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Teaching our kids ethics, not dogma

Posted by Secular on July 4, 2011

by Ian Bryce

Secular groups in NSW have finally won the right to provide classes on ethics to schoolchildren, as an alternative to SRE (Special Religious Education). Secular Party Vice President, Ian Bryce, gives us the background on the program and writes about his personal experiences as a volunteer instructor.

The teaching of ethics in NSW primary schools is now well underway with involvement from the Secular Party, and is shaping up as a major turning point in making Australian public education secular.

For many decades, public primary schools in most states have had one period per week designated for Special Religious Education (SRE). As I understand it, this slot has been available only to organized religions, which are defined as having a supernatural belief – thus defeating efforts by humanist societies and others in various states to provide secular ethical training. Pupils opted out of SRE by their parents are kept idle for the period, on the grounds that any meaningful learning would discriminate against those in scripture class!

Enter the St James Ethics Centre (SJEC), which was established in 1989 by the St James Parish of the Anglican Church in NSW, to their great credit. SJEC remains funded but fully independent of the Church, receiving donations from sponsors including Macquarie Bank. Armed with curriculum material developed by Dr Philip Cam of UNSW (University of New South Wales), SJEC director Simon Longstaff and other lobbyists (after trying since 2002) persuaded the then NSW Labor government to allow a trial, involving ethics classes in 10 schools for 10 weeks during 2010.

However, Liberal opposition leader Barry O’Farrell initially said that when elected he would stop the classes.

The public debate at the time was very lively. The powerful Christian lobby argued that the ethics curriculum had not been properly scrutinized. My favourite was a response in the Herald in the following vein: Perhaps the Christians should introduce their own scenarios into SRE. A troubled schoolgirl approaches the Department of Community Services, claiming she was made pregnant by a ghost. Should they believe her? Discuss.

The trial was independently evaluated, and found to have very strong community support:

This was confirmed by public submissions, which included 530 in favour of the trial and 15 against. O’Farrell did a backflip and dropped his promise to stop the classes.

So legislation was passed, breaking the monopoly of religions on the SRE timeslot. This means that any public school able to obtain a teacher can now offer the subject alongside religious instruction (typically Anglican and Catholic). Parents can opt their children out of SRE and choose ethics as an alternative. SJEC spun off Primary Ethics (PE) to organize it and to accredit teachers.

Quite a number of SPA members and supporters have volunteered. Three were accepted and trained, and are now part way through the year. The education includes group discussion of typical scenarios, as may be seen on the PE website. Aimed at 10-year-olds, it is applied ethics, not theory – perhaps that would come should secondary classes eventuate.

With guidance, the children’s responses crystallize into universal moral rules, such as “tell the truth”, “do not steal” and “be fair to your friends”. They recognize shades of grey, and that sometimes two rules come into conflict. As I picture it, PE is designed to bring out the ethical behaviour built into all children by genes and memes, whereas in SRE classes some holy book and deity are invoked as the source of morality.

Unfortunately, Premier O’Farrell now owes some favours to Fred Nile of the Christian Democrats who is dead set against the ethics teaching, so the battle might not be over yet. Teachers closely follow the approved curriculum in order to minimize any objections by the religious lobby.

Meanwhile, demand for ethics classes is very strong and greatly exceeds supply. If you think you could be a teacher or co-ordinator, and can be available for an hour every week, I strongly encourage you to seek more information at No theoretical knowledge is required, just normal human values and a desire to shape the next generation.

Ian Bryce is an aerospace engineer and university lecturer. He has worked in space communications and with launch vehicles in Russia. He has been with Australian Skeptics for 30 years and is their Chief Investigator, specialising in bogus technical devices including free energy generators and sonic pool cleaners.

Ian is the Vice President of the Secular Party of Australia.

© The Secular Party of Australia Inc., 2011. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author and from the Secular Party of Australia is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and to this blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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