion. This too often leads to abuse. Catholic dominated countries such as Poland and Ireland have banned women from accessing abortions, and are causing so much harm, tragedy and death in the course of that very bad policy. Christian and Muslim fundamentalism and all religious fundamentalisms are products of the intolerance, racism and extremism that go hand in hand with religious states.

In Australia, our constitution does not link our society with any religion. However, when it comes to the separation of state and church we are not doing very well. In 2009, J Perkins and F Gomez, in their paper Taxes and subsidies: the cost of ‘advancing religion’, printed in the Australian Humanist, estimated that the annual gross cost of religion to the Australian taxpayer is $31 billion. It makes for a fascinating read. The big cost is tax exemption granted to the powerful, big Christian churches. They are extremely wealthy, with enormous land and building resources for which they pay no rates. In by far the majority of cases they were given the land for free. Arguably, the budget deficit could be erased if the big churches paid their fair share of tax. The Catholic Church, in particular, is a powerful political lobby. The church hierarchy believes in the sanctity of marriage between man and woman, the rights of the foetus over the rights of the mother and homosexuality is a sin, as is abortion.

Religious intolerance has been the driver of much discrimination in our society. Until recently, people were jailed for homosexual behaviour. Marriage equality is still not legal. Abortion remains a criminal offence under New South Wales law. All this is despite the fact that the clear majority of Australians believe these bans are undemocratic and a violation of citizens’ rights to act on their own beliefs. I certainly acknowledge that there are many religious people who strongly advocate for an end to all these forms of discrimination, but the religious institutions in this country have power that is destructive, undemocratic and not respectful of other views.

Scripture in public schools is a stand-out example of where the power of religious groups needs to be reined in. Growing up in an atheist household, I remember my parents regularly emphasising how important it was for me to respect people of all faiths. I was at primary school in the 1960s. When it came time for scripture most students went to what was then called Church of England scripture. There were also Catholic and Jewish scripture at my school. In the playground, however, religion did not figure at all in how we viewed each other—or anything for that matter. I attended non-scripture classes, but what I quickly found out was that were no actual classes. I was either sat on my own or given jobs while the other students went to scripture classes. When I was given the job of cleaning the toilets during non-scripture time I knew something was wrong. Today I do not hear of students being sent to clean the toilets as an alternative to scripture classes, but we still have a long way to go. Religion inserts itself into public education in Australia where it should not be. If parents wish to have their children instructed in a religious faith, that should not be done within the public education system.

Since 2006 the federal government has funded the National School Chaplaincy Program. The program was brought in by former Prime Minister John Howard. The chaplains are paid to provide general support for students, not specific denomination instruction. They are not qualified to deal with mental health issues, bullying, and relationship or sexual advice.

Most chaplains are sourced from explicitly evangelical organisations, often providing programs that are apparently designed to provide support and friendship, but which in fact aim to—and this comes from their material—’make God’s good news known to children’. The employment of chaplains and the teaching of Scripture do not give equal respect to the multitude of other mainstream religions or alternative denominations, nor to the 23 per cent of people in Australia who have no religion. Indeed, the explicit aim of many Christian organisations is to convert children while they are young and impressionable.

Most Australian states do have education acts that specify that government schools will provide a secular education, one that does not promote one set of religious beliefs over another. Sounds good; however, special religious instruction is provided in most schools, usually offered by church volunteers. The New South Wales Department of Education has confirmed it has had Crown Solicitor’s advice that a New South Wales education minister:

… does not have the power to control the contents of SRE—

special religious education—

under the current provisions of the Education Act.

That is wrong, deeply wrong.

Recent reviews in Queensland and New South Wales have raised concerns about the content of Scripture classes. Members of the New South Wales Department of Education’s special religious education committee have stated that the aim of Scripture in New South Wales public schools is ‘teaching all to obey Jesus Christ’. Yet, as noted by some senior church leaders and by the Greens’ state justice spokesperson, David Shoebridge, much of the material is out of date and inappropriate for children. Worse, it can place children at risk of child abuse. In practice, parents are given little information or alternative options. Students either conform to the standard Christian scripture class, or else they are required to engage in menial, boring, punitive tasks that can create a negative label for those students.

Religious organisations are exploiting out-of-date legislation and flawed education department policies, like those we have in New South Wales, to treat public schools as an open door to promoting their religion. The New South Wales Department of Education’s special religious education committee is made up of members of the SRE lobby, which has said that the aim of Scripture, as I said, is about teaching children to obey Jesus Christ. Nearly 90 per cent of the approved SRE providers in New South Wales are Christian. The system does not respect the rights of students, parents or caregivers with nonreligious beliefs, and I would argue that people of other faiths are not being respected either. As I said, I would argue that that should be outside the education department, but at the moment many people’s children are being pulled into a Christian Scripture when they may wish their children to be taught otherwise.

Over a year, special religious education takes up 20 to 40 hours of curriculum time while that religious education is taking place. Students not participating in this religious education are not allowed to engage in academic instruction or formal school activities. I really do strongly urge people who are following this—and I hope people do—to look at the reports that have come out of the Queensland Department of Education and Training. They have actually looked at some of the religious education coming out of New South Wales, including Sydney Anglican’s Connect program and other materials used in New South Wales. They have found that they have contained material: that is inappropriate for the target age group; that has topics that include murder, prostitution and animal sacrifice; that may encourage undesirable child behaviours, such as keeping of secrets and the formation of special friendships with adults—likened to possible grooming behaviour; that has the potential to affect the social and emotional wellbeing of particular students; that can be seen as aimed at converting students to Christianity. The full title of that report is Report on the review of the Connect religious instruction materials from August 2016. It was put out by the Queensland government’s Department of Education and Training.

Coming back to New South Wales: when it comes to religious education and when it comes to our education system with regard to how religion is being handled, the system is just not good enough. The law states that the Minister for Education has no control over what is taught during special religious education. Special religious education is actually not delivered by teachers who are employed by the Department of Education, but is delivered by sometimes paid but usually volunteer representatives of religious organisations. A Department of Education teacher does not even need to be present during SRE. When you consider the standards that I think many people hope and believe our schools follow, particularly with police checks that are run on people who work with children, the lack of standards when it comes to special religious education, at least in New South Wales, is quite extraordinary.

As well as a Department of Education teacher not needing to be present during special religious education, principals can put children into special religious education without consent from parents and caregivers. The department does not even have a policy that makes it clear that those people volunteering, the volunteering SRE instructors, are not to try to convert students to their religious education program, their churches or their religion. That is why I said that you can see why parents are raising their concerns, that it is about capturing children while they are very young and converting them to usually Christian religions. The law requires principals to actually divide students up based on the religious beliefs of their parents and caregivers and send them to special religious education, where they receive instructions in the beliefs and practices of one religion. Special religious education is not inclusive. It is not education about world religions. By far in the main it is about the Christian religion. That is why I made that emphasis before. I think the whole system is wrong, and not just for non-religious people but for people of other faiths. How this system is being run is clearly troubling and certainly undemocratic.

This is quote from a former special religious education teacher at a high school: ‘As a scripture teacher there is rarely a day where I do not tell students the message of Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no-one else”. The message of the Bible is that you will be sent to hell unless you repent of your sin and trust in Jesus for your salvation. You need to do it now.’ So the situation is troubling.

What I would argue is that education about religions in state schools should be delivered by teachers employed by the education department. I am certainly not arguing that religion should not be talked about or taught in our schools, but it should be taught by teachers about different religious beliefs not as a belief system where a particular church or a particular belief system, a particular faith, is being promoted to try and capture those students into that particular faith. It should be done in a way that is respectful of the secular nature of our state schools. Religion should be another part of our education, rather than being about promoting a faith.

The Greens support the New South Wales Department of Education statement that: ‘Schools are neutral grounds for rational discourse and objective study’. But a lot of work needs to happen to get it back to that point. We also support FIRIS, Fairness In Religions In School. It is a very fine organisation that believes that the education department should apply its policies consistently and fairly throughout every school day.

I would really urge people to acquaint themselves with this issue. Increasingly, education is becoming more and more important. I think that is becoming more widely recognised. It needs to be done in a way that is inclusive, respectful and is not about pushing barrows of certain faiths. I am not arguing that those faiths do not have a place in our society. I respect that. But our education system should not be used to indoctrinate young people. Religion, in terms of promoting faith, should be separate from our education system. Thank you.

NSW Public Schools Should Opt Out Of Religion

Amelia Kirby original link here
Writer and social commentator

Special religious education (SRE) has no business in public schools. The system in which special religious education is the default option and special education in ethics is opt in only, and only then when volunteers are available, must be changed.

We are constantly told how tight the curriculum is, and subjects such as languages, for example, often don’t make the cut. Yet each week half an hour is lost to religious education, and an invaluable opportunity to teach our children goes with it.

Yes, ethics is available in many schools, assuming there is an effort to coordinate the delivery of these classes. But this is not a consistent offering across NSW as although the Department of Education states that ethics should be offered, it is dependent on the availability of volunteers who are not provided by the Department. SRE instruction is mandated by the Department, which again does not provide the teachers who are instead approved by whichever religious persuasion they’re representing. This is confusing and inconsistent and parents would not stand for it in any other circumstance.

In 2010, an amendment to the Education Act made the concession to allow parents and caregivers to opt their children out of SRE in order to attend special ethics education. But you have to opt out; the default is that you will attend the SRE class of the religion you declared at enrollment. Ethics class is offered only after you have opted out of SRE initially.

If ethics is unavailable, it is then the responsibility of the school principal to ‘support’ SRE by “ensuring that no academic instruction or formal school activities occur during time set aside for special religious education. Such activities create conflict of choice for some parents and students attending special religious education”.

“We should devolve responsibility for religious education back to where it belongs: in families and religious institutions.”

Surely it is the obligation of public schools to be educating our children and engaging them in a productive activity at every opportunity and that to not do so is a neglect of their duty of care. If the activity cannot be delivered to the whole school, remove it from the core curriculum and conduct it outside of school hours. Or better still, devolve responsibility for religious education back to where it belongs: in families and religious institutions.

It’s time to stop accepting this system and start demanding a considered alternative; this should not be dependent on the ability of the school to coordinate ethics classes, or the availability of volunteer ethics teachers. Ethics should be the default for all children: it is necessary, applicable to kids from all walks of life, socially relevant and key to nurturing and educating upstanding citizens of tomorrow.

It is time for secular families, progressives, and anyone who values the importance of the separation of church and state to demand change in NSW public schools. Fairness in Religion in Schools cites the victory last year in getting SRE removed from the curriculum in Victorian public schools as a big turning point, and it is looking to take the movement to NSW.

Let’s call time on this outdated, divisive element of the curriculum; let’s embrace multiculturalism, critical thinking, debate and inclusivity, for the sake of all of our children.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/amelia-kirby/nsw-public-schools-should-opt-out-of-religion/

Scripture, questions and silence

NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes (right) and former minister Adrian Piccoli. Mr Stokes has not responded to questions about his department's responses to a critical review of scripture material.

EDUCATION Minister Rob Stokes has declined to comment after questions about his department’s response to a critical report into scripture material authorised by Sydney Anglican diocese, and used across NSW public schools including in the Hunter region.

Mr Stokes declined to say if the department responded appropriately after a Queensland Department of Education report in August found some “Connect” scripture material, produced by a Sydney diocese-linked evangelical youth group, was consistent with “possible grooming behaviour”.

This was despite the Newcastle Herald advising Mr Stokes’s office that his department had not answered questions about whether it contacted Sydney Anglican diocese, which authorises the material, or raised the issue with the then Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, or issued a directive to NSW principals, who have a duty of care to children in their schools, and after evidence some principals may be unaware scripture material is not approved or vetted by the department.

The department also did not respond to questions about whether it suspended use of the “Connect” material, pending a response from Sydney Anglican diocese or its scripture producer Youthworks, after the Queensland report found the material contained “some content that may encourage undesirable child safe behaviours”.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said it was “clear the Government is bunkering down and hoping concern about school scripture blows over”, but there were serious concerns about the current system.

They include that scripture providers authorise their own material and provide annual assurances to the department that they “have in place processes that satisfy the requirements for teaching SRE in NSW Government schools”, but where the department and minister have no power to approve material.

“It is clear the Government is bunkering down and hoping concern about school scripture blows over. – NSW Greens justice spokesperson David Shoebridge”

Concerns also include that children are placed in scripture classes as a default position where parents do not state in writing that they do not want their children to attend scripture classes.

“Keeping children safe must be the number one priority in our schools, not pandering to extreme religious views,” Mr Shoebridge said.

He called on Mr Stokes to release the $300,000 NSW report into Special Religious Education and Special Ethics Education which was completed more than 12 months ago but is still to be released to the public.

“The NSW Government has kept the review of scripture classes secret for more than 12 months while pretending to work out what to do with it. This is simply not good enough,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“The NSW Government needs to listen to the justified concerns about these programs, rather than any conservative religious elements within their own cabinet.”

The Queensland Department of Education review in August recommended removing a lesson for children aged 10-12, which suggested scripture teachers “bring in a dead animal to dissect”.

The review found other lessons had the potential to be upsetting, inappropriate or likely to affect the social and emotional wellbeing of children, including a lesson for children aged 7-9 about a man born blind, which asked: “Was it a punishment from God because his parents or someone else had done something wrong?”

The material also included a lesson requiring children aged 7-9 to list ways to “get rid of” a person, after a Bible story about people “getting rid of” Daniel, and a concluding prayer where children “pray that we may not be like the Israelites”.

The review noted “Connect producer”, the Sydney-based Anglican Youthworks, amended lessons about Indigenous children and children with disabilities after community anger that scripture teachers were told “SRE, a barbecue and an afternoon’s sport would be the most pleasurable experience Aboriginal Primary students could imagine”. Scripture teachers were also reminded not to see children with disabilities as “unintelligent”.

In September Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) wrote to the NSW Department of Education with questions about how it was responding to the Queensland report.

The department replied in December, thanking FIRIS for sending a copy of the Queensland report, noting it took its duty of care to children seriously, but not responding to specific questions and referring the group to its Special Religious Education policies.

FIRIS spokesman Darrin Morgan said the “risk management of the issues identified in the ‘Connect’ review required robust policies and procedures to ensure parents make an informed choice to expose their children to its content’.”

“Over the last three years of correspondence, the Department of Education has made it clear that it is not interested in risk managing Special Religious Education at a systems level. In fact, it seems that it has acted in the interests of SRE pressure and made policies and procedures weaker,” Mr Morgan said.

In response to an earlier Herald article Youthworks said all “inconsistent” lesson material identified in the Queensland review had been amended to the standard required by the Queensland Department of Education.

“The changes required by Education Queensland have also been applied to our material sold in NSW, and our teachers are being trained to use the new material accordingly,” the statement said.

The NSW Department of Education said it was the responsibility of SRE approved providers to authorise scripture material, provide an annual assurance to the department that authorised teachers were only using authorised material, to make information about lesson content accessible on a website and provide information about lessons when requested by parents or principals.

“The department takes its duty of care to students seriously. If an allegation is made against a person providing religious education in a government school, it will be investigated with any reasonable action taken to protect students from any foreseeable harm,” a department spokesperson said.

“Approved providers of SRE submit a written assurance to the department stating that they have in place processes that satisfy the requirements for teaching SRE in NSW Government schools. This includes an assurance that SRE teachers are teaching the curriculum with sensitivity, in an age appropriate manner and that authorised teachers are only using materials and pedagogy authorised by the provider.

“Principals and parents can ask for full details of SRE materials used by providers and providers are expected to provide these details. Any issues regarding refusal to provide materials should be referred to the department.”

http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4476768/scripture-questions-and-silence/?cs=305

Questions for NSW governments on special religious education

EDITORIAL: original link here
20 Feb 2017, 12:30 a.m

THE NSW Education Act of 1990 – which governs the operation of this state’s public schools – says that up to one hour a week can be “be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion”.

At the same time, however, no child is to be forced to receive general or special religious education. As an alternative, children can be educated in ethics, “as a secular alternative to special religious education”.

Given an Australia built on the supposed separation of church and state, it is in some ways surprising that religious instruction is being offered in public schools at all.

After all, in an age when the traditional view of the family is being put to the test, it is remarkable that one group of people – the religiously inclined – are given such special treatment that their particular view of things is allowed to be thrust on young people in a place of learning, rather than at home, where the parents or guardians of individual children have the right (within legal limits) to instruct them as they see fit.

Supporters of special religious education may well say the same about ethics, and argue that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

But the difference – in the words of ethics provider Primary Ethics – is that secular ethics explores the fundamental issues of life by means of “reasoned argument about values and principles, rather than an appeal to religion or cultural norms”.

Simply put, ethics teaches children to think for themselves, rather than to accept biblical instruction as a basis for values. There may be nothing wrong with religion in itself – although as the Royal Commission and other investigations around the world are showing, there is a long history of wrongdoing and cover-up by the leaders, and the foot soldiers, of many religious institutions.

For this reason alone, it is extraordinary that the secular education system, from the education minister down, seems to have little if any control over what is being taught in religious classes, and who is teaching it.

It might be all very well to say that we know what is being taught: it’s the Bible. But as thousands of years of religious wars have shown us, there are lots of ways to interpret the word of God.

Parents would have a better idea of what was going on in special religion classes if the NSW government released the report it received more than a year ago on the subject. The longer it waits, the worse things look.

ISSUE: 38,471

http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4477805/mixing-the-scriptural-and-secular-in-school/?cs=308