By Dr Simon Longstaff
It is seven years since the Ethics Centre was approached by parents asking if it might be possible to develop a program of study about ethics that might then be made available to primary school students not attending scripture classes in NSW Primary Schools. We thought that this sounded like a simple enough request – so wrote to the then Premier, Bob Carr, asking if this might be done. Carr referred our letter to the Education Minister of the day, Dr Andrew Refshauge, who eventiually replied by dismissing our request along the lines that there was little interest, within the community, about the issue we had raised.
Well, today sees the announcement, by Premier Nathan Rees, of approval for the Centre to oversee a pilot program to test a program of classes on ethics that will complement both the core curriculum and special religious education. This announcement represents a remarkable achievement by parents on behalf of the children of New South Wales. Rather than accept, at face value, Andrew Refshauge’s assertion that there was only marginal interest in this topic, we contacted the NSW Federation of P&C Associations and found that contrary to the Minister’s claim, there was overwhemliming support for modest change of the kind requested. Indeed, the support ran right across the Board – including parents who supported the maintenance of scripture in NSW Primary Schools and indeed, from parents who sent their children to scripture each week.
In the meanime, Andrew Phillips (then working at the Centre) completed a thorough investigation of the legislative and regulatory context within which the debate was being conducted. He discovered that there was no legal impediment to introducing a new program. Rather, a Departmental regulation stood in the way – and this could be changed at any time if the Government of the day was minded to do so. Andrew also made the observation that ethics was already being taught to some (in scripture classes) so why not to all during the allocated period – but without the theology.
It has never been the intention of the Ethics Centre to weaken or remove scripture from NSW Primary schools. Rather, we simply wanted to support the claim by parents that all children be engaged in meaningful activity during the allotted period. With this in mind, we sought to engage directly with faith groups. And so we did – with the aim of enlisiting their formal support for a policy based on the just treatment of all children. We encountered many synpathetic opinions amongst the faithful – but only a few willing to provide institutional support for the proposal. Of those who did offer support, the Uniting Church was most fully engaged. Indeed, its Director of Education, John Oldmeadow, came up with the compelling idea that any of the material developed for the proposed ethics program also be made available to faith groups for possible inclusion in their own offerings – with the material then interpreted through the lens of their own tradition. That way, no child would be denied access to the newly developed material and methodologies. Unfortunately, some faith groups still opposed the proposal – thinking that it would weaken their relative position. I must confess to disappointment that any religion would think to place its institutional interests before those of children.
In September of this year, we wrote to the current Minister for Education, the Hon Verity Firth, proposing a modest trial of a program that would complement the core curriculum and scripture. We wrote knowing that seven schools had already volunteered to participate in the trial and with the clear understanding that NSW teachers would not be required to partcipate in the program now or in the future. Rather, this would be a trial initiated by, led by and conducted by parents and volunteers. Once again, a number of faith based groups expressed their opposition. However, there has been a massive, public campaign by parents and on this occasion, their request was heard by a sympathetic ear in government.
So, here we are – on the brink of an historic change in government policy where principle has come to the fore. Acknowledgement must be paid to the parents who have worked so hard for this outcome and to the volunteers who have given so much of their time and energy to the project – to Ann Storr, Sue Hooke and Coleen MacKinnon in particular.
Now the real challenge begins – to develop and implement a world-class program of ethical enquiry within the State Primary Schools of NSW.