Almighty row over ethics in schools:
Democracy and the welfare of children
By Dr Simon Longstaff
The Sydney Morning Herald (Saturday 26 September 2009) is to be congratulated for having helped to initiate public debate about discrimination against children whose parents make a conscientious decision that they not attend classes in special religious education (scripture). It is unfortunate that, rather than engage with the serious arguments advanced on behalf of many parents and their children, Mark Hillis of the InterChurch Commission on Special Religious Education in Schools (ICCOREIS) is reported as having said “I don’t see how having a small interest group coming into a school and ramping up things helps”. But who is this small interest group to which he refers?
The NSW Federation of P & C Associations has been promoting a review of NSW Education Department policy since 2003 – the year in which St James Ethics Centre was first approached by parents with a request that it examine the issues at the heart of this matter on their behalf. The NSW Federation of P & C Associations represents parents in 2,200 schools across NSW, making it the largest parent organisation in the Southern Hemisphere. It has twice passed motions calling for an ethics-based complement to scripture, most recently at its July 2009 AGM. In 2004, widespread support was demonstrated in a survey indicating a clear majority of parents felt it was important or very important that their child be offered an ethics-based option to scripture.
Mark Hills gave the impression that there is a monolithic lack of support, amongst religious groups, for the modest trial being proposed to the Minister for Education, Verity Firth. This is not entirely true. As part of a lengthy and comprehensive consultation process, St James Ethics Centre engaged with a broad cross-section of leaders including those within the faith-based realm. The vast majority of all respondents viewed this as a social justice issue — agreeing that all children should be treated with equity. The core curriculum does a certain amount of important work to aid ethical formation. However, if it is good enough to provide an additional opportunity in this area to some (who attend scripture) then it should be good enough for all. The denial of opportunity, on the basis of religion, is discriminatory and should not be endorsed by any government. Beyond this, there is a deeper question about the NSW Government’s commitment to democracy. We might ask: ought the untested fears of some, determine the plight of up to 80% of children at NSW primary schools who do not attend scripture? Does the government turn its back on the unmet needs of the majority of students in order to satisfy the demands of the few who cater for the needs of the few?
ICCOREIS may represent the official views of the faiths represented on its committee. It does not necessarily represent the views of ordinary members of faith-based communities. Many practising members of faith-based groups argue that all children have a right to an equal measure of meaningful instruction during the period allotted to scripture and have offered support for an ethics-based alternative. So do representatives of faith communities who are unable to mount their own scripture classes.
Seven P & Cs across NSW have already voted to take part in the proposed pilot that is awaiting ministerial approval to proceed. We encourage the Minister to base her decision on principles of democracy and social justice. In a modern, pluralistic and progressive Australia all children ought to be treated fairly. The major churches need to ask themselves a fundamental question that they have faced before: should children bear the costs of institutional self-interest?
Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.