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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Download (PDF, 876KB)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– but more on this later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In December 2014 the REIPs were changed.

The statement in the previous REIPs  –

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

 – was replaced by –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– with –

Where a religious persuasion was not nominated on enrolment or the nominated religious persuasion is not available as a special religious education program at the school, parents/ caregivers are asked to complete a special religious education preference form [i.e. SRE Participation Letter] which outlines all special religious education options available at the school. [emphasis added]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– was replaced in the April 2016 fact sheet by –

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

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

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

– were replaced in the April 2016 flowchart by –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Minister for Education responded over a month later:

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

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

Unfortunately, this was not the case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download (PDF, 400KB)

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

Download (PDF, 2.61MB)

The Minister has failed to include the statement –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what next?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Download (PDF, 536KB)

Download (PDF, 175KB)

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

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

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

For the 2018 school year:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIRIS’ audits paint a very different picture.

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

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

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

Download (PDF, 2.07MB)

Religious education in UK Government-funded Schools is under review

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

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

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

The same council had published a review in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prompts for table discussions –

      Image: c/o Rudi Eliott Lockhart @ThisisRudi

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

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

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

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

 Image: c/o Rudi Eliott Lockhart @ThisisRudi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download (PDF, 816KB)

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

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

SRE and VSA volunteers may inform the students who participate in that SRE class or VSA group of related extra-curricular activities including local church groups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 32(2) Education Act 1990 states-

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Procedures state: –

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

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

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

So, given that the Procedures state:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Procedures state:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Procedures used to contain the statement

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

FIRIS: Campaign Launch

FIRIS NSW Campaign Launch 27 January 2017

More information coming soon…

Sydney Evangelical Curriculum pulled because of FIRIS report

Read the report that is causing chaos in NSW parachurch ministry in schools!

FIRIS recently released a report detailing the nature of the curriculum promoted by Generate Ministries and YouthWorks, who provide the majority of Special Religious Education (SRE).

In response, Generate and Youthworks have “axed” the curriculum.
australia

Axing this curriculum in response to the FIRIS report, is like amputating a gangrenous appendage, in hope of saving the body.

The problem with this strategy is that the material being “axed” is not an appendage, it clearly reflects the core teachings and ideology of both Generate and Youthworks, which are set up to proselytise with “government endorsement”.

You: an introduction is core teaching of the Sydney Evangelical faith, and it is written by the movement’s most educated thinker: Dr Michael Jensen, son of the former Archbishop and leading Moore College Scholar.  Even Jensen himself says “A lot of the things ­mentioned in there are just ­orthodox Christian teachings”.

Rather than defend the curriculum and its place in public schools, the para-church strategy is to announce that it will no longer use it!

Ironically, when the Department took steps to suspend these same materials, due to concerns for student’s welfare, it resulted in a hysterical response from the Evangelical community, drawing comparisons to North Korea!

bird

Now that FIRIS has released irrefutable documentation of the nature of this curriculum, the para-church groups have seen that accusing the Department of being “North Korea” isn’t going to work, so they have tried to conduct a controlled burn.

parachurch claims to be conducting a review and removing the materials at exactly same time as FIRIS report released!

parachurch claims to be conducting a review and removing the materials at exactly same time as FIRIS report released!

This report is long and detailed but it is vital for the public to understand that the Para-church groups using NSW schools are NOT able to shut down public analysis of these materials by claiming that they will no longer use them! 

The report concludes the texts are divisive, promote gender inequality and discrimination towards same-sex attracted and gender diverse students, students with a disability, chronic or terminal illness, and those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD).

And it finds that these texts have no place in Australian government schools and promote messages contrary to NSW Department of Education policies and educational best practices.

The report has been reviewed by senior professionals across the issues examined, including:

  • Georgie Harman, CEO, beyondblue
  • Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Managing Director Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, child and adolescent psychologist
  • Professor Marion Maddox, Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University
  • Fiona McCormack, CEO, Domestic Violence Victoria
  • Dr Cathy Byrne, religion sociologist, Southern Cross University
  • Justin Koonin, convenor, NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby
  • Sally Goldner, Executive Director, Transgender Victoria
  • Daniel Witthaus, CEO, National Institute for Challenging Homophobia in Education (NICHE)
  • Dr David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer, Department of Education, Monash University
  • Dr Naomi Priest, Fellow, ANU

This discussion WILL continue, both in the public sphere and with the Department.

Read the entire report here:

Download (PDF, 3.48MB)

An open letter to Sandy Grant: It is not OK to preach in Australian Schools

Reverend Sandy Grant
St Michaels Anglican Cathedral Wollongong
Corner of Church St and Market St
Wollongong NSW 2500,
Australia
+61 2 4228 9132

Dear Reverend Grant:

You have our condolences for the loss of your friend, Bronwyn Chin, who died as a result of long endurance of pancreatic cancer, but your sorrow over her death does not licence you to repeatedly fail to grasp why your policy agenda and FIRIS’s aims are in conflict.

Your letter in response to the public discussion of the CEP curriculum, was a masterpiece of “missing the point” – and given your intellect, is best understood as a deliberate attempt to misdirect people from the issues at hand.

The issue is not, as you suggest, that anyone wishes to argue that “suffering is not an opportunity for growth“, as you phrased it, the issue is that you have used her suffering as part of a curriculum in our state schools that is clearly using this example, as a rationale to promote a particular religious agenda.

It is also relevant that you want to do this in our schools as part of a programme of confessional religious instruction that segregates children according to their family’s religious opinions.

If your letter reflects your ability to listen and understand other’s suffering, or if it reflects the pastoral care you routinely give, I offer my condolences to your parishioners as well.

You seem to have a Jesus shaped blind spot in your conscience.

Sandy Grant wants to expose your children to Jesus.

Sandy Grant wants to expose your children to Jesus.

Let me offer you an observation:  The exibitionism you display around your religious convictions, and the outworking of these convictions in the lives of your fellow citizens as policy, has reached a point where you have run into our opposition (as well as the opposition of others).  We need to be very clear with you, that this conflict is one caused by your exhibitionism, and your refusal to respect the sensitivities and feelings of us, your neighbors.  It is your imposition of your religious beliefs into the private and personal lives of our families that has led to this conflict.

As a priest, you must be keenly aware that cancer claims the lives of people without regard to their religious belief, and sadly, claims the lives of people who are very young, or in the prime of health.  As a priest though, you are acting like the proverbial carpenter, who, because all he has is a hammer, considers every problem to look like a nail.

nailr

While it might feel reassuring for you to explain, and comfort your congregation by urging them to see cancer as a perfect reason to “focus on Jesus” – as you did at Ms. Chin’s very public funeral – I can sincerely assure you, that there are equally sincere people who would not welcome this message at their funeral, and your attempts to reframe this, as merely proposing that there is virtue in overcoming suffering, is simply dishonest.  This is manifestly NOT what you are proposing in this example.

Furthermore, the materials at issue, do not frame this in any sense as “your opinion, but instead they clearly assert the truth of a view that “cancer is the result of sin in the world”.

The fact that many view this kind of religious expression with contempt should not surprise anyone.

The way you served the Chin family at their funeral, and I’m sure, as a friend, is exemplary – but you have taken her death, and rolled it into a public school curriculum – administered under the laws of our state, and incumbent on the staff of our schools to oversee and administer.

You repeatedly fail to see why, what you presume to do in our schools , impacts on the lives of those, who for various reasons choose not to join your religious community.

You repeatedly mischaracterise these underlying issues:  as you did in your letter to the Australian.  This pattern rises to a level of willful deception on your part.

So let us be very clear:  because you blend your religious convictions and passions, with legislation and state school policy – we have come into direct conflict.

Were it not for these facts, you and I would not be addressing each other via the intermediary of the pages of the Australian.  Just as none of us protested your sermon at Ms. Chin’s funeral, if if were not for the fact that your views about cancer have been made into curriculum you present in our schools:  it would not be the subject of discussion.

If you were not imposing on our family, and indeed on all families who count themselves as part of the body of public education in Australia – we would not be discussing this- but because you seek to keep a policy in place that has the effect of dictating to my family – how my children are treated in their school there is a conflict.

Let us be very clear:  this issue is one that can be easily solved by your agreeing to conduct your ministry outside of the hours which my children are obligated to be present in school.  We resent having to excuse our children from a timeslot given to your instruction.  Why does it seem to strain your imagination to believe that your insistence that our state schools should uphold a practice that gives you access to conduct ministry – imposes on everyone in a way that is unwelcome? 

I would like to offer another observation – and this has to do with the overarching value of our system of public education, which you seem unconcerned with.

Ms. Chin, as the wife of someone employed by a parachurch group, sent her children to “Illawara Christian School” – and if Australian families who are Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or “none” – attend that school – they would be doing it under clear submission to the “religious confession” which is part of the charter of the Illawara Christian School. While I have every confidence that the people of Illawara Christian School mean no ill toward any of the other faiths, the school charter reads as a reminder of why we need “public education” and why our forefathers sought to create it.  We’ve overcome a past that is steeped in policy that is confessional, dogmatic and celebrates the imposition of “religious tests” for membership.

The beauty, and moral purpose of “public education” – is that it educates children as Australians – which is to say, it educates them, irrespective of, and without favour towards the religion of their family.  This formulation was (historically) reached over the direct protestations of your church, and those of other churches out of which our nation chose to form – in spite of its historic sectarian differences.

The innovation of public education which Australia can proudly claim as a first (ie ours is the first nation on earth to establish a system of free, compulsory and secular education) – is not hostile to your faith – it is your actions which are hostile to our system of education.

We believe that families can and should be trusted to attend to the religious formation of their children, and while a “market” for religious expression clearly exists in this country, none of these should be allowed to commandeer the system of public education – in whole or in part.

We have not “attacked” you or your chosen religion – we have decided to defend our system of public education against an increasingly aggressive and exhibitionist expression of your religion.

Perhaps this is your ultimate goal – to stand in the way of others interrogate them about their beliefs in hope that you’ll convince them of your views – if this is your goal, then let our efforts, bring adversity to you your agenda, and in so doing provide you an “opportunity for growth”.

I sincerely suggest that the sooner you experience this “growth” … the better off we all will be.

The Australian looks into Michael Jensen’s year 9 curriculum – and finds it wanting (your kids soul).

Download (PDF, 202KB)

Are you Experienced?

Are you Experienced?

How SRE’s apologists are against education about religions:

John Dickson and Michael Jensen swear on a stack of bibles that they believe SRE does not, and should not exist as a form of missionary work, wherein Christian Evangelists take the bible into schools and recruit children to follow their religion.

It is absurd of them to assert this, because it is abundantly clear that this is why religious groups, and especially evangelical ones, burn to prevent FIRIS from accomplishing what they call our “end game”.  Namely, to terminate the practice of granting access to “religious groups” to operate in our state schools (because they should not be using our schools as “mission fields” – schools are places of learning, not places of worship and not street corners to hurl threats of damnation at passers by.  We should expect what is taught in schools to submit to some standards).

SRE does not have any metrics like this, and its most ardent supporters don’t want it to – because they aren’t in schools to educate, they are there because they want to recruit.

Michael Jensen, especially is incandescent with rage because he sees FIRIS as “anti-religious”. Keep in mind that Michael Jensen is not some internet hack, he’s a respected Ph.D., scion of Sydney Anglican Royalty – and he’s constantly slandering FIRIS as “anti-religion” – he knows it isn’t true, but it fits his narrative of persecution.

John Dickson, however has a more nuanced way to slime FIRIS.  His claim is that we don’t want people to “believe religion”!

I want to drill down on Dickson’s claims and show how this agenda is not educational at all: that his goals, while coated in elaborate and often original euphemism, have only one meaning. John wants dedicated and protected space to have people “experience his religion” inside the schools. To be clear, this is what John should be doing – he is after all a priest – he’s sworn to go out and bring people into his faith. It is just much easier if he’s given the schools as a venue to do this. He’s not content to live in a society where people are free to come to him; he wants a world where the Minister for Education lets him come into the schools, and then indicate if you want “opt out” of the time slot he’s been assigned.

theyhate

 

Here is one of FIRIS’s intellectually adept voices, Andrew Glover, stepping in to push back:

theyhate2

John’s response is to claim that few people accuse FIRIS of wanting to get rid of religion (despite that Michael Jensen just said that is what we are about), John wants to defend the idea that FIRIS is against “believed-religion” – he says we “despise believed-religion”.

So you have Michael Jensen claiming we “hate religion” (untrue) and Dickson claiming that we despise something he called “believed-religion”.

This is breathtaking dishonesty (on both counts), given that high profile religious leaders routinely make FIRIS’s case. What John Dickson wants to do is act in the role of “confessor” and define a category of “religion” that he arbitrates, so he can accuse FIRIS of being against it!

John then makes another move. He claims, in effect, that treating religion as something which can be “studied” (ie as a school subject that is non confessional in nature), is a form of attacking religion (despising it), as it is tantamount to killing the living thing!

theyhate3
To carry this analogy further, into the educational realm, if we can have “botany”, we must despise living plants. Because to systematise and classify, and catalog in drawers – the plants turns them into “museum pieces” instead of living things.

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Beneath this claim is a disdain and contempt for learning that should strike horror into anyone who values education and knowledge, as a source of human understanding and advancement. John’s proposition is that learning in a systematised, objective, mutually understandable and repeatable, content-driven fashion, is hostile to something he’s in favour of: something that in his formulation can be defined as something that “ignites a worldview”.

What does it mean to “ignite a worldview”? I put to you that this is dressed up way to say “saved” or “converted” .

Andrew Glover’s response was exemplary:

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One of the key reasons why SRE deserves to be kicked out of the classroom is that NO ONE will tell you if you’ve learned the material or not, because the only metric that they care about is one that can’t be measured by mankind:  salvation. The goal of SRE instructors (evangelical ones at least) is “salvation from eternal punishment for not believing“.

This is what John’s proposing: to sort those who believe from those who don’t.

John Dickson wants us to avoid that truth, by dancing around with lots of euphemisms; watch him respond to Glover’s intellectual checkmate, by reaching for “heritage and culture” – his “go-to” cover story.  What he seems to miss is that our “culture” deliberately has moved beyond “our heritage”: why does SRE fullfill John’s demands – why not demand that we take all children to mass on Sunday, as was done in yesteryear?  Why does John not demand that girls be made to experience the domestic arts to experience “their heritage”? Because that would make John Dickson look like a fool. But as long as he keeps this argument vague enough, it’s a con he can put over on us, largely because of a reserve of goodwill and deference that most decent people afford piety.

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It isn’t that John is wrong about what he’s saying here. It’s OK for him see religion as something that you do, not something that you “learn about” or “study”, just as it’s OK to be someone who loves plants so much that you can’t stand to see them studied in a systematic way. But this kind of passion is not a qualification for teaching in a school, and in fact it is fair to say that it is hostile to a classical understanding of education.

We should not set up schools built on the liberal arts and on secular foundations and then have priests come in and “do religion” in them, any more than we should have botany instruction that is only given though the lens of “aboriginal knowledge of plants”. Such an education would not be a serious education, just as SRE is not a serious education: it’s there to give evangelists something to do, some people to convert.

SRE is really about the need for the instructors to appeal to students with their passion – more so that something that is there for the students to be educated in any way that we can speak of in a sense of being informed or educated.

John Dickson has no interest in people who are educated about Christianity – he is only interested in having people become Christians, and from his comments it is clear that all his claims about the importance of understanding the bible as means to know about art, literature and culture are hollow.

John compares religion to sport or dance – or music, but the vast majority of us watch and passively consume these things, and in order to understand a footy game, you need to know who the teams are, and the rule; people who cannot move their legs can enjoy footy.  There is no need at all for me to pole vault to watch the Olympics, and my enjoyment of the sport is not diminished by knowing that the games have ancient origins.

Johns arguments are completely self-serving and invasive and anti-educational. Religion, in John’s formulation, is more like sexual intercorse than music, because he feels that it can’t be really appreciated without doing it. It has to be personally felt to qualify as being something you can claim to “know” in the biblical sense (pun intended).

John is really claiming that unless he is allowed to get naked with you, that you really haven’t had the experience he thinks you need.  John Dickson wants to go into the schools and have you “do religion” … not just learn about it.  He wants to know “are you experienced” …

He takes it even further, and argues that our advocacy that all children should learn “about religions” in an educationally valid way, is to despise religion.

John’s intentions are euphemistically worded, but it means the same thing: “Let me have a go”.

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