SRE is ‘special’
Public schools are a model for what a functioning society can be. They aim to be inclusive, to be respectful of all students, to cater for everyone’s needs and encourage everyone to get along together. With one exception.
Public schools have policies that help create inclusive learning communities. These policies include ones about not bullying, about the values in public education, and one that states any employed teacher or visitor to a school cannot try to recruit students into partisan groups. Schools aim to be neutral spaces. Teachers are to try to deliver the curriculum objectively, and facilitate activities that help students make up their own minds about what they believe and who they support. This policy is called The Controversial Issues in Schools Policy and it is suspended so that a program can be run in public schools: the Special Religious Education program. We may argue over whether the program is educational*, but we must acknowledge that it is ‘special’.
The groups that deliver SRE are called approved providers. They become authorised by submitting an application to the NSW Minister for Education via the NSW Department of Education. Prior to being sent to the Minister, applications are reviewed by the Department’s SRE Consultative Committee. The Committee is made up of representatives of current providers (evangelical Christians are over-represented), four employees of the Department of Education (who can’t criticise the program), a P&C representative, representatives of the Secondary Principals’ Council and the Primary Principals’ Association and a Teachers’ Federation representative. The group also ‘advises’ the Department on the interpretation and implementation of the SRE policy. None of the non-provider representatives on this committee have a public position on SRE which supports the rights of students who opt out of the program.
The authorised providers are supposed to have a website with their curriculum available, so parents can see what they are agreeing to. Many providers don’t have a curriculum on their website. The providers create and authorise their own curriculum. The Department of Education doesn’t see it, and has no say about its content. The regular curriculum, The Australian Curriculum, which includes the General Capabilities of Critical and Creative Thinking, Intercultural Understanding, and Ethical Understanding, does not apply during the SRE timeslot. The authorised providers accredit their own instructors. Authorised providers need to make annual assurances to the Department that they comply with Child Protection procedures, however, the Department of Education does not guarantee these assurances are submitted. Schools have no authority to discipline SRE instructors. SRE is ‘special’.
To complicate matters, religious groups form ‘combined arrangements’ to deliver SRE. These ‘combined arrangements’ are not approved providers per se. This can make it very difficult to find who is the approved provider is that authorises the SRE instructor and the curriculum they deliver.
The current policy is unfair to school principals. Under the policy any authorised provider who approaches a school to deliver SRE must be accommodated. Principals need to change their timetables to schedule the program at the convenience of the providers. Providers don’t want it run at the end of the school day in high schools because they don’t want students to have the option of going home early. Under the policy parents have the right to complain to the principal. The principal is given all responsibility but no authority. Normally principals have some authority about what programs run in their schools. SRE is ‘special’.
People say that if you don’t want to participate you can opt out. Aside from many students being opted in by default, when you talk about opting in or out you are talking about how many students you are prepared to discriminate against. Under the policy any student who opts out is to be given no educational instruction during the SRE timeslot. Clearly this is discrimination. The core business of schools is teaching and learning. A policy that states a group of students are not to the taught based on the religion or belief of their parents is discrimination. In many schools the participation in SRE is very low. There are schools that have about a dozen students in SRE while hundreds of students are to be given no educational instruction. We don’t know exactly how many students because the Department of Education does not collect and publish the data. Primary schools may run the ethics program if they have enough volunteers, however, there is no alternative program in high schools. SRE is ‘special’.
Let’s consider an analogy. Hospitals have regulations, procedures and policies. The staff there are qualified professionals. Imagine if hospitals ran a program which meant that from 10 am to 10.45 am each Wednesday their staff take a break and volunteers come in to take care of patients. Patients could opt out of the program, but they could receive no care during the timeslot. Would that be acceptable?
This is what currently happens in public schools.
Is it too much to ask that curriculum and policies are consistent through every school day?
We can solve this in either of two ways. We can change the legislation now, remove SRE from public schools and simply give that time back to professional educators. Or we can inform parents, who can act as policy enforcers in their children’s schools, increasing the administrative burden on principals by ensuring they follow the SRE policy to the letter and ensuring that parental consent is informed consent. We can change the membership of the Consultative Committee, expose the messages of the proviers calling public schools mission fields, see groups calling themselves Wiccans or Satanists apply to be providers of SRE, make it an election issue, write plays and sing songs about it, watch it all fall apart as it did in Victoria and then change the legislation.
Which would you prefer?
* After the release of the report into the Review of SRE and SEE (due for release Dec 2015, dated March 2016, and released April 2017, after the most concerning contents were removed from the draft) we can say that SRE is not educational. The recommendations which have been supported are entrusted to the SRE Consultative Committee to implement. The SRE Consultative Committee is to seek expert advice on what is meant by ‘curriculum outline’, ‘curriculum scope and sequence’, about pedagogy, relevance, age appropriateness, lesson plans, how to accommodate students’ needs and backgrounds, and how to use whiteboards and digital projectors. This shows that SRE providers are not educators. They are religious instructors. We know who knows about education – teachers. And we know where to find them – schools. Rather than give this teaching and learning time back to professional educators, the Department of Education is asking the SRE providers to be educators. As at Jan 2018 the providers have formed their own advisory group.