Bishop Peter Ingham on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of NSW on the trial of an Ethics Course during Special Religious Education (SRE) time during Term 2, 2010.
In light of the quite heated debate that has appeared in media in recent days, I thought it important to state the position of the Catholic Church regarding the trial of ethics classes in Government Schools.
The decision to conduct the trial was made by Nathan Rees just days before he was replaced as Premier. Strangely, the Faith Traditions, which are the Department of Education and Training’s (DET) approved providers of SRE (More commonly referred to as Scripture), were not consulted. The recommendations of the Director General’s Consultative Committee on SRE were completely ignored.
The decision contradicted legislation and departmental policies that have long provided the opportunity for students in Government Schools to receive input from DET approved representatives of their faith tradition. The present legislation and policies result in an existing engaging program that provides for SRE within the school timetable that is supportive of all parties – the SRE students, the parents, the school, the SRE teachers and even the non-SRE students. Parents should quite rightly expect appropriate care and supervision for their sons and daughters if they opt out of SRE. The current policies certainly cater for this, with provision for activities such as reading, homework, and private study. The heart of the problem could be that this part of the policy implementation document is not being properly adhered to in all schools.
Nevertheless, the decision to conduct a pilot ethics course has been made, so the Catholic Church as the largest provider of SRE, has sought to be part of the dialogue with the Minister for Education. The Church as a member of the Inter Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools (ICCOREIS), seeks to make well considered, measured contributions to the debate about the place, design and evaluation of ethics courses.
In a meeting (17 March 2010) with Senior Advisors from the Minister for Education’s Office and representatives of SRE providers, I sought the following assurances:
1. That all faith traditions would have the opportunity to provide input into the design of the Ethics Course to ensure that content does not denigrate faith traditions;
2. That representatives of these faith traditions be part of the evaluation of the ethics pilot via the Director General’s Consultative Committee on SRE, as they should have been from the outset;
3. That the supervision of students who do not attend SRE Lessons is a school management issue, not a curriculum issue. The manner in which students not attending SRE are supervised is a school responsibility, not that of an external body; and
4. If an Ethics Course were to proceed, it should not be offered in direct competition with SRE. Furthermore, the Ethics option should only be offered to those parents who have first in writing, opted out of SRE.
Government Schools already teach ethics and values. They form a critical part of the content of various subjects. It is little wonder then that the Teachers Federation objects to the trial of ethics classes, as it would infer that Government Schools are ethical vacuums. This is certainly not the case as their work helps to form young people via religiously-neutral content.
In addition to this, thousands of trained volunteers go into Government Schools each week to teach tens of thousands of primary and secondary school students. Their work contributes to the spiritual formation of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus which in turn helps students to be responsible citizens. The enduring and exceptional impact of the Scripture Teachers is devalued in the hurly burly of this debate. The Catholic Church therefore will continue to work to protect the time legally set aside for all faiths to provide SRE.
Most Reverend Peter Ingham
Bishop of Wollongong on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of NSW
15 April 2010.