On Wednesday 3 March 2021 Greens MP David Shoebridge asked some pertinent and incisive questions about SRE during a NSW Parliament Budget Estimates Committee meeting (see below and pages 47-49 of the corrected transcript via Budget Estimates (nsw.gov.au))

The players

Sarah Mitchell, Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning

Georgina Harrisson, Group Deputy Secretary, School Improvement and Education Reform Group,
Department of Education

Murat Dizdar, Deputy Secretary, School Performance South, Department of Education

Mark Scott, Secretary, Department of Education

Mark Latham, Chair of Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education

David Shoebridge, Member of the NSW Legislative Council, Greens NSW spokesperson for education

The transcript

Mr David Shoebridge: Minister, is there a vetting process to ensure that extremist views are not communicated to schoolkids through special religious education [SRE]?

The Hon. Sarah Mitchell: I will ask Ms Harrisson to comment on that process.

Mr David Shoebridge: Screening processes.

Ms Harrisson: Firstly, I would say that the ‘contentious issues’ policy (sic; see Issue 1 below) covers all the activity in our schools including SRE. Yes, we have a process by which we determine whether or not SRE providers are allowed to operate in our schools.

Mr David Shoebridge: How did Vishva Hindu Parishad, which is a right-wing Hindu organisation that is considered a military extremist religious organisation by the CIA, find themselves in New South Wales public schools?

Ms Harrisson: I am not aware of that provider but I am very happy to find that information out for you, see what we have and provide it on notice.

Mr David Shoebridge: Minister, what response do you have to the fact that this extremist right-wing organisation, listed as such by the CIA in their world handbook, is currently providing SRE courses in Toongabbie Public School and William Dean Public School?

The Hon. Sarah Mitchell: As Ms Harrisson said, we have taken that question on notice in terms of the specifics of that particular service provider. It is not one that I am familiar with either and I would like to check the validity of that and come back to the Committee, if that is okay.

Mr David Shoebridge: Given the concern about attacks from extremist right-wing elements in the Hindu community on members of the Sikh community and other minorities in western Sydney, will you treat this as a matter of urgency?

The Hon. Sarah Mitchell: Absolutely. We have said we would take that on notice and get advice in relation to it. I am very happy to come back to the Committee in due course and to yourself as soon as I can access that information.

Mr David Shoebridge: Alright. Is there anybody vetting what SRE providers are actually saying to schoolkids at Toongabbie Public School and William Dean Public School? Is anyone checking whether or not extremist, hate-filled material is part of the course?

Ms Harrisson: I think Mr Dizdar might be able to give you some practical examples of how SRE operates in those matters in our schools. Teachers are present in those classes (see Issue 2 below). Murat, would you like to provide some information on how SRE classes operate in our public schools?

Mr David Shoebridge: What monitoring is available?

Mr Dizdar: Mr Shoebridge, I think we have taken the specifics on notice and hopefully we can get that detail to you. As you are aware, in normal operation we have to provide no less than 30 minutes and up to an hour of SRE opportunity for our students. Families have the opportunity for their children to take part in that. We do require our principals to oversee that program, as Ms Harrisson indicated. It is not an unsupervised activity (see Issue 2 below). There is often an SRE coordinator or a staff member in charge so that we can make sure that it is meeting all necessary requirements.

Mr David Shoebridge: Are you saying that there is always a staff member sitting in every SRE class? Are you saying that is the policy?

< . . omitted some . . >

Mr Dizdar: What I was saying is that there is a supervisory requirement from the principal or a staff member, depending on the school (see Issue 2 below). We are not prescriptive about what that looks like. We leave it to the principal to determine what it might look like for large schools or small schools. In the school I led when I was a principal here in New South Wales, for example, I had one of my languages teachers who had room in their timetable to be able to oversee the SRE provision in the school.

Mr David Shoebridge: Perhaps you can provide on notice whether or not there was any of that oversight of the SRE that was being “taught”, if I could put that in inverted commas, by Vishva Hindu Parishad in those two public schools in western Sydney.

Mr Dizdar: Let us definitely take that on notice. I wanted to also add that we have expert personnel support in the State office that principals can also contact for advice around SRE.

Mr David Shoebridge: Then how on earth is this organisation allowed to teach SRE in public schools? How did that happen?

The Hon. Sarah Mitchell: As I said, Mr Shoebridge, we will take the specifics of that particular provider and those details on notice and come back to you as soon as we can with an update.

< . . omitted some . . >

Ms Harrisson: Specifically in relation to special religious education, our providers have to provide an annual assurance declaring that they will provide the authorised and age-appropriate curriculum, scope and sequence. It is the responsibility of the approved provider to ensure that its SRE provision and its teachers are teaching the curriculum with appropriate sensitivity and in an age-appropriate manner. Approved providers are required to provide online access to their curriculum, scope and sequence and ensure that the curriculum is delivered appropriately. They are required to give the content of those lessons to any parents or caregivers who request it.

The Chair [Mr Latham]: Sure, but like with the professional development, isn’t the issue here that those groups had accreditation and assurances given but nobody really knew what they went off and did? The Teachers Federation ran courses on becoming a union organiser and on gender fluidity, which was way outside the scope of what they had given the assurance about. Do we not need a checking loop here—feedback and evaluations—to make sure that what they have given the assurance on is actually being fulfilled and that none of these problems, the one I have raised or the one Mr Shoebridge has raised, can occur unnoticed by the system?

Ms Harrisson: As you commented on earlier, Chair, we are going through that very process for a number of the providers of wellbeing services and behaviour support into our schools. We will be looking to do that for more of the services provided into schools over time.

The Chair [Mr Latham]: Okay, that is good to hear.

Mr Scott: And we are doing systematic tracking of feedback on the professional development that has been provided.

The Chair [Mr Latham]: I was not asking about that, Mr Scott. We will leave it in Georgina’s capable hands, then, to sort this system out and get best practice and assurances fulfilled in the system.

The incompetence

Issue 1. The Controversial Issues in Schools Policy and Procedures

In her first response to Mr Shoebridge above, FIRIS presumes that Ms Harrisson’s reference to the ‘contentious issues policy’ is referring to the Department’s Controversial Issues in Schools Policy (CIS Pol) and its implementation Procedures (CIS Pro), both of which do not apply to SRE. The Policy and Procedures only apply to the activity of SRE personnel and providers outside of the time allocated to SRE in NSW public schools –

This policy applies to visitors and external providers including approved special religious education providers or ethics education providers, conducting activities outside the provisions in the Religious Education Policy and Special Education in Ethics Policy.. (CIS Pol, section 2.2)

Religious Education and Ethics providers conducting activities outside the specific activities listed in the
Religious Education policy and Special Education in Ethics policy are subject to the provisions of this
policy and procedures.
(CIS Pro, section 2.4)

FIRIS is concerned that a person in Ms Harrisson’s position is not aware of the Crown Solicitor’s advice to the NSW Minister for Education that the Minister “does not have the power to control the content of SRE under the current provisions of the Education Act” (see first letter below) or the position of the Department’s that the Education Act does not give either the Minister or the Department control over who is authorised to teach SRE or the content of the religious instruction provided (see second letter below).

Based on the evidence above, FIRIS believes that a reasonable member of the NSW public would be justified in regarding MS Harrisson’s reference to the CIS Pol in response to Mr Shoebridge’s question as –

  • at best, evidence of a fundamental lack of knowledge regarding a topic that she should be a subject matter expert of given that the Minister has called upon her to respond to Mr Shoebridge, or –
  • at worst, a deliberately misleading statement intended to disempower Mr Shoebridge so he could not take the Minister to task regarding the provisions for SRE in the Act allowing questionable religious organisations access to NSW public school students.

Issue 2. Statements regarding supervisory requirements of SRE

Besides Ms Harrisson’s seemingly false assertion “that the contentious issues policy covers all the activity in our schools including SRE”, we are concerned about other aspects of the statements Ms Harrison and Mr Didzar made on behalf the Department and, indeed, in the presence of the Departmental Secretary, Mr Mark Scott, and the Minister, Ms Sarah Mitchell.

In response to Mr Shoebridge’s question asking if anybody vets what SRE providers are actually saying to students and if anyone checks whether or not extremist, hate-filled material is part of SRE, Ms Harrisson replies by stating that “teachers are present in those classes” and Mr Dizdar claims that SRE is “not an unsupervised activity” and that “there is a supervisory requirement from the principal or a staff member“?

On the contrary, the Special Religious Education Procedures 2019 state, in section 3.2, –

Class teachers are not required to attend classes in SRE, but may, with the agreement of the teacher of SRE or at the request of the principal, remain in the classroom to assist with and monitor student behaviour. This is at the discretion of the principal and should be negotiated with the SRE provider.

Furthermore, this issue drives home the fact that the CIS Pol and CIS Pro do not apply to SRE. The CIS Pro states –

Visitors and external providers addressing students on controversial issues during school hours should
do so only in circumstances where the issues form part of a school program or activity and are
supervised by a teacher.
(Section 2.4)

In consideration of the above, it is both surprising and noteworthy that senior members of the NSW Department of Education were

  • required to answer these questions in such a Committee Meeting on behalf of – yet in the presence of – the Department Secretary and the Minister, yet
  • still misrepresented key aspects of the Department’s policies and procedures and they did so
    • significantly eg. Ms Harrisson saying, “Teachers are present in those classes”; or
    • obliquely eg. Mr Dizdar saying
      • We do require our principals to oversee that program”;
      • We leave it to the principal to determine what it might look like for large schools or small schools”; and
      • appealing to his past personal yet atypical application in answering a systemic policy issue, ie. “I had one of my languages teachers who had room in their timetable to be able to oversee the SRE provision in the school.”

Issue 3: Approval processes for SRE providers

Furthermore, in relation to Ms Harrisson’s response to Mr Shoebridge’s initial question –

Yes, we have a process by which we determine whether or not SRE providers are allowed to operate in our schools.

FIRIS would like to draw attention to the criteria for the approval of an SRE provider available on the Department’s website.

Following are most of the criteria listed on that NSW Department of Education’s criteria for approval web-page, with the ones which may be pertinent to Vishva Hindu Parishad and other multi-arm organisations in italics and bolded, –

  • Applicant must be a religious persuasion, demonstrated by a statement of beliefs and/or doctrine and:
    • confirmation that the organisation is not subject to the direction or control of any other organisation or body
    • confirmation that the organisation is not a combined body of religious persuasions.
  • Applicant has identifiable leaders and appropriate organisation and governance demonstrated by:
    • a description of the general organisation and conduct of the persuasion’s religious activities
    • a statement regarding leaders and their responsibilities
    • details of the number of members and adherents
    • details of the places at which the organisation conducts its business and services
    • confirmation that the persuasion is independent and not a member of a wider umbrella organisation
      • if it is under another organisation, details of that organisation and the status of it within it
    • a copy of the constitution or organisational documents.

One might wonder if all these criteria have been addressed adequately for Vishva Hindu Parishad and all other SRE providers.

The Vishva Hindu Parishad website ‘about us’ page says

The service divisions of Vishva Hindu Parishad of Australia include Hindu Cultural Heritage Teaching Programme in NSW Public Schools

But VHP’s ‘Special Religious Education’ page says

“...volunteers are involved providing this service through the educational wing of VHP of Aust (NSW).”

So, it would seem to be an organisation with a few divisions or wings, at least, and with possibly more than one having input into or control over its delivery of SRE.

Moreover, it has three similar yet ambiguous ‘world as or is one’ statements on its ‘about us’ page thus:

  1. The Preamble starts: “The founding fathers of this organisation envision the world as one family “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”.
  2. The Objectives section includes, “The Vishva Hindu Parishad of Australia is a community organization and strives for the ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one large family)”, although it goes on to refer to “social cohesion, multiculturalism, harmony, inclusiveness and Pluralism” (sic).
  3. The Statement of Purpose includes: “The Council strives for the ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (world is one family) with a team of dedicated and committed volunteers all over Australia.”

One could be suspicious these are motherhood statements which look innocuous and well-meaning yet have a deeper, aspirational meaning.