Towards an ethics-based complement to scripture in NSW primary schools
Since 2003, a great deal of interest and concern has been raised regarding the plight of primary school children who opt out of Special Religious Education (SRE), commonly known as ‘scripture’. Due to existing education policy, these children are not entitled to any instruction during this period, and more specifically not in the area of ‘ethics, values, civics or general religious education’.
A number of interested individuals and organisations, including parents, faith-based ministries, youth mental health experts, education specialists and community organisations consider the existing policy socially unjust. These children are being denied instruction in ethics simply because they have exercised their (or their parent’s) right to opt out of scripture.
Contemporary youth mental health research is equally compelling.In the past decade, researchers have determined a link between a child’s sense of purpose or meaning, benevolent behaviour and vital mental health. By denying children the right to explore fundamental themes and virtues, we are essentially denying them the right to contribute to their own wellbeing, and by extension, that of the community.
Request for and initial efforts to create an ethics-based course
In 2003, a number of parents, along with the Federation of Parents and Citizens Association of NSW, approached St James Ethics Centre to create a secular, ethics-based course to serve as an option to scripture. Parents who were concerned about the ethical formation of their children, but who declined to tie this to a particular religious tradition, felt there must be a means of providing such instruction during the period that is devoted to SRE.
With this in mind, the Centre approached then Premier the Hon Bob Carr MP, with a proposal to create an introductory ethics-based course for primary school children. He directed the request to then Minister for Education Andrew Refshauge who indicated in his response there was neither scope for implementation, nor was there a community-wide call.
Evidence from the 2004 survey conducted by the Parents and Citizens Association (P and C), however, suggested that the Minister may have underestimated community interest, partly because of concerns raised in relation to the delivery of scripture in public schools:
- 59% of parents thought it was important or very important that their child be given the option of attending a secular, ethics-based class
- 79% of parents said they would support their children being exposed to faiths other than their own
- almost 25% of parents said they would like to see the teaching of faiths other than their own
Subsequent to the 2004 survey, the Centre’s proposal was resubmitted by the P and C to the then Minister of Education, Carmel Tebbett - but it was once again rejected.
History of the policy
The existing education policy governing scripture classes dates back to a century old agreement between then existing churches and the State. At that time, the churches were the primary providers of most education. When the State made a bid to assume this responsibility, the churches agreed on the condition that one hour a week be reserved exclusively for scripture. While it is almost certain that a majority of parents would have approved of this settlement at the time, an increasing number of parents make the choice that their children not attend scripture classes – making the need to provide an ethics-based course to run alongside scripture in primary schools, all the more pressing.
Recent efforts concerning social justice/youth mental health
Recent approaches to St James Ethics Centre have confirmed that community interest has not diminished. In response, the Centre has engaged in conversation with a diverse range of interested parties including: faith-based ministries, youth mental health and community service organisations; multi-partisan State government representatives; and, primary school principals and teachers. It has become clear from these discussions that the rationale for such a course is well founded.
While the standard curriculum certainly aims to educate children in values and principles, it is also acknowledged that those children attending scripture are able to have this work extended in lessons with a particular focus on this domain of life.It is unfair and unreasonable that some children be denied this opportunity for extension simply as a consequence of their parents’ choice not to have them attend scripture classes.From a social justice perspective, the current policy discriminates against those children who do not attend scripture. Every child is entitled to ethical instruction regardless of whether they subscribe to a particular faith, or not. Indeed, the Rawlinson Committee, established to review Special Religious Education in the 1980s acknowledged that “… ethics, the study of morals and values, is valuable for its own sake and people can be moral without being religious ...”.
Efforts are underway to determine the exact number of children who opt out, but anecdotal reports suggest that as many as 25% of children enrolled in primary school are sitting idle for that period every week. This estimate is not unreasonable if one considers the following Religious Affiliation statistics as last determined by the 2001 Census of Population and Housing:
- Anglican - 20.7%
- Catholic - 26.6%
- Other Christian - 20.7%
- Other religions - 4.9%
- No religion - 15.5%
- Not stated/Inadequately described - 11.7%
Leaders from faith-based groups with whom we have met - Hindu, Islamic and Uniting Church - all agree that this is a social justice issue. Many welcome the possibility of an ethics-based course, partly because they are unable to meet the demand for instructors in their own faiths. Others have offered to contribute to or requested access to ethics-based materials to include with their own content. St James Ethics Centre welcomes the opportunity to work together and share all materials specifically created by and for such a course.
Like Rawlinson, those with whom we have consulted agree that ethical instruction is beneficial for its own sake, regardless of any ties to a particular faith.
Youth mental health
St James Ethics Centre has explored the impact of ethical formation, or lack thereof, on youth mental health. Presumably, children who attend scripture have the opportunity to learn about values and virtues and examine fundamental questions such as, ‘what is our purpose?’ or ‘what is the meaning of life?’ However, what of those who are sitting in the hall? And what role does this exploration play on wellbeing? The results are compelling. What we have suspected intuitively, science has proven empirically.
In the last two decades, researchers across multiple disciplines - from psychology and medicine, to ethics and education - have shifted their focus from the cause of pathologies to the traits and qualities that create wellbeing or vital mental health.
... those who report the greatest life satisfaction or happiness, enjoy a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives; a sense of hopefulness (optimism) that they can make a difference; and, have an inclination to contribute because they believe their actions will have impact.
Sources: Martin Seligman, psychologist, The Optimistic Child
William Damon, professor of education, The Path to Purpose
Stephen Post, bioethicist, Why Good things happen to Good People
... those who are at the greatest risk of depression, suffer a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Encouragingly, according to numerous studies over the past decade, such sentiment can be overcome through early intervention which includes reflection and action (see Appendix 1).
As stated previously, by denying children the right to explore fundamental themes such as purpose, meaning and benevolent behaviour, we are essentially denying them an opportunity to contribute to their own wellbeing, and by extension, that of the community.
Research conducted by Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2003 indicates very high levels of emotional distress among people: approximately 12% among 12 to 17 year olds; 26% among 18 to 24 year olds. Furthermore adolescent depression is one of the most frequently reported mental health problems in Australia with rates of major depressive disorder ranging from 4 to 24%. Presumably any action taken to address the source of such alarming statistics would be in the best interest of all children.
a sampling of research linking purpose, virtue and optimism with vital mental health
Damon, William, Faculty of Education, Stanford University, The Path to Purpose - based on the results of a four-year nationwide study, Damon reports that the epidemic of disengaged and drifting kids is directly linked to the lack of purpose or meaning they find in their lives.
From Tony Ryan, educational consultant and author, Brisbane, Australia: “Active citizens, of any age, discover a sense of accomplishment and lifelong purpose that comes from offering their talents to others.”
Virtuous behaviour and vital mental health
The following studies cited by:
Dr Stephen Post, bioethicist, Case Western Reserve University
When Good Things Happen to Good People.
David Sloan Wilson, evolutionary biologist and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi illustrate that giving actually reduces adolescent depression and suicide risk. In fact, the teens who are giving, hopeful and socially effective are also happier and more active, involved, excited and challenged than their less engaged counterparts.
Paul Wink, Wellesley College, in a study following 200 people since the 1920s, has proven that giving in high school predicts good physical and mental health all the way into late adulthood.
In a study of organ recipients, Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis reported that those people who had a sense of gratitude for their ‘gift of life’, recovered more quickly than those who did not express the same appreciation.
Dr Rollin McCraty, Institute of HeartMath, has found that states of appreciation are correlated with a physiological state known as resonance also experienced during deep relaxation and sleep. In such a state, heart rhythms are coherent and ordered -calming our neurological and endocrine systems.
In a study involving one hundred and thirty seven MS sufferers, neurologist Dr Carolyn Schwartz determined that giving support improved health more than receiving it. Those who offered compassionate listening and support felt a dramatic change in how they viewed themselves and life. Depression, self-confidence and self-esteem improved markedly amongst the giving group.
Dr Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania The Optimistic Child and Authentic Happiness.
Seligman’s research defines the role of optimism, hope and meaning in the creation of authentic happiness and fulfilment. It elaborates on the cause of hopelessness and helplessness, precursors of depression, and reveals how exploration of outlook and impact can serve as a preventative.