NSW Labor left faction agitates to remove scripture classes from public schools
Naaman Zhou – The Guardian
Monday 17 July 2017 11.26 AEST
A plan to remove scripture classes from New South Wales public schools will be put forward at Labor’s annual state conference by the party’s left faction.
All public schools in NSW have to provide at least 30 minutes a week for optional religious education classes, but students who opt out are not allowed to undertake any educational activities during that time.
The proposal’s backers are looking to emulate a move by the Victorian Labor government, which in 2015 removed scripture from the school curriculum, meaning the classes could only occur before or after school, or at lunchtime.
However, proponents have already encountered opposition from the party’s internal committees, with the education committee recommending its rejection.
A member of the education committee, Adam Shultz, who supported the removal of scripture classes, said it was reasonable to follow Victoria’s lead.
“We’re pouring so much money into Gonski, why are we throwing away valuable class time? We’re keen to see classroom time focused on the syllabus.
“If you held it outside class time, it would be a lot better for everyone,” said Shultz, a Labor councillor for Lake Macquarie City Council.
“We’re not the first movers on this. Victoria has already gone down this path, and we should in our view, follow suit.”
In NSW, scripture, known as special religious education (SRE), can be provided for no less than 30 minutes a week and no more than an hour, and is held during ordinary class time. Schools can also provide secular ethics classes alongside scripture, after they were introduced in 2011, but there is a shortage of qualified instructors.
But students who opt out of both must read or undertake private study instead of regular classwork.
Parents are also lobbying the Parents and Citizens Federation for changes to the rules governing what schools can do while scripture is being taught, according to the Sunday Telegraph.
The NSW Labor shadow education minister, Jihad Dib, said neither he nor the leader of the opposition, Luke Foley, had plans for the removal of scripture.
“It is a long-held position of NSW Labor that in recognition of the diversity of Australian society we support parental choice in educating children about their faith,” Dib said.
“Many policy suggestions are raised at conference [and] as a party our conferences have always been a robust forum to discuss a range of ideas.”
However Darrin Morgan, the NSW director of Fairness in Religion in Schools, a group which opposes school scripture classes, called for the laws to change.
“Students in scripture have the power to stop the learning of all other students – it’s ridiculous,” he said.
“That learning time, which is given to volunteer teachers or paid representatives of religious organisations, should be returned to professional educators and they can make up their mind how to fill that space.
“We are not against learning about religion in schools, it just should be taught by trained Department of Education teachers.”
A 2015 review into SRE in government schools, which was completed in 2016 but only publicly released in April this year, found 75% of parents were dissatisfied with the kind of activities their children did while others were in scripture or ethics class.
The opinion of educators was mixed, with 71% of primary school principals satisfied with the alternatives provided, but the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council expressed “serious concern” that scripture was “denying the opportunity for learning for others”.
The report eventually recommended that students should be allowed to continue regular classwork during scripture time.
Critical principals quoted in the report said SRE made “timetabling difficult” and “created logistical issues” in schools where the majority of students opted out.
“SRE is the only area where the choices made by some (often very few) prevents other students from exercising their normal rights to learning,” said one.
The Anglican archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, said Labor’s policy should not change.
“Previous Labor governments as well as the current shadow minister have always been supportive of special religious education and the involvement of various faiths and cultures in the school community,” he said.
“The recent independent report on SRE and ethics showed significant community satisfaction with the present system. I believe this support transcends political affiliation.”
The education minister, Rob Stokes, has argued scripture lessons are a tradition in NSW public schools.
“Religious education classes have been offered in public schools since 1848 and have been supported by all NSW governments since then,” Stokes said.
“There is a longstanding policy and legal framework supporting freedom of religion and conscience in NSW public schools.”
In June, at a meeting with Dib and Stokes, Bishop Peter Ingham of the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong said SRE in schools was a sign of “a mature and inclusive education system”.
SRE has been provided in NSW government schools since the 1800s. In 2015, the report found 92% of primary schools had SRE or ethics classes, as did 81% of secondary schools.
Seventy-one per cent of primary school students participated in scripture or ethics, compared with only 31% of secondary school students.
In Victoria, in-school SRE was replaced with a relationships education program that taught content on preventing domestic violence, appreciating diversity, and world histories, cultures and faiths.
However, the current NSW Labor proposal does not specify a replacement.
Shultz said he would advocate for the change at the state conference, which runs from 29 to 31 July, and “see how it goes”.
“We will agitate for change,” he said. “Fingers crossed we can get a result.”