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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

The NSW scripture in schools debate is not about religion, it’s about child protection

Concerns: NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes "does not have the power to control the contents of SRE under the current provisions of the Education Act”.

Joanne McCarthy – http://www.theherald.com.au
2 Feb 2017, 9 a.m.

SCRIPTURE in public schools is not an issue about religious views or what you believe about the historical accuracy of the Bible, which is where a lot of the argument seems to settle these days given the heavy involvement of evangelical Christian churches.

The scripture debate is about a more basic issue than that – child protection.

For more than three years the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has considered how institutions – churches, schools, sporting organisations, welfare providers, government departments, police, the justice system – have responded to child sexual abuse.

What can be said today, without any doubt, is that an institution with responsibility for children that fails to make child protection the top priority, is an institution where children are potentially at risk.

As a principle, child protection includes protecting children from sexual, physical and emotional harm.

What we also know from the royal commission is that institutions need to be crystal clear about lines of responsibility when it comes to the care of children. In too many cases we’ve heard evidence from people unclear about their responsibilities, unaware of rules and regulations, unable to obtain information and ultimately, unresponsive to the risks faced by children in their care.

The operation of scripture in NSW today ticks just about every box on that list, which is why I keep writing about it. What is the point of campaigning for a royal commission when we appear to be deaf, dumb and blind to the fundamental messages it is telling us about keeping children safe?

How many parents know that the scripture material their children are taught is not investigated, vetted or approved by the Department of Education? How many parents know the Minister for Education Rob Stokes “does not have the power to control the contents of Special Religious Education (scripture) under the current provisions of the Education Act”?

Without knowing the above, how can we say parents signing their children’s enrolment forms – and remember these are Department of Education forms giving parents the sense that everything involved is approved/endorsed by the department – have given informed consent?

Why is that an important issue? Because under current arrangements responsibility for what parents have signed their children up for, is up to parents. It is parents’ responsibility to contact the scripture provider to find out what their children will be taught.

The provider – and finding who or what that is, is an exercise in itself – will point you to a website with a curriculum framework. Go to the Youthworks website and see its scripture curriculum framework. Then read Newcastle Herald articles about what is actually taught to children, and decide for yourself whether parents are actually able to make an informed consent.

The duty of care for children in public schools ultimately rests with principals. But as has become clear this week, a disturbing number of principals appear unaware that scripture material is not approved or vetted by the department. And that’s ultimately an issue for the department.

Scripture has been in NSW schools for a long time, but the influence of evangelical Christian groups with a strident reliance on long-ago laws to maintain their “right” to have access to children is, as Anglican priest Rod Bower said, “an echo of a bygone era” that needs to be reconsidered.

It will require legislative change. Ultimately this is a test for the NSW Parliament.

http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4441024/scripture-concern-is-about-protecting-kids/

NSW principals concerned about scripture consent

Challenge: NSW Greens Justice spokesperson David Shoebridge said he will use the courts, if necessary, to compel the NSW Government to release a review of scripture in NSW schools.

Joanne McCarthy – http://www.theherald.com.au
2 Feb 2017, 5 a.m.

A NSW primary school principal removed a Catholic scripture teacher who took a brooch of two little feet into a class to show children “that was the size of an unborn baby’s feet”.

NSW Primary Principals Association president Phil Seymour said it was the only time he was compelled to act against a scripture teacher in 19 years as a principal, and the church responded.

But Mr Seymour and association treasurer Rob Walker expressed concern about whether parents had enough information to give informed consent to their children attending scripture in NSW public schools, and whether all principals knew scripture material was not approved or vetted by the Department of Education.

Mr Seymour said he had not been aware the education minister does not have the power to control scripture material under the Education Act, and the news came as a “surprise”.

Mr Walker, who is the association representative on a NSW Department of Education consultative committee on scripture and ethics, said he would raise the question of whether a disclaimer was needed on enrolment forms with the department.

“Parents may well form the view they’re signing a Department of Education form giving permission for their children to attend scripture and as a consequence their understanding is that the content of the scripture lesson is endorsed, approved and vetted by the department, and that’s not the case,” Mr Walker said.

The disclaimer could take the form of parents acknowledging that in giving permission for children to attend scripture, they were aware the material was approved by the scripture provider and not the department, he said.

In NSW a large percentage of scripture material is provided by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney’s Youthworks, and is based on evangelical Christian teachings including that the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, is historic fact.

The Youthworks Connect scripture material was the subject of a Queensland Department of Education review which raised serious concerns about lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour”, and attitudes to people with disabilities, women and Indigenous people.

On Tuesday Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Bill Wright authorised a statement saying the Connect material was not used in the diocese. Newcastle Anglican Bishop Peter Stuart said he was “troubled” by issues raised in the Queensland report and the material was being reviewed.

In a statement on Thursday NSW Greens Justice spokesperson David Shoebridge repeated his call for scripture in NSW schools to be immediately suspended pending release of the $300,000 review into scripture, which was completed more than 12 months ago.

“The NSW Education Department must release the comprehensive report they have undertaken into special religious education in NSW, following the public release of the comparable report in Queensland,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“The Queensland review shows that the unvetted material used in NSW scripture classes encourages behaviour that put children at risk of sexual abuse, such as having special relationships with adults and keeping secrets.

“Given the ongoing risks to children we will be demanding its public release, through freedom of information, parliament and if necessary the courts. Until it is released, scripture should be suspended.

“It’s time for the NSW Government to listen to the justified concerns about these programs, rather than any conservative religious elements within their own cabinet.

“We are calling on Rob Stokes as the new Education Minister to urgently suspend scripture classes in public schools,” Mr Shoebridge said.

Darrin Morgan from Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) said the lack of ministerial oversight of scripture material and whether parents had enough information to make informed consent were risk management issues for the Department of Education to consider.

“Over the last three years of correspondence with FIRIS as we’ve raised these issues, the Department of Education has made it clear that it is not interested in risk managing Special Religious Education at a systems level,” Mr Morgan said.

“In fact, it seems that it has acted in the interests of SRE pressure and made policies and procedures weaker.”

In complaints about proselytising (attempting to convert someone) by scripture teachers in NSW schools the department has told FIRIS that principals are responsible for the implementation of the department’s religious policy in schools.

“If a parent/caregiver or community member believes an SRE provider or volunteer is proselytising as part of SRE, ten a complaint should be made to the principal,” the department said in one response.

Mr Morgan accused the department of “dumping responsibility” for dealing with scripture issues on to principals “without providing them with clear and robust procedures to assist them to ensure they fulfil their duty of care responsibilities to all students”.

“The department is also making parents use a reactive and frustrating complaints process,” he said.

In a statement on Monday the department said it took its duty of care to students seriously.

“If an allegation is made against a person providing SRE in a government school, it will be investigated with reasonable action taken to protect students from foreseeable risk of harm,” the department said.

“Parents/caregivers seeking information about lesson content for their child’s SRE class, or prospective SRE class, should contact the relevant provider of SRE.

“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 and in an age appropriate manner.”

http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4441340/the-trouble-with-scripture-consent-forms/

Fairness In Religion In Schools (FIRIS) launches information campaign outside Morisset High School today

CAMPAIGN: Paul Foster talks to parents outside the school on Monday. FIRIS says there's "a total lack of oversight" by schools of scripture class content.

David Stewart – http://www.lakesmail.com.au
30 Jan 2017, 12:12 p.m.

Fairness In Religion In Schools (FIRIS) launched an information campaign outside Morisset High School on Monday to inform local parents of what it describes as concerning aspects of scripture classes, now known as Special Religious Education (SRE), in public schools.

FIRIS said it was concerned about the content of some SRE classes but spokesperson Paul Foster said: “FIRIS is not against religion being taught in schools. We think this is vital. We are against churches being in schools. Let qualified NSW teachers teach all of our children.”

FIRIS’s goal is to see religious education removed from public schools and replaced by an alternative program run by the department “that does not divide children along religious lines”.

http://www.lakesmail.com.au/story/4434327/parent-group-campaign-at-morisset-targets-scripture-classes-photos/

Newcastle Anglican and Catholic bishops question basis of Anglican scripture material and Bible as historic fact

Fact: Bishop Peter Stuart says the Bible is a sacred text but "It is not a history text or science book"

Joanne McCarthy – http://www.theherald.com.au/
1 Feb 2017, 6 a.m

SCRIPTURE in NSW public schools is “an echo from a bygone era and now needs to be reconsidered”, said a prominent Newcastle Anglican Diocese priest after calls on Monday for scripture’s immediate suspension.

Father Rod Bower said Anglican Special Religious Education material produced by a Christian evangelical group and authorised by Sydney Anglican Diocese was “of great concern”, a view backed by Newcastle Anglican Bishop Peter Stuart after a review raised serious concerns, including questions about “possible grooming behaviour” linked to some material taught to children.

Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese has also ruled against the Sydney Anglican Diocese material, with Bishop Bill Wright approving a statement on Tuesday saying Maitland-Newcastle “has not endorsed for use the Connect program in our diocese”.

Bishop Stuart said he was “troubled” by matters raised in a Queensland Department of Education review of the scripture material known as Connect, and produced by Sydney Anglican Diocese’s Youthworks. Connect material is taught in scripture classes across NSW, and teaches the Bible as historic fact.

The Bible was a “sacred text” but “not a history text or science book”, said Bishop Stuart after the Queensland review questioned the Connect material’s teaching of the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, as a “factual, historical document” describing “historical and true” events.

In its statement on Tuesday Maitland-Newcastle diocese also challenged the Sydney Anglican Diocese’s authorised scripture position on the Bible, saying: “Catholic tradition does not insist our taking every bit of biblical history or science or cosmology as historical or scientific fact”.

Father Bower said the Connect material was used in most SRE classes and was “of great concern to many mainstream Christians”.

One of the main issues is that most SRE teachers are now drawn from conservative evangelical churches which raises concerns for more secular-minded or spiritually progressive parents, he said.

Father Bower, a prominent refugee advocate and human rights supporter, said a general religious education in schools which equipped students to “navigate their way in an increasingly multi-faith, multi-cultural society” was a “much more appropriate system”.

“Parents who desire for their children to have Special Religious Education should take them to a local place of worship of their choice,” he said.

Bishop Stuart supported the $300,000 review of Special Religious Education and ethics classes in NSW that was finalised 12 months ago.

“It is appropriate for the current forms of religious education to be reviewed. Australian society continues to change and education about ethics, values and beliefs needs to reflect those changes,” he said.

The Queensland Department of Education review of the Connect material revealed scripture teachers were advised to “bring a dead animal to dissect” in an animal sacrifice lesson, that children were encouraged to have secrets with adults, and a man’s blindness was linked to his parents’ sins.

On Monday NSW Greens Justice spokesman David Shoebridge called for the immediate suspension of scripture in schools and release of the long-awaited NSW review. He strongly criticised lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour” after more than three years of evidence from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The call came after confirmation NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes and the Department of Education have no power over the content of scripture lessons under the Education Act. It also came after controversial changes to NSW public school enrolment forms in 2015 removing ethics classes as an option, and leaving scripture as the default position in some state primary schools.

The Queensland review in August recommended removing an animal sacrifice 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”.

A group challenging the application of scripture guidelines across three states, Fairness in Religions in School, letterboxed houses near Hunter and Sydney schools on the weekend with information about enrolling children in scripture and ethics classes, after accusing the NSW Department of Education of failing to act on the Queensland and NSW reviews.

“We can’t believe the Department of Education hands over its duty of care to children in state schools to religious groups that are unaccountable, even to the minister, for what they teach,” said FIRIS spokesman Darrin Morgan.

The Queensland review found that while the “vast majority” of Connect material aligned with Department of Education guidelines, it raised concerns about parental consent, the lack of data on scripture numbers and the lack of legislation to allow “centralised regulation” of scripture content.

Mr Shoebridge called on Mr Stokes to release the NSW review and allow debate on whether scripture legislation reflected community views about state education in 2017.

“Parents put an awful lot of trust in schools when they leave their children at the school gate, and that trust is breached by a system that makes attendance at unsupervised and unchecked scripture classes the default position,” Mr Shoebridge said.

Read the original article here.

Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools

Rob Stokes


SCRIPTURE material endorsed by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and taught to NSW public school children as young as five includes dissecting an animal, encouraging children to have secrets with adults, linking a man’s blindness to his parents’ sins and reminding scripture teachers not to see children with disabilities as “unintelligent”.

There are calls for NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes to immediately suspend scripture in schools, and release a long-awaited NSW review of special religious education (SRE), after a Queensland Department of Education review raised serious concerns about Anglican “Connect” scripture content used in both states, including lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour” and advice to scripture teachers about punishing children.

Read the review here

The calls come after confirmation Mr Stokes has no power over the content of scripture lessons under the Education Act, and controversial changes to NSW public school enrolment forms in 2015 removing ethics classes as an option, and leaving scripture as the default position in some state primary schools.

The Queensland review in August recommended removing an animal sacrifice 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”.

You know something is wrong in this state when even Queensland is more proactive in releasing information.
– NSW Greens Justice spokesman and barrister David Shoebridge

Youthworks conceded the instructions were “dated and clunky”.

Connect presented the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, as a “factual, historical document”, with scripture teachers reminded to “emphasise that these events are historical and true”, the Queensland review found.

Calls for the immediate suspension of scripture in schools comes after the NSW Department of Education confirmed it had Crown Solicitor’s advice that a NSW education minister “does not have the power to control the contents of SRE under the current provisions of the Education Act”.

A group challenging the application of scripture guidelines across three states, Fairness in Religions in School, letterboxed houses near Hunter and Sydney schools on the weekend with information about enrolling children in scripture and ethics classes, after accusing the NSW Department of Education of failing to act on the Queensland and NSW reviews.

“We can’t believe the Department of Education hands over its duty of care to children in state schools to religious groups that are unaccountable, even to the minister, for what they teach,” said FIRIS spokesman Darrin Morgan.

On January 16 the department rejected a FIRIS freedom of information request for the $300,000 NSW review, which has been with the NSW Government for 12 months, on public interest grounds. While releasing the review would “promote open discussion and informed debate” on special religious education in state schools, the NSW Government was still considering its response and releasing it would have “a negative impact on the department’s functions”, the department said.

The Queensland review found that while the “vast majority” of Connect material aligned with Department of Education guidelines, it raised concerns about parental consent, the lack of data on scripture numbers and the lack of legislation to allow “centralised regulation” of scripture content.

Greens Justice MP David Shoebridge called on new Education Minister Rob Stokes to immediately suspend scripture in schools, release the NSW review and allow debate on whether scripture legislation reflected community views about state education in 2017.

“You know something is wrong in this state when even Queensland is more proactive in releasing information,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“Parents put an awful lot of trust in schools when they leave their children at the school gate, and that trust is breached by a system that makes attendance at unsupervised and unchecked scripture classes the default position.”

Lessons for children about keeping secrets with adults and having “special friendships” with them were particularly concerning because “We know from the Royal Commission that encouraging ‘special friendships’ and secrets with adults endangers children and plays into the hands of predators”, Mr Shoebridge said.

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

A spokesman for former Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said the NSW review of SRE was “currently being considered by government”.

A spokesman for Mr Stokes, who was sworn in as minister on Monday afternoon, did not respond to questions. The Anglican Diocese of Sydney did not respond to questions.

In a statement on Monday Youthworks said all “inconsistent” lesson material identified in the Queensland review had been amended to the standard required by 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.

Youthworks did not respond to a question about whether a scripture teacher had ever dissected a dead animal during a lesson at a NSW primary school.

The NSW Department of Education said it was the responsibility of special religious education approved providers to authorise scripture material, provide an annual assurance to the department that authorised teachers were only using authorised material, to make 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 SRE in a government school, it will be investigated with reasonable action taken to protect students from foreseeable risk of harm,” it said.

“Parents/caregivers seeking information about lesson content for their child’s SRE class, or prospective SRE class, should contact the relevant provider of SRE.

“The NSW Department of Education does not keep a central database of what materials are being used at schools by approved providers.”

http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4431811/dead-animal-dissection-and-the-scripture-class/