by John August
It has been a long, uphill battle getting ethics classes into NSW state schools as an alternative to religious education. John August, founding member of the Secular Party, describes the situation as it stands today. We urge all members and supporters to take an active interest in this topic, since the program currently faces renewed attacks by Fred Nile and the Christian Democrats.
In New South Wales, we’ve had volunteer ethics education in several schools for a while now, in contrast to the Victorian push to modify access to SRI (Special Religious Instruction) in schools. I wish Victorians all the best here, but at the same time I celebrate what’s been done in NSW.
The NSW push originated with the NSW Federation of Parents and Citizen’s Groups, with a curriculum developed by the St. James Ethics Centre. It took advantage of an opportunity — the one-hour time slot that was provided by students who did not do SRE (Special Religious Education, the NSW equivalent of Victoria’s SRI). Previously obliged to twiddle their thumbs, now students have a worthwhile and interesting alternative.
Of course, you can argue there’s no place for SRE in public schools at all, that it violates the principle of separation of Church and State. In NSW, SRE was the result of an 1860s deal by Henry Parkes when the State took on responsibility for teaching, introducing “free compulsory secular education”. The churches negotiated an agreement that visiting church representatives could teach one period of religion at the school. In any case, we’re talking about a deal done about 150 years ago to which the Church is still trying to bind us — one we should not recognise.
It’s a good argument, and if people can run it, great. Regardless, ethics as an alternative to SRE does a great deal of good if SRE persists. It undermines the exceptionalist argument that Churches have previously been able to run with, and reminds parents that they have a choice.
Just as the Victorian initiative stirred up Christians, so too has the NSW initiative. Groups like “Save Our Scripture” were lobbying before the last state election. Their claims vary from us “grabbing” students from them, when in fact participation in SRE is presumed until parents “opt out”. They say that providing ethics education forces students to choose between religious and ethics education; however, the teaching of any ethics education has been a push from non-believers who want an alternate. Prior to this initiative, the silence from believers pushing for ethics education was deafening.
Then there’s the claim that believers have a monopoly on ethics, or that the ethics education is “indoctrinating” students in atheism / humanism. The curriculum, as I understand it, does not mention God — you don’t need to mention God either way to talk about ethics, much as the believers would think otherwise. And as if SRE was never a vehicle for indoctrination. The point is, regardless of the initiative, Christians will line up against it (there are some notable exceptions, such as the Uniting Church). It shines a light on their contradictions, something that is always useful.
Having said that, Christians — or believers of any faith — are free to believe what they want. I’ve no problems with that. Ideally, that should be something that informs their private lives, not something that comes to school. If they’re going to bring it to school, this means other life stances should be able to do the same.
Ethics and Philosophy could in fact be introduced as part of the curricula, as part of the “Human Society and the Environment” component, where it could also be taught professionally by teachers. However, trying to wedge additional material into an already full syllabus is fraught with difficulty. Furthermore, schools are already burdened with modules looking at Citizenship, Drug Education and Traffic Safety amongst others — all good-sounding ideas, but wedged in without follow-through in providing the resources to pass on a growing number of responsibilities. Using volunteer ethics teachers as an alternative to SRE teachers is in fact a lot easier than trying to get something else into an already overloaded syllabus. Certainly, in an ideal world, it would be a nice thing to have.
The experience of being a volunteer teacher of ethics can be as good for the teacher as the students. I know such volunteers who have had very positive experiences, and have taught at schools with waiting lists.
Volunteers have an important place in our society. There were the Olympic volunteers. Then there’s the Rural Fire Service, and St. John’s Ambulance. I’d never be anxious about a St. John volunteer treating me. And they can play an important part in our schools. If we can find the money for professional teachers, all well and good, but it was always advantageous that the SRE program would not lean heavily on anyone’s budget. People were looking for enough things to disagree with anyway.
There’s a lot of politics in the background. We might struggle to find the money to fund ethics teachers, but it was never difficult to find money for the National School Chaplaincy Program. Just snap your fingers. Yes, if we could ever get to the same table, it wouldn’t hurt to fund ethics teaching professionally and on a large scale; but it’s better to get something than insist on perfection.
And while we’re not reaching every student in the state, the example of a few students at a few schools counts for a great deal, an example which will over time draw more people into its orbit. I hope for its growth, and I hope for its continued example. For those students and volunteer teachers involved in the program, it will make a difference. That’s something to celebrate.
John August is the Public Officer of the Secular Party of Australia. He is also President of the NSW Humanists, and convenes the Sydney Shove. He has given courses in science and physics at the WEA, has contributed to the Diffusion science program on radio 2SER, and has long-standing interests in religion, ethics and science.
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