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Life Choices Foundation: or, the evangelical wolf in a welfare program’s clothing

In consideration of the concern displayed by many parents into the outing of Hillsong’s brazen declaration that they plan to try and harvest Australian public schools in 2020, it is important that parents, carers and schools are aware of other organisations that are intent on entering our public schools outside of state legislative provisions for religious instruction.

One such organisation is Life Choices Foundation (LCF) active in Australia and New Zealand. Despite its sanitised marketing, make no bones about it, LCF is a Christian organisation. Its founder Andrew ‘Fishtail’ Fisher is also the founder of the Jesus Racing Team.

Key points:

  • Life Choices Foundation (LCF) is a Christian organisation, despite its marketing attempt to not appear as one.
  • Life Choices Foundation (LCF) and the Jesus Racing Team (JRT) are not approved by the NSW Minister for Education to provide SRE in NSW public schools.
  • LCF’s It’s your life, so, make it count program both implicitly and explicitly promotes Christianity. Therefore, both LCF and Jesus Racing can only enter NSW public schools in accordance with the Other Activities of a Religious Nature in Schools Procedure. This means that only students with express consent from parents and carers can take part in LCF’s programs or have contact with the JRT and proselytising is not permitted.
  • Given that LCF and the JRT are not approved SRE providers, the engagement of either organisation by schools must also be carried out in accordance with the Controversial Issues in Schools Policy and its implementation procedures.
  • Parents, carers and others can use the letter at the end of this blog to inform principals and schools of the true intentions of LCF.

Introduction

In NSW, there are three ways LCF and Jesus Racing may try to gain access to public school students –

  1. during the time allocated to SRE
  2. as a ‘curriculum related program’
  3. as a ‘voluntary student activity of a religious nature in schools’. (VSA)

Let’s look at each one in turn.

During SRE

This should not be happening.

Life Choices Foundation and Jesus Racing are not authorised to provide SRE in NSW Government schools. They are not found on the list of approved SRE providers.

Furthermore, FIRIS does not believe it is appropriate for approved SRE providers to delegate their authorisation to provide SRE particularly given their ‘annual assurance’ that they are complying with child protection legislation. However, given the Department of Education’s complicity in throwing open public school gates to religious organisations, the seeming widespread ignorance of policies and procedures relating to SRE and the activities of religious organisations amongst principals, and the eagerness of those religious organisations to exploit those opportunities who knows what is going on.

For example, last year during our audits of schools websites FIRIS found one school referring to Jesus Racing as an approved SRE provider clearly demonstrating the lack of awareness of policies and procedures at the school level. In response to our questions, the Department wrote –

Download (PDF, 216KB)

As a ‘curriculum related program’

In NSW, the Other Activities of a Religious Nature in Schools Procedure state regarding curriculum-related programs with a religious base –

When considering the use of external curriculum-related programs that have been developed by a religious persuasion, principals must ensure that these programs do not implicitly or explicitly promote that persuasion. Programs that promote a particular religious’ persuasion should be considered SRE and are unsuitable for instruction outside the provisions for SRE. [Section 1.2] (emphasis added)

However, principals may be let off the hook here a little because LCF’s website does not mention its promotion of a ‘particular religious persuasion’, or its evangelical intent. The LCF website states –

Presented by Andrew Fisher, to over 250,000 students, and delivered under the Welfare & Wellbeing Curriculum, the Life Choices High School Program challenges teenagers to stop and think through the consequences of some of life’s significant choices, for themselves. It encourages them to choose the path that is ‘right’ for them. The Program provides evidence-based information and real-life stories that inspire young people to stand firm in the face of difficulties and negative influences. [emphasis added]

Parents and carers should note that FIRIS has been unable to identify the ‘Welfare and Wellbeing Curriculum’ LCF is referring to. We can only hope that LCF are not attempting to create a false appearance of legitimacy and authorisation.

The only mention of Jesus found by FIRIS is in a downloadable brochure which mentions that Andrew ‘Fishtail’ Fisher established the Jesus Racing Team. Whether principals can be excused for not reading between the lines FIRIS will leave it up to readers to decide, but a reasonable member of the Australian public might be justified in thinking that this is a devious manoeuvre by LCF to get past principals and to gain access to students where the mask can be removed.

As a ‘voluntary student activity of a religious nature in schools’ (VSA)

The Department’s Other Activities of a Religious Nature in Schools Procedure states clearly that VSA are not part of SRE but may take under the auspices and supervision of the principal. VSA include talks organised by visitors and the ‘distribution of religious materials to students‘. The document goes on to say that principals in their supervision of VSA must ensure that

  • parental permission is obtained
  • appropriate child protection checks and practices in relation to any volunteers coming from outside the school
  • the content of the activities undertaken are monitored
  • an attendance register for all students participating is maintained
  • “students or members of religious persuasions do not engage in attempts to proselytise or convert non-adherents of their religion to their faith during school authorised activities. Proselytising or converting non-adherents refers to behaviours intended to put pressure on students who do not have permission to participate in VSA.”

It is in the materials distributed to students that LCF drops its mask and its true intentions are made clear.

FIRIS was recently sent a copy of the booklet accompanying the It’s your life. So, make it count. program handed out to students in a NSW secondary school.

The booklet covers issues such as smoking, drinking, drugs, social media, road safety, relationships, values and beliefs. Over the first 30 pages these issues are discussed with little, to no, mention of religion, beyond the reported importance of ‘cultivating religiousness and spirituality’. There is little mention of a single, specific religious belief apart from the following statements –

Whilst the mention of religion or spirituality can cause conflict, the reality is most of the values that we hold to as a Western Society have come from faith groups, particularly the Christian faith. To ignore the origin is akin to plagiarism. [p. 27]

– and –

The reality is, whether we like it or not teachings that have come predominately from the Christian worldview, whilst seemingly unpopular today, do seem to provide a balance. [p. 28]

However, things begin to change on page 33.

On a page headed ‘values and beliefs’ a list of value statements are provided (see image below) and students are asked if we can “separate them from the person that created them and made them so critical to our society?”, that is, Jesus.

The following pages then go on to explain “what made Jesus so significant and influential”.

 

 

 

A page of ‘helpful links’ includes a photo of the Bible Society sponsored Jesus Racing supercar and a link to the Jesus Racing website and the back cover encourages students to get the booklet signed by Jesus Racing ‘personality’ Andrew ‘Fishtail’ Fisher.

 

 

It is important that principals are aware before engaging Life Choices Foundation that they have specific responsibilities in relation to the discussion of controversial issues in NSW public schools. These are outlined not only in the documents mentioned above, but in the Controversial Issues in Schools Policy and its supporting Procedures (CIS Procedures).

Teachers and other school staff should also be aware that they have responsibilities in accordance with the CIS Policy including viewing presentations and materials used by visitors and external providers prior to the event to determine appropriateness and advising their principal on the content.

So what do the CIS Policy and its Procedures say.

Firstly, the CIS Policy makes it very clear that –

Discussion of controversial issues in schools should allow students to explore a range of viewpoints and not advance the interest of any particular group. [1.3.2]

The CIS Procedures also state clearly that –

Material…that advances the interest of any particular group, political or otherwise, must not be distributed to students. [2]

FIRIS believes that the booklet mentioned above does not present students with a range of viewpoints and that it is a part of program to advance the interest of a particular group.

Furthermore, the CIS Procedures also make it very clear that –

Schools are not places to proselytise, that is, to convert students who are not already members of a particular belief system to become members of that belief system. [1.1]

FIRIS will leave it up to the reader to decide whether the pages shown above constitute ‘proselytising’ or not.

Secondly, the CIS Policy states that –

Where outlined in the procedures, parents and carers should be informed about the participation of their children in delivery of curriculum, events, excursions, school programs or activities addressing controversial issues. [1.3.7]

The CIS Procedures also state that parents/carers must be informed of the proposed content, including materials to be used, and that they must be provided with the opportunity to either consent to or withdraw their child from the presentation, event, program or activity. Schools must also retain all returned consent or withdrawal forms in accordance with the CIS Procedures [2.1]

Section 3 of the CIS Procedures also state –

It is essential that principals maintain communication with parents and carers on teaching and learning programs, visiting speakers, external providers and other school activities, including student organised activities, in which controversial issues may be addressed. Parents and carers need to be advised of the specific details of school activities, programs or events addressing controversial issues and the relevance to the curriculum and school programs and activities. Where advice is appropriate, it must be given prior to the occasion so parents and carers can provide consent or withdraw their child from a particular session(s) on controversial issues. The parental right to withdraw their child must be respected.

Thirdly, with regard to the distribution of materials, principals need to be aware that the CIS Procedures state –

All materials to be referenced or distributed to students that include controversial issues are to be reviewed and approved by the principal in advance…The principal may delegate the task of reviewing the material to an appropriate member of the teaching staff and make a judgment on the basis of the teacher’s feedback. This responsibility cannot be delegated to people from outside the school, including the publishers of material for use in the school or on school excursions. The principal cannot delegate the task of approving materials for distribution. [2.6]

FIRIS sent the following letter and two attachments to all NSW secondary school principals on Tuesday 11 February 2020 –

Download (PDF, 404KB)

Download (PDF, 190KB)

Download (PDF, 1.23MB)

Parents, carers and others in NSW can share this information the P&C Association of their child/ren’s, or local,  school/s and request that the letter is tabled and discussed at the next meeting of the P&C .

Parents and carers in other states where LCF and the JRT are active can adapt the document below and bring the true intentions of the LCF to the attention of the Principal in their child/ren’s, or their local, school.

Download (DOCX, 487KB)

Eyes Wired Shut: or, how to continue ignoring the rights of students and their parents in NSW public schools

It looks like parents/carers of students in NSW public schools are in for another year of principals not doing their homework when it comes to SRE.

An example of a principal who has not brought himself up to speed with the new 2020 enrolment processes for SRE is the principal of Greystanes High School.

The 2020 student handbooks for Years 7-11 contain the following statement –

Here is the letter of complaint (and its four attachments) sent to the principal and the secretary of the school’s Parents and Citizen’s Association today (Monday 3 February 2020).

Download (PDF, 268KB)

Attachment 1

Download (PDF, 132KB)

Attachment 2

Download (PDF, 128KB)

Attachment 3

Download (PDF, 644KB)

Attachment 4

Download (PDF, 58KB)

 

 

Eyes Wide Shut: or, how the NSW Department of Education has made its SRE policies and procedures meaningless.

The Special Religious Education Procedures and the support materials state that if a NSW Government school offers SRE its website is to contain –

  • general information about Special Religious Education (SRE – commonly referred to as ‘scripture’), Special Education in Ethics (SEE – commonly referred to as ‘ethics’), and Alternative Meaningful Activities (AMA – commonly referred to as ‘non-scripture’) on the ‘Learning at our school’ page, and
  • links to the approved providers’ authorised curriculum scope and sequence(s).

Although not explicitly stated, FIRIS believes that the Procedures also infer that schools should provide current information about approved providers working in their school, including a link to the approved SRE provider’s website.

 

In February/March 2019 FIRIS conducted audits of the websites of primary and secondary schools in the Metropolitan North and Regional North school districts.

In Metropolitan North, of the 228 primary school websites visited, only 4 websites contained links to other information. Across these 4 pages there were 20 links identified. Only 11 of the links provided were clear links to curriculum scope and sequence information.

Of the 62 secondary school websites visited, only 6 websites had links to other information. 6 of the 9 links identified were clear links to curriculum scope and sequences.

In Regional North, of the 258 primary school websites visited, only 4 websites contained links to other information. Across these 4 pages there were 9 links included. 6 of the links provided were clear links to curriculum scope and sequence information.

Of the 54 secondary school websites visited, only 1 website had a link to other information. This single link was identified as a direct link to a curriculum scope and sequences.

 

A second, more comprehensive and exhaustive audit of the 79 secondary schools in the Metropolitan North school district conducted between 29 July 2019 and 18 August 2019 found that of the 69 secondary schools that offered SRE:

  • 47 provided information on their website indicating that SRE was being provided at the school.
  • 17 identified the approved SRE providers as listed in the Department’s list of approved providers, and provided a link to the provider’s website.
  • 25 provided a link, or links, which ultimately led to a curriculum scope and sequence document.
  • 27 identified that there were ‘alternative meaningful activities’ at the school during the time allocated to SRE.

Of the 69 secondary schools providing SRE, only 5 schools (7.2%) met all of the Department’s requirements regarding the provision of information regarding SRE and AMA on their websites.

If the requirement to list providers and provide a link to their website is ignored, 13 schools (18.8%) met all of the other requirements.

 

In addition to the low rates of compliance, FIRIS’ three audits also found –

  • one religious organisation providing SRE in at least three Government schools without approval from the NSW Minister for Education.
  • one religious organisation (Jesus Racing) was referred to as an approved SRE provider but in response to questions from FIRIS was identified by the Department as an organisation providing ‘voluntary student activities of a religious nature’ (VSA) in schools.
  • school websites stating that they will place students without express consent from parents / caregivers contrary to information provided by the Minister in 2017 and contrary to the current enrolment process as described in the 2019 enrolment flowchart.
  • ‘SRE and SEE Participation Letters’ not identifying the approved SRE providers forming a ‘combined arrangement’ for the purposes of delivering SRE, despite clear statements in the supporting documents for the Procedures that they should.
  • statements that all ‘Christian’ students will be placed in ‘Christian’ SRE, ignoring denominational and potential sectarian differences, and without informed and express consent from parents and caregivers.
  • schools stipulating a need to opt-out of SRE prior to weekly or annual events, contrary to the previous and current enrolment process.
  • inclusion of guest speakers as part of SRE who may represent organisations not approved to provide SRE in NSW Government schools.
  • SRE listed, and referred to, as a course approved by the Board of Studies and the Department.
  • SRE instructors included in lists of school staff members.
  • one school with its own Religious Education Policy based on the pre-June 2013 Religious Education Implementation Procedures indicating a lack of awarenss that there have been two major revisions of the Procedures since.
  • widespread confusion and misinformation regarding SRE, such as referring to the following organisations/groups/individual as ‘approved SRE providers’-
    • religious lobby groups
    • SRE curricula, e.g. Connect
    • SRE curriculum publishers
    • specific individuals
    • specific churches
    • SRE Boards and Associations
    • third parties (including Generate Ministries and Youthworks)

 

On 9 September 2019 FIRIS wrote to the NSW Minister for Education and brought to her attention the findings of the audits mentioned above.

FIRIS informed the Minister that the evident widespread failure of schools to provide parents and carers with the required information regarding the content of SRE and the evidence that students are being placed in SRE without the express consent of their parents and carers formed part of complaints sent to the Office of the Children’s Guardian and the NSW Office of the Advocate for Children and Young People in June 2019.

In consideration of the risks to student health, safety and wellbeing associated with the provision of SRE in NSW Government schools, FIRIS requested that the Minister provide us with information regarding the measures the Department will take to ensure that no student is currently, or will be in future, placed in an SRE classroom without the informed and express consent of their parent/s or carer/s.

Download (PDF, 323KB)

 

On 25 September 2019 the Department of Education’s Director responsible for the implementation of SRE responded on behalf of the Minister –

Download (PDF, 222KB)

FIRIS believes that the parents and carers of NSW Government school students should be very concerned at the Director’s response and his seeming lack of interest in acting in a timely manner to what FIRIS considers to be serious breaches of procedures at a time of heightened sensitivity about the right to freedom of beliefs and issues related to religious organisations and child safety.

Unfortunately, all the evidence is pointing to the fact that 2020 is going to be another year in which the Department of Education fails to ensure that the rights of all students and their parents/carers are respected and the health, safety and wellbeing of all students are protected.

How long is the NSW Minister for Education prepared to tolerate a Directorate which fails to monitor what is going on in NSW public schools, thereby rendering its own policies and procedures worthless, while all-too-conveniently benefiting SRE providers.

Could it be that, like her Department, the Minister for Education is prepared to place the self-interest of religious organisations over and above the rights of all students and their parents and carers?

A lesson in how to maximise student attendance in SRE by stealth.

In a ChristianSRE press release earlier this year, the organisation’s CEO Murray Norman claimed that ChristianSRE had evidence that some NSW public schools have been failing to follow the new enrolment process for SRE, thereby potentially ‘robbing‘ parents of the choice of SRE. He stated –

If a parent doesn’t want religious education for their child that’s their choice. However, if they didn’t even have the opportunity to choose because they weren’t provided with a form, the school has denied them that right by stealth…We are calling on all schools to make sure the correct forms are provided to each parent, not left on a counter or stuffed in a child’s school bag. Furthermore, schools need to be proactive in chasing up forms not returned. (emphasis added)

Like ChristianSRE, FIRIS wants schools to follow the new enrolment processes for SRE, Special Education in Ethics (SEE) and ‘alternative meaningful activities’ (AMA – aka ‘non-scripture’).

Unlike ChristianSRE, FIRIS is quite prepared to share evidence to back up our claims that schools are failing miserably to do so.

Since March this year FIRIS has been conducting audits of NSW public primary and secondary school websites in order to find out if schools are following the 2019 Special Religious Education Procedures correctly.

For example, schools were made aware in December 2017 that by the beginning of Term 1 2019 their websites were to provide links to the approved SRE providers’ authorised curriculum scope and sequence documents.

However, audits of the websites of primary and secondary schools in the Metropolitan North (Sydney) and Regional North (Hunter) school districts in February this year found that –

  • of the 486 primary school websites visited, less than 8 (1.64%) contained the required links to the curriculum scope and sequence information of the relevant SRE curricula.
  • of the 116 secondary school websites visited, only 7 (6%) had links to curriculum scope and sequences.

Now whether this can be regarded as ‘robbing’ parents and carers of their right to information, FIRIS will leave it up to the reader to decide.

Further comprehensive audits of secondary schools in Metropolitan North and primary schools in Rural North in August to October, have yielded more results giving rise to little faith that the right of parents/carers to make an informed choice is being respected by schools or that the new enrolment process for 2019 has been implemented correctly.

A prime example is Castle Hill High School (CHHS) in the Metropolitan North school district.

Provision of general information about SRE, SEE and AMA

The Procedures and the supporting documents state that if a Government school offers SRE its website is to contain general information about SRE, SEE and AMA on the ‘Learning at our school’ page.

The ‘Religion and ethics‘ page on CHHS’ ‘Learning at our school’ page states –

Special Religious Education (SRE) will be provided for students in Year 7 – 10.  The seminars are organised by the Australian Christian Churches, operating as Castle Hill Christian Education Association, which is a collective of local churches.

– and provides the following links –

Christian SRE High School Curriculum Scope and Sequence

Special Religious Education (SRE) Participation Letter 2019 

However, the ‘Religion and ethics’ page provides no information about AMA so parents/carers are not made aware of the alternative option/s for students who do not take part in SRE.

But wait – there’s more information regarding SRE on the ‘CHHS Scripture Organisation‘ page.

On this page, parents and carers are informed that scripture seminars are organised at least once a term for students in Years 7, 8, 9 and 10. They are also told that scripture is co-ordinated by a person employed by the local churches who is on the school site three days a week. The page states –

The Scripture Co-ordinator is located in the Library, organises the teachers of Scripture, oversees the content of classes and acts as a general pastoral care contact for all students.   The Scripture Co-ordinator acts in conjunction with Welfare personnel attending school social activities, school camps, and liaising with the staff at staff meetings.

However, once again, no mention is made of AMA.

Links to the approved providers’ curriculum scope and sequence(s)

As mentioned above, the Procedures and the supporting documents state that if a Government school offers SRE its website is to contain links to the approved providers’ authorised curriculum scope and sequence(s).

A direct link is provided to the scope and sequence document of the SRE curriculum used at the school (see image below).

However, it should be noted that the Procedures state that curriculum scope and sequence documents should have “sufficient detail for parents/caregivers and schools to be able to understand what is covered in SRE lessons.

FIRIS will leave it up to the reader to decide whether the scope and sequence document above fulfills this requirement.

The SRE Participation Letter

In 2019, the ‘SRE and SEE Participation’ became available for use as the means of enrolling students in SRE, SEE or neither, rather than the religion question on the general enrolment form, the ‘Application to enrol in a NSW Government school’. In February 2019, the SRE question was removed completely from the form, so in 2020, the ‘SRE and SEE Participation Letter’ will be the sole means of enrolling a student in SRE, SEE (if available) or AMA.

Regarding the participation letter, the Department’s  ‘SRE and SEE Flowchart’ (November 2018) states –

The participation letter needs to be updated with the name of the approved provider(s) working in their school. If a combined arrangement, the school needs to make it clear which approved providers are involved. (emphasis added)

The CHHS ‘Special Religious Education (SRE) Participation Letter‘ linked to the school’s ‘Religion and ethics’ page fails to include all of the approved providers involved in the combined arrangement at the school (see image below).

Similar to the information provided on the ‘Religion and ethics’ page, it is simply stated that ‘SRE is organised by the Australian Christian Churches, operating at Castle Hill Christian Education Association, which is a collective of local churches‘.

However, despite mentioning the approved provider Australian Christian Churches, the school fails to identify on the SRE Participation Letter all of the approved SRE providers forming the combined arrangement.

It also needs to be noted that ‘Castle Hill Christian Education Association’ is not an approved provider of SRE in NSW Government schools and that the association may not be the same as the combined arrangement.

 

The letter also provides the option – ‘Please check this box if you do not wish for your child to attend SRE. Your child will participate in alternative meaning activities.’

However, note that the letter makes no mention of what will occur if the letter is not returned to the school.

This is where it gets very interesting.

The ‘tucked-away’ SRE Participation Letter

On 20 February 2019, as part of the news item ‘Scripture Seminars 2019‘, CHHS published another version of the ‘SRE Participation Letter‘ (see image below).

The letter stated –

If you do not want your child to take part in SRE for 2019, please complete the information below, and have your child return it to the box outside Ms Dane’s (Deputy Principal) office by 1st March 2019. Those students not participating in SRE will be supervised by a classroom teacher during SRE seminar time.

If the information below is not provided to the school, we will assume that you are comfortable with your child attending SRE during 2019. 

However, this is a clear violation of the Procedures as described in its supporting documents.

The Department’s  ‘SRE and SEE Flowchart’ (November 2018) states –

If the student starts school before the return of the participation letter, the student is to participate in alternative meaningful activities pending a response.

– and the Department’s ‘Principal Checklist – SRE & SEE’ (December 2018) states –

Update the SRE and SEE Participation letter with the name of the approved provider(s) working in their school and ensure it is given to parents/carers in the enrolment pack or at the time of enrolment. Students participate in alternative meaningful activities pending a response and principals make all reasonable attempts to receive a response from parent/carers and keep the written response on file. (emphasis added)

Now given that the tucked away letter reveals the high likelihood that CHHS has been placing students in SRE without the express consent of parents and carers, a reasonable member of the NSW public may think that the adjective ‘stealthily’ may be quite apt here.

More concerning, however, not only is this letter evidence that the school failing to follow the Procedures, it is also a clear indication that the Directorate responsible for the provision of SRE is failing to monitor what is going on in schools and thereby rendering its own policies and procedures worthless. The findings of FIRIS’ audits make it clear that the Directorate’s frequent reply to our complaints, that is, that principals are responsible for the implementation of policy at the school level, obviously includes the option of ignoring them without consequences.

This breach of the Procedures may go some way to explaining why CHHS had the abnormally high SRE attendance rate of 84% in 2019 as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald in July this year, particularly given that in 2018, of the 1724 students at CHHS, 398 students (23.1%) had ‘no religion’ declared on their enrolment form, 292 students (17%) did not make their choices known and 223 (13%) students belonged to non-Christian religions.

 

 

 

NSW Minister for Education questioned about failures in child-protection measures in SRE classrooms

While the spin-masters in the SRE lobby attempt to focus conversations about Special Religious Education (scripture) in public schools on ‘values’, FIRIS believes that the far more pressing matter of child protection and child safety should be at the centre of the discussion.

On Tuesday 29 May 2019 in the NSW Legislative Council Mr David Shoebridge did exactly that when he asked the NSW Minister for Education Mrs Sarah Mitchell the following question –

Given the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, why will the Government not require school principals to sight current working with children checks for priests, ministers and other religious figures before they are allowed to enter schools and to take control of children during scripture lessons?

For the transcript see here.

The Minister responded by stating –

The management of those requirements for providers of special religious education, including special ethics education, are outlined in the department’s Religious Education Policy. Under the policy, it is the responsibility of approved providers to verify the Working With Children Check of all scripture and ethics teachers

For a transcript see here.

Mr Shoebridge’s then raised some concerning issues regarding the Department’s processes and the Minister’s response.

Mr Shoebridge noted that “all employees and all volunteers who work with children in New South Wales public schools are required to show the principal a Working With Children Check, except those persons who are taking special religious education classes.” 

He then added –

For some special reason there is an exception for them and they are not required. Principals are not being provided with Working With Children Checks for those teaching special religious education. Why is this an issue? It is an issue because the organisations undertaking special religious education are expressly telling principals that they are not entitled to ask for Working With Children Checks for the ministers, priests and other religious people going into classrooms and dealing with children unsupervised. That is what happens with special religious education—it is unsupervised. (emphasis added)

Mr Shoebridge provided the Minister with an example from the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta who sent a letter to principals in the Diocese which said –

As in previous years all SRE volunteers have their WWCC numbers verified by the Diocese of Parramatta and whilst SREs will show their IDs, they are not required to provide their WWCC number nor the 100 points of ID expected of other volunteers to the school.

Mr Shoebridge pointed out that the diocese is insisting upon the right to get into classrooms and teach unsupervised without showing principals Working With Children Checks.

Download (PDF, 386KB)

FIRIS would also like to share another letter from the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong also reminding principals that they have no right to request to see the WWCC clearance numbers of SRE instructors.

Download (PDF, 70KB)

Let this sink in –

Principals, parents and caregivers of children in NSW public schools are expected to trust an organisation that has catastrophically betrayed the trust of the NSW, Australian and international community.

The fundamental problem here is the provision for SRE in the NSW Education Act 1990 which does not give the Minister or the Department  control or authority over the selection and authorisation processes used by SRE providers to engage their instructors. Therefore, they must rely on little more than the word of SRE providers in the form of an Annual Assurance.

In consideration of this reliance, Mr Shoebridge asked whether the Minister had “been made aware that the annual assurance reports that are to be provided by those religious institutions are often late or non‑existent and that those annual assurance reports are meant to be the checks for working with children?

The Minister responded –

With regard to the Working With Children Check annual assurance process for government schools, I inform the member of the following: The department sends the annual assurance by email to approved providers in term four. This must be returned before the start of term one the following school year. Approved providers will lose their approved provider status if the responsibilities outlined in the annual assurance are not addressed. (emphasis added)

In typical Department of Education style, the Minister simply paraphrased back to Mr Shoebridge the Special Religious Education Procedures which states –

The department’s SRE and SEE Officer will send to approved providers the annual assurance via email in term 4. This must be returned before the start of term 1 of the following school year. Approved providers will lose their approved provider status if the responsibilities outlined in the annual assurance are not addressed. [p. 7]

But FIRIS has already pointed out the fact that the Annual Assurance process is a grossly inadequate control measure in response to the risk of all forms of harm and abuse to NSW public school students.

In consideration of FIRIS’ audits of the annual assurance process, Mr Shoebridge then pointed out to the Minister –

To suggest that there is a protection for children through the assurance program is also wrong. Fairness in Religions in School [FIRIS]—which has done some really admirable work checking this—looked at the assurances being provided by those religious organisations, because those assurances are meant to guarantee to the department that the people going into the schools actually have Working With Children Checks. A report by FIRIS states:

An audit of the annual assurances submitted to the department for the 2017 and 2018 school years … identified that:

  • Of the 107 religious organisations included in the department’s list of approved SRE providers in NSW government schools, 3 did not submit an AA for the entire 2017 year and 23 failed to submit it by the due date. Of those providers, 6 submitted their AA more than five months after the due date.
  • 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 AA by the due date and 45, including three who did not provide a URL at all, did not meet the requirement to provide online location of information regarding child protection training.

There is no assurance. People are teaching unsupervised without Working With Children Checks.

See here for a full transcript of Mr Shoebridge’s statement.

FIRIS would like to add that on 5 February 2019 FIRIS lodged a request for copies of the 2019 Annual Assurances (AA) received by the Department by the due date of 29 January 2019. The requested information was released to FIRIS on 28 March 2019 and it revealed that of the 100 providers on the Department’s list dated 23 January 2019 –

  • There was no evidence that 10 providers submitted their assurance by the time the Department started to act on FIRIS’ request for information (28 Feb 2019).
  • 7 providers submitted their assurance after the due date.
  • One provider submitted an assurance without any of the required information.

The fact that there is no evidence that the failure to submit an Annual Assurance has resulted in the temporary or ongoing removal of approval to provide SRE, casts serious doubts on the integrity and effectiveness of the Department’s already inadequate and limited measures to ensure children are safe during the provision of SRE in NSW public schools. No Annual Assurance means that the Minister does not even have the word of providers that their instructors have undergone Working With Children Checks.

FIRIS also thinks that NSW parents and caregivers should be aware of the Department’s unwillingness to be transparent regarding the Annual Assurance process.

The independent 2015 Review of SRE and SEE recommended that the Department be more transparent regarding the approval process for SRE providers and that it publish relevant information on its website. However, FIRIS’ request for a blank copy of the 2019 AA form was only answered following a complaint to the Secretary of the Department based on advice received from the NSW Ombudsman. In its response, the Department stated that it released the document under the condition that FIRIS would not disclose it to third parties or publish it in any format.

Download (PDF, 568KB)

Download (PDF, 242KB)

FIRIS does not understand why a blank copy of a departmental document related to child protection should require a ‘gag order’. FIRIS believes that the contents of the documents SRE providers are expected to sign as part of the ongoing approval to deliver SRE should be freely available to the public.

In consideration of all of the above, FIRIS believes that there is something seriously wrong with this situation. How can it be that principals cannot make reasonable requests aimed at fulfilling their duty of care?

FIRIS believes that the NSW community should not continue to allow a situation in which the Education Act requires the Minister, the Department and principals of NSW public schools to rely on little more than the word of religious organisations, particularly the Catholic Church, when it comes to matters of child protection and safety.

‘Radical Jesus’ and ‘Hard Core Christians’ in NSW public school classrooms: Part Three – the problem with ‘believed-in’ religious instruction

This is the third part of a three-part investigation into the presence of ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction in NSW public schools in the form of Special Religious Education (SRE – aka ‘scripture’).

The Sydney Anglican’s John Dickson has claimed that NSW Department of Education-employed teachers will never understand the Bible as well as a ‘middle-aged mum from the local church who’s been reading scripture for decades’.

Rather than risking choosing a ‘rogue’ SRE instructor, and considering Dickson’s acknowledgement that ‘there’s some nuttiness out there’, FIRIS thought the best way of getting a picture of what Dickson has in mind would be to look at the Sydney Anglican’s own Tim Clemens.

Clemens’ curricula Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians must be a prime example of what Dickson means when he talks about ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction, given that they were apparently used by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in SRE up until 2016, and are both still sold by them through their publishing arm, Christian Education Publications.

Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians have been discussed in the first two parts of this blog-series. This part will focus on the concerns and issues FIRIS has regarding the two curricula and the presence of ‘believed-in’ religion in NSW public schools.

Issue 1: The NSW Minister for Education and the NSW Department of Education have no control over the content of ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction 

Given the provisions for SRE in Section 32 of the NSW Education Act 1990, the Minister for Education and the Department of Education do not have the power to control the content of SRE (see the letter and email below below.) –

Download (PDF, 707KB)

Download (PDF, 89KB)

Another letter from the Department states –

Aside from being satisfied the material is authorised, the Minister has no power under the Act to direct what is taught as part of SRE.

This means that the Minister and the Department cannot prevent an SRE provider choosing ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction materials such as Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians, and using them in NSW public schools.

Issue 2: The Anglican Diocese of Sydney, in whatever form (including Youthworks  and Christian Education Publications) has no power to control the content of SRE delivered by other providers

Given that the Minister for Education and the Department have no authority over the SRE curricula chosen by providers, it must be the case that SRE providers, curriculum publishers, lobby groups and supposed ‘quality control’ groups (such as All Faiths SRE) also have no authority over (other) SRE providers.

In response to FIRIS’ Facebook posts about Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians, Youthworks wrote –

They went on to amend the post to state that FIRIS’ claims that the two curricula are being used in Stage 4 Anglican SRE are not true. However, the author pointed out to them that they cannot speak for other Anglican Dioceses (as will be demonstrated below). They then wrote –

 

Issue 3: As long as Christian Education Publications (CEP) continues to sell this material there is the likelihood that the materials will be used in NSW public secondary schools.

Despite the Anglican Dioceses of Newcastle and the Riverina both stating that Youthworks’ curriculum ‘Think Faith’ is authorised for use in SRE classes provided by the two dioceses, they state –

The local priest may authorise specific CEP material for use in high school SRE classes. Please note that CEP produce a wide range of materials for use in a number of settings. Only material complying with DoE guidelines, suitable for use in public schools, should be used in SRE classes.

– but how is ‘the local priest’ to know what CEP materials are suitable? What would make them unsuitable? What ‘DoE guidelines’ are the dioceses referring to?

The Special Religious Education Implementation Procedures say only that SRE instructors are to receive training in how ‘to implement the approved provider’s authorised curriculum sensitively and in an age-appropriate manner‘.

The 2019 Annual Assurance requires SRE providers to assure the Department that ‘the special religious education teachers are teaching the curriculum with sensitivity and in an age appropriate manner.’ Note that this is not saying that the curriculum materials must be ‘sensitive’ and ‘age-appropriate’, only that they must be taught in such a manner.

Both Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians say very clearly that they were designed for use in Years 7 and 8 SRE in ‘State’ schools and given that Youthworks claims that the materials remain on sale for private schools, it is clear that Youthworks believes the curriculum materials are age appropriate.

The most important ‘guidelines’ saying how schools are to deal with controversial issues, including religion, and oversee the activities of, and the messages promoted by, ‘visiting speakers’ etc., the Controversial Issues in Schools Policy and its Proceduresdo not apply to SRE.

So, it seems that all of the materials sold by CEP for secondary schools may be being used in secondary schools in the two dioceses mentioned above.

This is a fundamental problem created by the provisions for SRE in the NSW Education Act.

Furthermore, in addition to the likelihood that the two curricula are being used based on the information currently available on the websites of the two Anglican Dioceses, FIRIS has also found specific references to Radical Jesus in the curriculum scope and sequence documents of at least one other SRE provider.

The ‘Religion and Ethics‘ page of Rouse Hill High School states –

Special Religious Education classes (SRE) are provided in public schools during school time by authorised representatives of approved religious groups. ‘Kellyville and Rouse Hill Christian Education Employer’ (KARHCEE) and the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta provide SRE at Rouse Hill High School.

Despite the fact that KARHCEE is not an approved SRE provider, and the approved SRE provider is not identified on the school’s website, there is a link provided to the curriculum page of KARHCEE where there is a link to the following document –

Download (PDF, 107KB)

Note the following references –

– and note the similarities with the contents page of Radical Jesus –

 

Issue 4: ‘Believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction as a vehicle for proselytising

John Dickson argues that ‘so long as there is a commitment to education not proselytising‘ adherents to a religion will do a better job at teaching it than professional Department of Education employed teachers.

But here is where it gets really interesting.

There is no statement in the Department of Education’s Procedures that proselytising is not allowed in SRE.

In fact, the Department has informed FIRIS that –

Given that parents/caregivers have indicated their preferred religious persuasion for their child on enrolment, proselytising should not occur in SRE classes.

However, the Department cannot state that only children belonging to the religious persuasion of the SRE instructor are in an SRE classroom. In fact, the Department, at the behest of the SRE lobby on its ‘consultative’ committee, had, since 2015 ensured that intentional omissions in the Procedures and its supporting documents, maximised the chance of children ending up in SRE without express consent (see here and here for more information).

Changes to the enrolment process in 2019 requiring parents to provide express consent are a step in the right direction but FIRIS has serious concerns that the processes are not being implemented correctly or consistently in many schools. FIRIS still sees principals telling parents that all students will be placed in SRE unless there is a written objection.

In addition, John Dickson believes that ‘many without Faith (and so without connection to a church) choose to enrol in SRE, because it is felt that religion is important‘.

Therefore, proselytising is a problem in SRE classrooms and if Tim Clemens’ curriculum Hard Core Christians is an example of what ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instructors do and say in SRE classrooms, John Dickson may have a problem in his own backyard.

One of the main outcomes of the final chapter of Hard Core Christians is to invite the students to start attending a local church. In the Student Handbook, students are asked if they attend church and if they reply ‘no’ they are then asked to say what’s stopping them from trying it out.

Now, is this educational or is this proselytising?

It is interesting to note that the only mention of proselytising in a Department of Education document is in the Other Activities of a Religious Nature in Schools implementation document. In relation to ‘voluntary student activities of a religious nature in schools’ (VSA), such as lunchtime prayer groups, it says –

…students or members of religious persuasions do not engage in attempts to proselytise or convert non-adherents of their religion to their faith during school authorised activities. Proselytising or converting non-adherents refers to behaviours intended to put pressure on students who do not have permission to participate in VSA.

While employed as an SRE instructor at St Ives High School in Sydney, Clemens also led the VSA  Jesus Over Lunch Time (JOLT). His JOLT Leadership Manual states –

The Scripture teacher is like a sprinkler, in that he ‘sprays’ the gospel message over every student he comes into contact with. Christian students on the other hand are like cups that ‘pour’ the gospel message directly into the lives of their friends…Students must see it as their responsibility (not the Scripture teacher’s) to invite their ‘gospel-saturated’ friends along to JOLT. 

– and –

The leadership of JOLT reflects these student driven principles, and so it is the role of the Scripture teacher to oversee and support the students as they reach out to their peers. His role is like that of a coach.

– and –

Finally, there needs to be a culture within JOLT that everyone should go to church. That means if you don’t currently go to church, you should. We want people who are welcomed into the community at JOLT to be convicted of their need to join a church. This will almost definitely only happen if somebody within JOLT invites them along, and consequently members need to be constantly inviting those people in JOLT who don’t go to church to join them in going along.

In Hard Core Christians Clemens writes –

If you’ve never tried going to a youth group before, ask your teacher if he or she can recommend one. Grab a few friends and go together. Who know? You may actually discover that you really like it!

Parents and caregivers are not informed in any of the documents related to SRE that the NSW Department of Education allows this. In a letter to FIRIS, the Department has stated –

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.

Now back to John Dickson.

In the opinion piece mentioned in Part One, Dickson wrote –

None of us wants our children proselytised. That’s a given, and the program was never set up to convert anyone.

However, in the article ‘Schools key to the goal‘, the then-Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney wrote that –

To convert ten per cent of the population, schools ministry must be a priority.

The Archbishop went on to say that –

Schools ministry is a key to the success of our mission and goal. Scripture in public schools and the work of our independent schools must be given high priority. (emphasis added)

– and –

Given all the scripture teaching and the efforts of our church schools, may we not by now have expected a greater inflow of people into our churches? Can we do more? I know that this is a matter of concern to Youthworks and others as well. Is there anything we can do to improve the bridge from school to church?

In the article ‘The forgotten mission field‘, Bryan Cowling, Sydney Anglican and then-Executive Director of the Anglican Education Commission, wrote –

Did you know that within the geographic boundaries of this Diocese there are over 1000 public primary and secondary schools as well as 130 non-Catholic or non-Islamic schools? All told, this represents more than 550,000 students between the ages of 5 and 18; probably some 300,000 families, and over 20,000 teachers…has anyone thought about the connections we already have as Anglicans with this incredible mission field?

It seems that members of the school’s executive at Clemens’ own St Ives High School heard Cowling’s call, declaring the high school a ‘great mission field’ on a video published by the Sydney Anglican church, Christ Church St Ives.

It also needs to be noted that the Dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia in the Province of NSW are members of the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Public Schools (NSW) Inc (ICCOREIS), an SRE lobby group made up of 15 Christian denominations. It should also be noted that the CEO of Youthworks, Mr Craig Roberts is the organisation’s Honorary Treasurer and one of the Representative Members for the Anglican Church of Australia, NSW Province.

ICCOREIS has made its intentions quite clear –

 

Issue 5: When it comes to SRE curricula, the devil is in the detail

The provisions for SRE in the NSW Education Act 1990 establish a system in which SRE providers are required to self-regulate their behaviour.

The 2015 Review of SRE and SEE in NSW Government Schools noted that –

…the procedures set out what is essentially a form of self-regulation for the delivery of SRE in government schools. Self-regulation in public policy always involves rights and responsibilities. For SRE the rights relate to the ability of SRE providers to access schools, determine teachers and the curriculum. [p. xvi]

– and –

Under the responsibilities of self-regulation, providers also have a responsibility for transparency to parents, the Department, school communities and the wider public, through publication of important information and the provision of regular monitoring. [p. xix]

According to Youthworks, the materials developed by Tim Clemens has been superseded by the curriculum Think Faith.

Given that the Queensland Department of Education and Training’s review of Youthworks/CEP’s Connect was the result of  the parents group Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools purchasing the materials and reviewing them, it is unfortunate that Youthworks do not allow parents to purchase access to the Think Faith materials for ‘private use’.

Download (PDF, 167KB)

Therefore, FIRIS cannot say whether or not Think Faith contains similar messages to the one’s expressed in Radical Jesus, Hard Core Jesus, or any other of the Jesus Foundation Series materials developed by Tim Clemens.

Conclusion

Education about religion is far too important to be left in the hands of over 10,000 volunteers who expose students to materials and activities the NSW Minister for Education and the Department of Education have no authority over.

Given John Dickson’s insult to the professionalism and capabilities of NSW Department of Education employed teachers, and given the examples of ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathethic’ religious education discussed in the three blogs, it is no wonder that the NSW Teachers’ Federation wants SRE out of NSW Government schools.

 

‘Radical Jesus’ and “Hard Core Christians’ in NSW public school classrooms: Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part introduction to the SRE curricula developed by the Sydney Anglican’s Tim Clemens. Clemens’ curricula is being presented in the context of John Dickson’s claim that the need for ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction in NSW public schools is a ‘compelling’ reason for SRE.

In part one we looked at the curriculum ‘Radical Jesus’ and in part two we will look at the curriculum ‘Hard Core Christians’.

As in the case of Radical Jesus, the Teacher’s Manual (TM) for Hard Core Christians states that the curriculum is part of a series of products written by Tim Clemens for years 7 and 8 students studying Christian studies in independent schools and Special Religious Education in State schools. (emphasis added) [TM, p. 4] – see sample here (accessed 30.03.2019).

FIRIS would like to point out that we are not claiming that this curriculum is authorised for use by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney for use in public schools within the boundaries of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

FIRIS will claim that the fact that the provisions for SRE in the NSW Education Act 1990 enable this material to be used is something parents and caregivers should be very concerned about.

The NSW Minister for Education, the NSW Department of Education, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney (= Christian Education Publications = Youthworks) and the supposed ‘quality-control-fix’ All Faiths SRE, have no authority over the choice of SRE curricula by (the other 99) SRE providers.

Furthermore, the general confusion and lack of monitoring by the Department and SRE providers means that it cannot be unequivocally stated by the Minister or the Anglican Diocese of Sydney that the material is not being used in NSW public schools.

Before taking a leap into faith and ‘believed-in’ religion Sydney Anglican style, FIRIS would like to suggest that the following information be read in the context of the statement from John Dickson (from the opinion piece mentioned in part one) –

None of us wants our children proselytised. That’s a given, and the program was never set up to convert anyone. 

FIRIS will return to this matter in part three, but for now, let’s look at what it means to put one’s faith in Jesus.

From the very beginning it is clear that one of the main aims of Hard Core Christians is to ‘challenge students to become wholehearted disciples of Jesus‘. [TM, p. 7]

A desired outcome of Lesson One is that students will ‘be challenged to put their own faith in Jesus‘. [TM, p. 8]

On the nature of this faith and in response to the ‘common’ question –

If a serial killer or someone like Hitler had put his faith in Jesus, would he have been saved from God’s judgement as well? [TM, p. 12]

– Clemens prompts SRE instructors to say –

‘Yes…because we don’t understand just how broken we all are’. [TM, p. 12]

– and adds –

Whereas we tend to compare ourselves to people like Hitler, God compares us to Jesus. It’s much harder to look impressive when you compare yourself to Jesus! On God’s scale, those who are perfect like Jesus go to heaven and those who are imperfect (the rest of us) deserve hell. (emphasis added) [TM, p. 12]

 

 

Clemens goes on to say in response to the ‘common’ statement and question – ‘So we’re not perfect’, you say. ‘Nobody is. Why does that matter?’

I know it sounds wrong that a repentant murder can go to heaven, but he’s no less deserving than any of us! Instead of complaining about God’s mercy, why not embrace it? Repent of your sin, put your faith in Jesus and receive his free gift of eternal life! [TM, p. 13]

In the Student Handbook (SH) students are told –

It can often be a hard realisation to discover that we don’t actually deserve God’s love and kindness. God isn’t impressed with our attempts to please him outside of our relationship with his Son. You might like to write a short prayer saying sorry to God for trying to earn your way into his ‘good books’. Use the space provided to do this (for example, ‘God, I am sorry for thinking I was good enough for you and that I did not need your help. Please forgive my pride. I need you to save me and forgive me.’). (emphasis added) [SH, p. 9]

– and then –

The truth is, there is nothing you can ever do to be good enough for God. It’s just not possible. Instead, you need to receive his gift of salvation by faith in Jesus. What would it look like if you decided to put your trust in Jesus today for the first time?

To help you answer this question, think about the two elements of faith.

  • What would it mean for you to entrust yourself to Jesus?
  • What would it mean for you to respond appropriately to Jesus? [SH, p. 9]

In Chapter 5 ‘Meeting with Other Jesus Followers’ students are presented with one ‘appropriate’ response to Jesus – to go to church.

One of the outcomes for this lessons is that by the end of the lesson students will ‘be invited to start attending a local church.’ [TM, p. 27]

In the Student Handbook, students are asked –

Do you attend a church regularly? Yes | No

If yes, why do you go? If no, what’s stopping you from trying it out?

– and to –

Write down a list of everyone you know who regularly attends a church, youth group or the Christian group at your school (if you have one).

It is then suggested to students that –

You may like to approach one of the people on your list after this class and ask them if you can join them next time they go. You might even enjoy it! [SH, p. 44]

– and later it is suggested to students –

If you’ve never tried going to a youth group before, ask your teacher if he or she can recommend one. Grab a few friends and go together. Who knows? You may actually discover that you really like it! [SH, p. 48]

But what if ‘parents’ wills contradict God’s will‘?

Clemens gives SRE instructors some ready-made answers to the ‘common’ question –

What if my parents don’t want me to go to church?

The first of the four suggested responses needs to be quoted in full –

Jesus unashamedly expects to be first priority in relationships. In Luke 14:26 Jesus says, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple’. This sounds incredibly harsh, but the point is clear: Jesus wants up to put him first. That being said, he’s not saying we have to hate our families (since he quotes the Old Testament commands to ‘honour your father and mother’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ [Matthew 19:19]]; he just wants to make sure that put him first. (emphasis added) [TM, p. 30]

This statement reinforces the message in response to the question in Radical Jesus –  “Do I have to give up my family to follow Jesus?

On that note, we will say a worrying goodbye to Hard Core Christians.

In FIRIS’ next blog we will consider the issues related to the presence of ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religion instruction in NSW public schools (as identified in the two curricula) in the context of legislation and the Department of Education’s policies and procedures.

 

‘Radical Jesus’ and ‘Hard Core Christians’ in NSW public school classrooms: Part One

In early February, the Sydney Anglican’s John Dickson tweeted

There are two compelling reasons for Special Religious Education in schools: 1) Some religion or other profoundly shaped a child’s culture, and should form part of their education; 2) Trained adherents are better equipped to teach a living Faith than are teachers in general.

– and added –

And I would welcome anyone who is willing to debate this issue with arguments.

In response to the first ‘compelling’ reason FIRIS is simply going to state the fact that General Religious Education is currently included in the curriculum. Furthermore, FIRIS has complete confidence that professional teachers employed by the NSW Department of Education using NESA developed curricula have the necessary knowledge and competence to teach it.

This leads us on to Dickson’s second ‘compelling’ reason for SRE.

In an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph in 2015, Dickson wrote –

The main arguments against sympathetic religious education miss the mark. Some of the naysayers cite anecdotes of kids going home to mum in tears after of a [sic] scripture teacher’s ­insensitive remark about sin, or their denial of Santa, or because a piece of literature was handed out that does drift into proselytising. This can, and should, easily be fixed with better SRE protocols and training. [emphasis added]

He also called into question the feasibility of a “neutral” approach to religious education, claiming that in reality such an approach is ‘unworkable’. He wrote –

With everything else teachers have to know and do, they are never going to be able to understand the Bible as well as, say, the middle-aged mum from the local church who’s been reading scripture for decades.  

So let’s have a look at what can happen, and is happening, when ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction is allowed in our public schools. However, instead of discussing ‘a middle-aged mum from the local church‘ we will introduce you to the Sydney Anglican’s own Tim Clemens of Grace City Church.

In 2009 Tim Clemens was employed as an SRE instructor at St Ives High School in Sydney. Clemens states

This was a great time of learning for me and taught me how to communicate the gospel in an often skeptical and sometimes hostile environment. It also gave me an opportunity to develop some resources for other SRE teachers. This experience grew within me a passion for evangelism and producing resources.

So Clemens is not just your ordinary case of a ‘sympathetic’ SRE instructor. He is an author of SRE curricula sold by Christian Education Publications   =  Youthworks = Sydney Anglicans.

A reasonable member of the NSW public would be justified in concluding that that what Clemens tells SRE instructors to do, say and present to students is an example of what the Sydney Anglicans/Youthworks/CEP think is OK to do, say and present to students in a ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction class.

So let’s now look at what Clemens tells other ‘sympathetic’ SRE instructors to do, say and present to Year 7 and 8 students.

The two main curricula of interest, Radical Jesus and Hard Core Christians, can be found (in the sense of ‘can be purchased’) here (accessed 30.03.2019).

Part One of this blog will focus on Radical Jesus.

According to the Teacher’s Manual –

Radical Jesus is part of a series of curriculum products written by Tim Clemens for years 7-10 students studying Christian studies in independent schools and Special Religious Education in State schools. (emphasis added) [p. 4] – see sample of Teacher’s Manual here.

The title page of the book states – ‘10 lessons on the radical Saviour | For high school students in years 7 and 8‘.

The ‘Unit Overview’ lists the ‘radical’ key areas discussed in the curriculum, including –

4. Radical authority. Jesus showed that he has authority over everything in the natural world and in the spiritual world.

– and –

5. Radical followers. Jesus taught that those who want to follow him must give up their lives to do so.

– and –

8. Radical death. Jesus died on the cross even though he was God’s perfect Son – one who had never sinned.

– and –

9. Radical ascension. After 40 days, Jesus ascended into heaven as the King of the universe, where he reigns to this day. [p. 7]

We will now look at these four key areas.

Radical Authority

The ‘Big Idea’ of Chapter 4 is –

We need to submit our lives to Jesus because he has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. [p. 20]

An outcome from the lesson is that students will ‘consider whether they have submitted their own lives to the authority of Jesus.’ [p. 20]

The prayer for the lesson says –

Help us to see that we need to submit ourselves to your Son, Jesus, because he has all authority in heaven and on earth. [p. 21]

At the end of the Chapter the SRE instructor is directed to ‘Reinforce the Big Idea’ –

Make sure students understand that Jesus has authority over everything, and that they need to bring their lives under this authority by putting their trust in him and living lives of obedience.

In the Student Handbook, students are told –

Jesus wants us not only to recognise this supreme authority, but also to submit to it. [p. 16]

– and are asked –

3a. What do you think it means to submit to Jesus’ authority?

3b. Do you find the concept of Jesus’ authority compelling? Yes  No [p. 18]

In Chapter 7 ‘Radical Betrayal’, in response to the ‘common’ question –

What if I don’t want to obey God’s will? [p. 34]

– a suggested response is –

There will be consequences for disobeying God’s will. No one is perfect, but God wants us to put our trust in Jesus (john 6:29). If we refuse to trust in Jesus for forgiveness, we will be forced to suffer the consequences – God’s wrath. [p. 34]

Radical Followers

The ‘Big Idea’ of Chapter 5 is –

Jesus says that a true believer will deny him or herself, take up his or her cross daily and follow him. [p. 24]

Outcomes from the lesson include that students will ‘ be challenged by the call of Jesus to deny themselves and take up their cross daily’ and to ‘consider what it might look like for them to live as radical followers of Jesus.’ [p. 24]

At the end of the Chapter the SRE instructor is directed to ‘Reinforce the Big Idea’ –

Make sure the students understand that being a Christian is not just about calling yourself a Christian, but about living a radical life of obedience and self-denial. [p. 27]

Parents and caregivers may take some comfort in knowing that, in response to the ‘common’ question –

Do I have to give up my family to follow Jesus?

– the answer is ‘Yes and no’.

In the Student Handbook, students are asked to fill in some missing words from Luke 9:24 – For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it – and are then asked –

Having read this passage (V24), would you call yourself a follower of Jesus? Why or why not? [p. 22]

Later, in Chapter 9 ‘Radical Resurrection’ students are told –

Jesus promised that he would one day raise his followers from the dead and take them (and only them) to be with him in heaven. A follower of Jesus is someone who trusts in him and lets him be the boss of his or her life. (emphasis added) [p. 38]

– and are once again asked –

Would you call yourself a follower of Jesus? Yes No

Radical Death

The ‘Big Idea’ of Chapter 8 is –

Jesus died to secure forgiveness for all who put their trust in him. [p. 35]

An outcome from the lesson is that student’s will ‘explore the reality of death’ [p. 35] and here is how they explore it –

Radical Death? Ask students the question, ‘Has anyone ever had a pet that died? How did it die?’ You will need to be sensitive with this question because there may be one or two students who were particularly close to their pets. [p. 36]

– and from the Student Handbook –

 

Radical Ascension

In Chapter 10, the SRE instructor is prompted to ‘Reinforce the Big Idea’ –

Make sure students understand that Jesus is alive today and that he is ruling the universe. Encourage them to submit their lives to him. [p. 43]

The SRE instructor is encouraged to ‘give students an opportunity to start following Jesus by praying with them‘ –

‘Lord Jesus, I need you. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sin. I open the door of my life and receive you as my Saviour and Lord. Take control of my life. Make me the kind of person you want me to be. Amen.’ [p. 43]

The last paragraph of the Teacher’s Manual states –

To encourage a response from students, you might like to finish by saying something like, ‘If you are yet to say sorry to God and put your trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, now is an excellent time to do this. When Jesus returns it will be too late’. [p. 44]

End of Part One

In Part Two we will look at more examples of ‘believed-in’, ‘sympathetic’ religious instruction found in Clemens’ Year 7 and 8 SRE curriculum Hard Core Christians.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A principal’s unprincipled tweet: or, Shits and giggles over parent frustration about SRE

A few weeks ago a principal of a NSW primary school thought that it would be a good idea to tweet the following –

 

– and here is the full image attached to the tweet –

 

 

Now, FIRIS has no idea why a NSW public school principal would think that this was an appropriate thing to do.

In fact, FIRIS thinks that a reasonable member of the NSW public would be justified in perceiving the tweet as making a mockery of a parent’s frustration regarding the need for them to opt their child out of SRE. However, the tweet exposes larger problems regarding SRE than simply a principal’s poor judgement call whether to-tweet or not-to-tweet.

Firstly, it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the NSW Department of Education’s policies and procedures regarding SRE.

When asked by someone why a ‘reason for objection to SRE’ had to be provided, the principal responded by saying that a reason was required by law and by the Department.

FIRIS quickly pointed out to the principal that Section 33 of the NSW Education Act 1990 does not require a reason but simply states –

No child at a government school is to be required to receive any general religious education or special religious education if the parent of the child objects to the child’s receiving that education.

FIRIS also pointed out that the Department’s Religious Education Policy and Special Religious Education Procedures do not require a reason for a parent’s objection to their child’s participation in SRE. The Procedures state –

A parent/caregiver may at any time notify the school in writing that they do not wish their child to attend SRE or to change their SRE nomination.

FIRIS let the principal know that we regard such a request for a reason as a potential violation of Article 3 of the United Nation’s General Comment 22 regarding the freedom of religion articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

no one can be compelled to reveal his thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief.

Needless to say, the tweet was quickly deleted.

However, FIRIS believes that the principal’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the Procedures has created this situation requiring the parent to respond in this way.

The Procedures have stated clearly since 2013 that once a parent or caregiver chooses or objects to SRE when enrolling their child in a school, their child continues in the ‘same arrangement as the previous year’ until the parent or caregiver requests a change.

The parent should not have to be objecting to SRE for a second time.

SRE apologists might try to dismiss the above by stating that the principal’s lack of knowledge and understanding is an isolated case.

However, before we respond to such potential claims we need to look at what makes this instance even more concerning.

The principal in question is a Vice President on the State Executive of the NSW Primary Principals’ Association (PPA), an organisation which has a representative on the Department’s SRE Consultative Committee. This Committee is meant to provide advice to the Department about SRE and SEE in NSW Government schools. However, the lack of knowledge and understanding demonstrated above gives rise to questions regarding the ability of the PPA to ensure the rights of non-religious parents and caregivers and their children are protected and respected.

Now to the larger problems…

An audit of school websites currently being conducted by FIRIS is revealing that a lack of knowledge and understanding of the Department’s Procedures is widespread.

One concerning discovery has been the failure of principals to check that religious groups are an approved SRE provider before allowing them to enter NSW public schools. FIRIS has already had one confirmed case reported on in the Sunday Telegraph and we are awaiting confirmation regarding another.

A far more widespread problem is the unbelievably low rates of compliance with the simple requirement to provide links to SRE curriculum scope and sequence documents on school websites. Schools have known since December 2017 that this was required by the beginning of the 2019 school year.

However, of the 486 primary school websites audited so far by FIRIS , only 8 websites (1.64%) have contained links to other information. Furthermore, of the 29 links included in these 8 website pages, only 17 were clear links to curriculum scope and sequence information.

Even more concerning, is the general confusion and misrepresentation of SRE evident on school websites. This confusion casts serious doubts that principals have implemented the new 2019 enrolment processes correctly. These doubts are being confirmed by the SRE and SEE Participation Letters coming into FIRIS’ possession.

It seems that 2019 will be another year in which students are exposed to the risks associated with SRE without informed and express consent from their parents, requiring FIRIS to take these issues beyond the conflict-of-vested-interests Minister for Education.

 

 

Question and explore the Christian SRE lobby’s marketing campaign to discover a bankruptcy in integrity – Part One

Since its release to the public in April 2017, the 2015 Review of SRE and SEE in NSW Government Schools (the Review) has been cherry-picked, misrepresented and abused by the Christian SRE lobby.

The abuse reached its peak recently when FIRIS had to correct the Catholic Weekly’s mis-attribution of the findings of an all-too-partial ‘study’ to the findings and conclusions of the independent Review commissioned by the NSW Department of Education.

Part one of our questioning, exploring and discovering of the misrepresentation of the findings of the Review will focus on the Christian SRE lobby’s use of statements made about the benefits of SRE.

Before we start to question, explore and discover Christian SRE, we thought it important to revisit why the Review was conducted in the first place.

Background to the 2015 Review of SRE and SEE in NSW Government Schools

Starting in February 2011, an amendment to the NSW Education Act 1990 allowed students not taking part in SRE to enrol in Special Education in Ethics (SEE) classes as a secular alternative to SRE.

Just over six months later Reverend Fred Nile introduced a bill to the Legislative Assembly seeking to remove SEE as an option.

In November 2011 a parliamentary committee was set up to determine whether SEE classes should stay in NSW public schools. In May 2012 the committee released its report recommending that they should remain.

During the committee’s inquiry, it was pointed out to them that it was too early to review SEE and that a review should be done once it was more established. It was argued that if there was to be a future investigation of SEE, “it would be outrageous discrimination if there were no parallel investigation of the other legal SRE options provided by religious groups.” (p. 67) The committee noted that SRE had not been reviewed for over 30 years, since the Rawlinson Report in 1980 (pp. 68-69).

Therefore, the committee also recommended that “a future independent review of both SEE and SRE be conducted by appropriately qualified early childhood educational reviewers in 2014-2015…” (Recommendation 14) and identified specified areas for the review to cover (pp. xvii & 69).

The committee did not, however, include in the recommended aims of the recommended review an investigation into whether SRE and SEE are beneficial or unbeneficial to students and whether they should continue in NSW Government schools.

In 2014, the NSW Department of Education commissioned ARTD Consultants to do the Review. The areas identified by the parliamentary committee became the basis for the Review’s Terms of Reference.

The ARTD reviewers examined the implementation of SRE and SEE in NSW Government schools between December 2014 and September 2015.

Their report, 2015 Review of SRE and SEE in NSW Government Schools (the Review) was finalised in March 2016, and presumably presented to the Department at that time. It was not released to the public until April 2017.

So, what claims are the Christian SRE lobby making regarding the Review’s statements about the benefits of SRE.

The statements of interest are on pages 76 and 77 of the Review –

  • SRE “contributes to a well-rounded education and provides students with a values perspective to make informed ethical choices.”
  • SRE “contributes to students’ understanding of their cultural heritage and is an avenue for their spiritual care.”
  • SRE “builds tolerance in schools around diverse communities and promotes multiculturalism through joint celebrations of different faith groups and the recognition of different cultural heritages.”
  • SRE “is community building and helps connect schools with the local community.”

Let’s look at how these statements have been used by Christian SRE lobby.

McCrindle and the Review

According to the McCrindle website, McCrindle was commissioned to review the findings and summarise the key data into this SRE in Schools visual summary.

FIRIS is not aware of who commissioned McCrindle to summarise the findings of the review but notes the mention of ChristianSRE in the URL for the visual summary – https://mccrindle.com.au/wp-content/uploads/ChristianSRE_ARTDInfographic_Infographic1_DIGITAL_McCrindle_MAY2017.pdf (emphasis added)

Regardless of who commissioned the review, on 30 May 2017 a McCrindle representative presenting this summary at NSW Parliament House. Education Minister Rob Stokes, Shadow Minister Jihad Dib, and the Christian Democratic Party MLC, Mr Paul Green, the host of the event, also addressed an audience reportedly made up of representatives from most of the major providers of SRE.

In photo – (L to R) Bishop Peter Ingham, Eliane Miles (McCrindle rep), Education Minister Rob Stokes, The Hon Paul Green, Shadow Minister Jihad Dib, ChristianSRE’s Murray Norman and unidentified person.

The McCrindle website stated –

The Review highlighted how SRE contributes to students’ understanding of their cultural heritage and is an avenue for their spiritual care. Further, it noted that the work of SRE teachers builds tolerance in schools, promotes multiculturalism, contributes to a well-rounded education, and connects schools with their local community.

McCrindle’s SRE in schools visual summary infographic also listed the reported ‘benefits of providing SRE’ and linked them to the Department’s Wellbeing Framework (white text on blue background) –

ChristianSRE and the Review

The ChristianSRE website, on its page ‘Review of SRE – What you need to know‘ also includes the statements from the Review –

 

Furthermore, knowing that changes in the enrolment process were coming in 2019 – which prevent children being placed in SRE without express consent – ChristianSRE launched a saturation-marketing campaign in the latter half of 2018.

Part of that campaign was the printing and distribution of 760,000 brochures intended to “carry the info campaign to parents at more than 2100 state schools.

Both the primary and secondary versions of the brochures contain the reported benefits of SRE from the 2015 Review –

The NSW Government published the independent SRE review findings and recommendations in 2017. [emphasis added]

So why does all of this point to a bankruptcy of integrity?

FIRIS is not claiming that the statements in question cannot be found in the 2015 Review of SRE and SEE.

FIRIS is claiming, however, that these statements are not the findings, in the sense of being the conclusions, of the ARTD reviewers.

What the Christian SRE lobby does not mention, is the fact that an investigation into the perceived benefits of SRE was not included in the Terms of Reference for the Review.

Despite this, and potentially revealing an underlying bias, the Review chose to include sections on the perceived benefits of SRE and SEE. The reviewers wrote –

Although not one of the Terms of Reference for the Review, perceptions of the benefits of SRE are pertinent to the assessment of the implementation of SRE. The Reviewers have briefly documented the common views about the benefits of SRE, as expressed in contributions to the Review. However, there is no objective data about the benefits and nor was systematic data on beliefs about benefits collected, because the structure of surveys and submissions closely reflected the Terms of Reference. [p. 76] (emphasis added)

So the content of these sections are merely the claims, assertions and opinions of contributors to the Review.

It is interesting to note that the reviewers wrote regarding the online community consultation and contributions –

The Reviewers recognise that while the responses reflect significant issues for those who responded, to some degree they reflect the two polarised positions in the community around SRE and SEE, and cannot be considered as representative of the whole NSW community. Indeed, the Reviewers are aware that some groups were active in encouraging their constituents to contribute, and in some cases suggested wording. (p. xiii)

Unfortunately though, it seems the reviewers did not equally regard the contributions of those who documented existing and foreseeable risks related to the presence of SRE in our public schools, or those who perceive SRE as unbeneficial and potentially harmful to students, as being pertinent to their assessment of the implementation of SRE.

But let’s get back to the point.

This letter sent to ICCOREIS (read ChristianSRE) regarding its media releases and the ChristianSRE brochures was recently forwarded to FIRIS –

Download (PDF, 607KB)

As the parent states towards the end of this letter –

The flyer is misleading in that it implies these are the proven benefits of SRE which were among ARTD’s actual findings, and it could leave some readers with the impression that the NSW Government itself concurs.

FIRIS agrees with this parent and believes that reasonable members of the NSW public would be justified in concluding that McCrindle and ChristianSRE are presenting the claims and assertions made by SRE supporters in a way which maximises the chance of them being perceived as the substantiated conclusions and findings of the ARTD reviewers.

The parent’s letter ends with a statement of hope that in consideration of the above, ICCOREIS will be prompted “to form and publicly present a balanced view of SRE in future.”

Unfortunately, given ICCOREIS’ previous history of not even acknowledging letters questioning the validity of their claims regarding SRE, FIRIS holds out no hope.