The start of Kindergarten in a public school sees many parents grapple with contact sheets, healthy lunchbox options, and getting their child into class without tears. The one thing most parents are confident of is whether their child will attend Special Religious Education (SRE) classes.
Children who attend SRE classes spend around 30 minutes a week learning about the beliefs and practices of a particular religion e.g. Buddhism. Children whose parents decide to opt out of SRE are left behind while their classmates attend lessons. These children may paint or read or watch DVDs, but as of 2014 Kindergarten students can also attend ethics classes.
Since their introduction to NSW primary schools in 2010, ethics classes have been incredibly popular but what exactly is an ethics class? Who runs the classes and how are they funded? Are ethics classes available outside NSW? As a new school parent the answers to these questions may not be obvious. With this in mind Essential Kids has put together a guide to help parents and carers who want to know more:
1) Do ethics classes provide moral instruction?
Instead of positioning issues as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, children engage in thoughtful discussion so they may reach their own moral judgement. The classes encourage debate and respect for differing opinions. Teresa Russell, General Manager at Primary Ethics (provider of the ethics class program) explains, “Ethics has nothing to do with telling children what's right or wrong. The classes are designed to enable children to develop their capability for thoughtful consideration of moral issues.”
2) Is ethics contrary to religious teaching?
Although ethics classes provide secular tuition, they do not oppose or seek to discredit religious teaching. Ethics classes and SRE both provide ethics-based learning; the former is secular, the latter determined by the doctrine of a particular faith.
3) Do faith-based organisations object to ethics teaching?
Many providers of SRE campaigned against the move to allow ethics classes into state schools. In 2011 the Christian Democratic leader, Fred Nile, instigated a Parliamentary inquiry to investigate the validity of ethics classes. Although the inquiry upheld the right for the classes to continue, parents of primary public school children can no longer be offered the classes unless they opt out of SRE first.
Since the inquiry, some faith-based organisations have accepted ethics classes as part of the public school curriculum. Dr. Bryan Cowling, Executive Director of the Anglican Education Commission in Sydney says his organisation has no objection to ethics classes, “So long as kids are getting quality education that’s the important thing.” Looking forward, Dr. Cowling wants to see, “The providers of SRE and ethics tuition work towards a greater congruence with the rest of mainstream curriculum.”
4) How are ethics classes funded and who teaches the classes?
Ethics classes are provided by Primary Ethics (an organisation founded by the St James Ethics Centre). Much like SRE providers, Primary Ethics relies on volunteers to teach the classes. Volunteers undergo rigorous assessment and training before they are able to take a class. The program receives no government support and relies wholly on public donations.
5) Are ethics classes available outside NSW?
NSW is the only state to legislate in favour of ethics classes as an alternative to SRE. In all other states there is no formal alternative to SRE.
Parents4Ethics is a lobby group that helped establish ethics classes in NSW schools. Its co-founder Tara Thomas explains they have no plans to undertake similar action in other states, “It’s taken nearly ten years to establish ethics teaching in NSW. Primary Ethics are now focused on establishing more classes in NSW. As SRE classes are a state issue, there are no current plans for Parents4ethics to lobby in other states.”
Thomas recommends that parents from outside NSW who are keen to establish ethics, or other alternative secular classes in their local schools should, "lobby their state Minister for Education and use social media to galvanise support from other parents and carers."
6) Are ethics classes available to all public primary school students in NSW?
Ethics classes are currently available to students in years 3 to 6. According to Teresa Russell, “The curriculum for Years 1 to 2 and Kindergarten is currently being written. Lessons for children in years 1 to 2 will roll out later this year and in 2014 for Kindergarten.”
Lessons do depend on the availability of teachers and Russell states they currently have 700 volunteers but a demand for 4,000.
7) Do ethics classes resolve the separation of church and state conundrum?
Ethics classes do provide non-religious tuition for those who wish to opt out of SRE. However, some secularists object to ethics classes.
Based in Victoria, FIRIS (Fairness In Religions In Schools) lobbies for the eradication of SRE in the state’s public schools. They oppose religious instruction but do support comparative study that teaches students about all religions.
FIRIS president Tim Heasley believes the NSW ethics program is problematic, “We have no problem with the content taught in ethics classes, but we don’t support the program’s position as an alternative, or as complementary, to SRE. This only validates the continuation of SRE which is something we oppose”.
8) What is the future for ethics classes?
At this point in time, ethics classes remain in NSW public primary schools. As recently reported by Fairfax, the federal government has refused Primary Ethics’ application to collect tax-deductible donations. It is unclear how this will affect the rollout of new classes, but according to the Parents4Ethics website the decision means the organisation, “…loses a significant potential source of funding.” It goes on to say, “Primary Ethics cannot continue without funding, and ethics classes will not continue without Primary Ethics.”