FAQs - Ethics complement to scripture
Learn more about the project An ethics-based complement to scripture in NSW primary schools.
Provision of religion in NSW primary schools is based on an agreement between the church and state dating back to the mid- to late-nineteenth century. When the state took over public education, previously the domain of the church, it agreed to reserve an hour a week for special religious education (SRE). Undoubtedly, a majority of parents would have approved of this at the time. In 1901 census figures revealed only 0.4% of the Australian population identified themselves as having no religion. At the last census (2006), however, that number had grown to 18.7%.
Whilst the number of students who do not attend scripture is not officially recorded, anecdotal reports suggest as many as 25% of children enrolled in NSW primary school are sitting idle for that period every week. That's about 100,000 children. On average, in any school across NSW, a minimum of 5% and up to a staggering 60% of children opt out of scripture every week. Two of the schools which participated in the pilot program, Bungendore (country NSW) and Hurstville Public, reported pre-pilot program opt out rates at 50% and 60% respectively. The shift to a more secular society, and the related increase in children opting out of scripture, makes the need to provide a viable complement to scripture all the more pressing.
NSW Department of Education policy prohibits children, who are not attending scripture, from receiving any formal instruction during this period, and specifically not in the area of ‘ethics, values, civics and general religious education’.
In the past the NSW Department of Education has held the view that offering such formal instruction, would pose a possible conflict of interest for students attending SRE, and their parents.
St James Ethics Centre (the Centre), and those for whom it is advocating, view NSW Department of Education policy as socially unjust - all children ought to be entitled to ethical exploration and its associated benefits, regardless of their parent’s religious persuasion.
Contemporary research has empirically linked the opportunity to explore purpose, meaning and virtues with vital youth mental health. By denying any children this opportunity, we are essentially denying them an opportunity to contribute to their own well-being and, by extension, that of the community.
Further, the Rawlinson Committee, set up to review Special Religious Education in schools, specifically recommended in 1980 that pupils withdrawn from SRE should be provided with purposeful secular learning (Rec 62). Those with whom the Centre has consulted see no conflict of choice between a secular, ethics-based course and the study of a specific religious tradition.
It is difficult to see how such a conflict could arise given that all religions share a number of completely distinct and compelling attributes including – claims to universal truth, claims to a particular understanding about the relationship between humanity and God, access to revelation, and so on. One might question how an introduction to ethics, shorn of all theological authority, could ever be said to compete with faiths that have persisted over centuries.
The Ethics Centre acknowledges that ethics is an important part of learning in NSW primary schools with attention to its instruction in a number of areas in the curriculum. However those children attending scripture are able to have this work extended.
From a social justice perspective, it is unfair that some children are denied this opportunity for extension simply as a consequence of their parents' choice not to have them attend scripture classes. Indeed, the Rawlinson Committee acknowledged that, "... ethics, the study of morals and values, is valuable for its own sake and people can be moral without being religious ...".
St James Ethics Centre is not advocating any change to the legislation or the policy that protects the provision of SRE in NSW primary schools. The Centre fully respects the role of religious instruction in primary schools and the principle under which faith groups are encouraged to provide it.
The majority of religious leaders with whom we’ve met agree, however, that this is a social justice issue. All children have a right to ethical exploration regardless of their parents’ religious persuasion. 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 within their own content. This sharing of materials would discourage possible ‘scripture drain’ as parents could then choose between a secular, ethics-based course and an ethics-based course enrobed in theology.
A minority of faith-based leaders felt they had all the material needed for their own faith’s or denomination’s needs and that they would not derive the benefit recognised by others. In our mind, this raises again the question of social justice. Why should the fact that the needs of some are well met allow for the unmet needs of all others to persist?
The InterChurch Committee on Religious Education in Schools (ICCOREIS) is responsible for overseeing religion in schools. In 2003, and again in 2004, the Committee, along with its representatives on the Director General’s advisory board, discouraged former Education Ministers Refshauge and then Tebbett from approving an ethics-based complement to scripture as it would pose a threat to scripture classes.
The Centre’s community consultation suggested ICCOREIS’ views may represent the official views of the faiths represented on its committee, but not necessarily the views of ordinary members of faith-based communities. Many of those with whom we have consulted are committed, practicing members of faith-based groups. From a social justice perspective, they argue that all children have a right to an equal measure of meaningful instruction during the period allotted to scripture and offer support for an ethics-based course for those children.
The Centre further suggests this is a democratic not a religious issue. The right for parents to act in good conscience and opt for their children not to attend scripture classes was not created as a result of achieving consensus within ICCOREIS. Rather, this right was recognised and protected by the community as a whole. We would suggest that the right to ethical instruction for all children ought to be determined on the same basis. That is, we do not think it appropriate, in a democracy, that a decision of this kind effectively be delegated by NSW government to ICCOREIS.
No. The Education Act 1990 (Articles 32 and 33) protects the provision of religious instruction and the child’s right to opt out, but does not stipulate anywhere that those whose parents make the decision to opt out must not have access to meaningful instruction during this period.
This position is stipulated in the NSW Department of Education Policy:
Schools are to provide appropriate care and supervision at school for students not attending SRE. This may involve students in other activities such as completing homework, reading and private study. These activities should neither compete with SRE nor be alternative lessons in the subjects within the curriculum or other areas, such as ethics, values, civics or general religious education ...
It would therefore be simple to amend the current policy to allow a secular complement to scripture.
The proposal does not depend on teachers participating in the program at any stage. We acknowledge the demands already placed upon staff and support their working within the parameters recommended by the Teachers Federation. This issue of potential concern was raised with us when we first invited comment from the Teachers Federation in June 2009. We proceeded to develop the proposal on the basis of the position outlined above – that is, on the assumption that our proposal should have no adverse impact on members of the teaching profession working in state primary schools.
We do, however, wish to be as inclusive as possible and (as a matter of principle) have not ruled out the possibility of any teacher being involved in this project if this is their personal preference. Otherwise, a program on ethics during the hour each week currently reserved for scripture will be offered by volunteers drawn from the parent body and wider community who are trained in methodology and content under the auspices of St James Ethics Centre; thus extending the current practice in NSW State Primary Schools where a large number of parents volunteer every day to help teach reading, run sport carnivals, deliver scripture classes and so on.
St James Ethics Centre has proposed that all of the material that might be created, as part of any program to develop an ethics-based course of study, should be provided to faith groups for their use in scripture classes. This proposal has been made so as to ensure that we do not fall foul of the charge that we are drawing people away from scripture through the provision of learning material that is not available to those attending SRE. As such, the program will involve the development of material that will be offered both as an alternative to scripture and for others as a complement to scripture. In the end, we opted for the description ‘complement’ as it captures the more inclusive dimension of what we have in mind and clearly signals our intentions to build rather than bring down.
St James Ethics Centre is an independent charity – unaffiliated to any other organisation or group. It exists to promote and support the ethical dimension of life.
The Centre is not a religious organisation and does not seek to promote any religion.
Nor is the Centre a self-appointed ‘moral policeman’.
The Centre does not receive any funding from religious organisations.
The Centre’s name is derived from the fact that it was originally established by the parish of St James’ Anglican Church, King Street, Sydney. The Centre’s founders were concerned, from the outset, to ensure that the Centre was genuinely independent and it has always been open to people of good will of all faiths and of no faith at all.
The Anglican Diocese of Sydney does not have any connection with St James Ethics Centre and is not involved in either developing or reviewing the activities and policies of the Centre.
Learn more about the Ethics Centre.
Visit the ethics complement section of the website to read more about this project.
The 10 schools that self-nominated to participate in the trial are Darlinghurst, Bungendore, Neutral Bay, Rozelle, Hurstville, Ferncourt, Baulkham Hills North, Leichhardt, Randwick and Crown Street Public Schools.
Neutral Bay has since withdrawn from the pilot because extensive building works prevent the accommodation of another classroom during SRE time. Its place will be taken by Haberfield Public School.
Most of these schools heard about the pilot because they attended the AGM of the Federation of NSW P&C Associations in July 2009 and voted on the motion to ask the Minister to approve a pilot to teach an ethics-based complement to Scripture/SRE. A few other schools heard about the trial through the AGM minutes or through parent networks.
There was no widespread publicity at this stage, as the numbers of schools needed for the pilot was immediately filled and the timetable to get a submission to the Minister was very tight.
Despite subsequent approaches by many other schools in NSW, we are limiting the number of schools in the trial to 10. Not only is this the number approved by the Minister, it is also an ideal number that will give valuable information across a wide variety of schools, yet is small enough to manage.
For those schools wishing to add their support to the trial and who would endorse a subsequent change of DET policy, we have created a list of schools on our website whose P&Cs have discussed the topic and voted to support the teaching of ethics as a complement to scripture in their schools.
Professor Phillip Cam from the University of New South Wales, an international expert in philosophical inquiry for children, has written the pilot curriculum. Ethics teachers have been recruited from within each school community and trained in a two-day session in late March.
These topics have been chosen by Professor Cam to raise issues that relate to the everyday life of students, as well as focusing on wider social and environmental concerns and traditional ethical subject matter.
The NSW Board of Studies and DET has examined the course content and offered feedback to Prof. Cam, who summarises the course content below.
Session 1: “Getting Started”
The first session will be used to set up the class. It will involve discussion of moral dilemmas that can be used to help students to begin to get used to the discussion rules and the use of the Speaker’s Ball.
Session 2: “Fairness”
In this session students will be given the opportunity to think about some of the reasons why things can be said to be either fair or not fair, by being asked to judge whether a given scenario is fair or not fair. The concept of fairness is central to what we generally think of as proper dealing with one another, but it is of particular concern to children, who are often subject to the dictates of adults. Fairness applies to distribution as well as to retribution, and it is connected to a wide array of moral and social concerns such as impartiality, equality, rights, obligations and desert.
Session 3: “Lying and Telling the Truth”
In the previous session students were asked to make absolute or categorical judgments as to whether something was either fair or not fair. In this session they are asked to make relative judgments. They will be dealing with a range of cases in which people have told a lie and they are asked to judge to what extent that is acceptable as well as to figure out why one lie is either more acceptable or less acceptable than another. In discussing and exploring their disagreements, the students will be drawn into giving and evaluating reasons for their judgments. The aim is to carefully consider the reasons for making one or another judgment, rather than necessarily for everyone to end up in agreement.
Session 4: “Ethical Principles”
In this session students are asked to think about principles of ethical decision-making. They will be familiar with principles such as “You should always tell the truth” and “You should keep your promises.” The session is designed to draw attention to such principles and their possible limitations, as well as tensions that can exist between them.
Session 5: “Graffiti”
This lesson deals with the topic of graffiti. Students are asked to discuss various examples of graffiti and to suggest possible measures that may help to reduce the incidence of graffiti in their local area.
Session 6: “Thinking About Animals”
This session returns to relative judgment. It asks students to think about various ways in which we treat animals and to examine the acceptability of one case by comparison with another. Students are also asked to search for principles—the topic of Session 4—to which they may appeal to justify their decisions. The focus on a search for principles to support relative judgment should help to consolidate the earlier work.
Session 7: “Intervening in Nature”
We often think that what is natural is what is meant to be, and that it is dangerous or even immoral to interfere with nature. In this session, students are asked to decide whether various things people do are acceptable or not acceptable interventions in nature and to develop criteria for making ethical distinctions between different cases.
Session 8: “Virtues and Vices”
In this session the class will be exploring the topic of virtues and vices, in the sense of good and bad character traits. They will be asked to consider whether virtues and vices always correspond to one another, as well as to discuss the extent to which the virtues are related to one another, and similarly with vices.
Session 9: “Children’s Rights”
This lesson asks the students to consider whether certain rights should or should not be accorded to them.
Session 10: “Living A Good Life”
In the final session students will be given the opportunity to talk about what they need in order to have a good life. The session will allow students to apply the understandings that they have developed during the term to this central topic in ethics.
The NSW Department of Education (DET) will be employing the services of an independent assessor to evaluate the actual course itself, as well as the operational arrangements supporting it. Students, parents, ethics ‘teachers’ and school principals will be asked to respond to questionnaires as a part of the pilot project.
St James Ethics Centre is paying all costs of running the pilot from donated funds, however DET is paying for the assessment to ensure there is no conflict of interest in the evaluation. Costs to St James Ethics Centre include payment for curriculum development, classroom and teaching resources, training of ethics teachers and project management. Donations can be made via our website. Click the DONATE button at the bottom of our specialethicseducation.com.au homepage if you are able to contribute. All donations of $2 or more are tax deductible.
If you want to volunteer to become an ethics teacher if the program gets approved, please send an email to Teresa Russell, Pilot Project Coordinator at trussell [at] aapt [dot] net [dot] au and your name will be added to a list of people who will be contacted when ethics teachers are being recruited statewide.
All volunteers will also have passed a police check before they are allowed to teach in the classrooms.
There will be an independent assessment of the trial and a submission to the NSW Minister for Education to change the DET policy permanently, thereby allowing the teaching of secular ethics as a complement to scripture in NSW primary schools. We would hope for an early decision to allow the rollout of a four-term curriculum to Years 5&6 in 2011 and a further extension of the program thereafter.
Unless you are a part of the pilot, you will have to wait until the Minister for Education changes the current policy. You might like to join the public groundswell of support for the teaching of ethics to children who opt out of Scripture/SRE.
You can do this in several ways.
a) By writing to the Minister, Verity Firth. See http://bit.ly/a8rEaE for her contact details;
b) By writing letters to editors any time you see the issue appear in local, state or national press;
c) By having the item discussed at your NSW primary school P&C Association meeting and voting to endorse the teaching of ethics as a complement to scripture at your individual school. Once the motion is carried, you may list your school’s public support on our website.
The curriculum is the subject of copyright and may not be reproduced without the written consent of its author, Prof. Phillip Cam. It is also in its pilot phase, so will be subject to changes depending on feedback received via the pilot assessment process.
However, in the interests of transparency, Prof Cam has agreed to publish two of the sessions on this website. Please click here to view.
Permission to copy, distribute, publish or otherwise use this copyright material must be sought from Prof. Cam at the University of NSW.
The pilot is designed to engage students in ethical inquiry rather than to offer them ethical instruction. This means that the subject matter is being treated in such a way as to stimulate students to explore ethical issues through dialogue and discussion. By discussing issues and ideas in small groups, as well as by contributing to class discussion, students will be involved in building a collaborative and inquiring community.
A circle of chairs and a Speaker’s Ball will be used to help establish this community, as well as the use of rules for discussion that facilitate ethical engagement of students with one another. This includes rules such as:
• Only one person speaks at a time.
• Pay attention to the person who is speaking.
• Give other people a chance to speak.
• Build upon other people’s ideas.
• No put-downs
By both encouraging and questioning students, facilitators are expected to lead students to:
• ask questions
• generate suggestions
• build on one another’s ideas
• consider other’s viewpoints
• respectfully explore disagreement
• give and evaluate reasons
• question assumptions
• consider consequences
• uncover and appeal to principles
This means that students are learning to take a thoughtful approach to moral decision-making, including being collaborative rather than combative, being prepared to listen to someone who takes a different point of view, being reasonable with others in dealing with differences and disagreements, and being prepared to acknowledge appropriate criteria in making and criticizing ethical judgments.
St James Ethics Centre’s commitment to provide access to all material relates to an approved course, not the 10-week pilot program. It would be irresponsible to make available for use any material that is being trialled for its suitability. Rather, the Centre has made available as much of the pilot material for information as it is possible to disclose, without infringing the author’s copyright. (Please click here to view) Permission to copy, distribute, publish or otherwise use this copyright material must be sought from Prof. Cam at the University of NSW.
Any material developed for an approved program of Special Ethics Education will be made available for use as a free, public good – accessible to all, including faith groups. Those developing this material will do so on the explicit understanding that the intellectual property will be secured for common use in service of a common good.
The ultimate purpose of St James Ethics Centre is clear: to offer a worthwhile and meaningful program to children who do not attend SRE classes. Just as SRE complements work on values and principles undertaken as part of the core curriculum, so shall our program.
1. Write to your local state member and cc Verity Firth, NSW Education Minister and Kristina Keneally, NSW Premier.
They need to see your support and understand that this is important to a huge number of voters. Use our site: http://campaign.specialethicseducation.com.au If you want to cc every NSW member of parliament, you can use this other site set up by one of our supporters: http://www.reasonmakesadifference.net
2. Sign a petition and get nine friends to do the same. Penny Sharpe, Labour MLC initiated this petition which she wants to table in this term.
Note from Penny: Parliament is very old school. You have to download, print, get the petition filled out, then return the original petition - otherwise it is not able to be presented to Parliament.
Find at least 9 friends (10 per sheet) who agree with ethics being taught to opt-out kids at NSW primary schools, complete a petition sheet and send it back to Penny Sharpe, MLC, Parliament House, Macquarie St, Sydney NSW 2000 BEFORE 24 June. Here's the link http://bit.ly/czNmgH
3. Add your P&C to a list of those supporting the introduction of ethics classes to children who opt out of SRE. These children have parents of minority faiths, no faith and, in some cases, people of strong faith who don't like the way SRE is taught in NSW public schools.
To add your school to the list, get your P&C to discuss and vote on the following motion:
“That the NSW Minister for Education changes DET policy to allow secular ethics classes to operate as a complement to scripture/SRE classes in NSW primary schools.”
Then post us a letter on P&C letterhead indicating your support and we will add you to our list.
4. Become a fan of [aka "like"] our facebook page. The more connected supporters we have online, the faster word can be spread.
5. Engage with the media on this topic. Write to newspapers, call in to talkback radio, write on comments pages of media websites. The more the media is interested in the topic, the louder we can shout!
6. Talk about this issue to everyone you meet - regardless of whether they have kids or not. You don't have to be a parent with a child at a primary school in NSW to support this cause. Tell all your facebook friends to join us too.
7. Donate to help fund the rollout of the program into 1300 primary schools. http://www.specialethicseducation.com.au
Read all the other FAQs at this site to find out more about the issue. The more people we have talking factually about this issue, the easier it will be to shout above the noisy, organised and well-funded minority who oppose it.
- Balmain Public School (5 February 2010)
- Clovelly Public School (19 February 2010)
- Coal Point Public School (10 March 2010)
- Summer Hill Public School (16 March 2010)
- Canowindra Public School (4 May 2010)
- Otford Public School (4 May 2010)
- Manly Village Public School (10 May 2010)
- Ashbury Public School (11 May 2010)
- Stanmore Public School (11 May 2010)
- Gerringong Public School (17 May 2010)
- Coogee Public School (18 May 2010)
- Winston Heights Public School (24 May 2010)
- Austinmer Public School (8 June 2010)
- Braidwood Public School (9 June 2010)
- West Ryde Public School (16 June 2010)
- Rose Bay Public School (22 June 2010)
- Gladesville Public School (30 June 2010)
- Blackheath Public School (21 July 2010)
- Mogo Public School (21 July 2010)
- Kensington Public School (27 July 2010)
- Beaumont Public School (27 July 2010)
- Rozelle Public School (27 July 2010)
- Kensington Public School (27 July 2010)
- Mortlake Public School (27 July 2010)
- Taverners Hill Infants School (28 July 2010)
- Caves Beach Public School (2 August 2010)
- Camdenville Public School (3 August 2010)
- Bungendore Public School (3 August 2010)
- Woollhara Public School (3 August 2010)
- The Pocket Public School (3 August 2010)
- Ocean Shores Public School (3 August 2010)
- Lapstone Public School (3 August 2010)
- Callala PUblic School (3 August 2010)
- Warrawee Public School (3 August 2010)
- Maroubra Junction Public School (5 August 2010)
- Glenbrook Public School (7 August 2010)
- Neutral Bay Public School (8 August 2010)
- Forest Lodge Public School (9 August 2010)
- Hazelbrook Public School (10 August 2010)
- Earlwood Public School (10 August 2010)
- Woonona East Public School (10 August 2010)
- Rydalmere East Public School (11 August 2010)
- Leichardt Public School (12 August 2010)
- Katoomba Public School (12 August 2010)
- Marrickville Public School (15 August 2010)
- Bronte Public School (15 August 2010)
- Castle Hill High School (15 August 2010)
- Boronia Park Public School (16 August 2010)
- Eleebana Public School (16 August 2010)
- Woodport Public School (16 August 2010)
- Wilkins Public School (17 August 2010)
- Bourke Street Public School (17 August 2010)
- Haberfield Public School (17 August 2010)
- Manly West Public School (17 August 2010)
- Drummoyne Public School (17 August 2010)
- Mortdale Public School (17 August 2010)
- North Rocks Public School (17 August 2010)
- Duval High School (18 August 2010)
- Beecroft Public School (18 August 2010)
- Birchgrove Public School (18 August 2010)
- Randwick Public School (18 August 2010)
- Ferncourt Pubic School (18 August 2010)
- Willoughby Public School (18 August 2010)
- Putney Public School (23 August 2010)
- Sandy Beach Public School (24 August 2010)
- Lane Cove West Public School (24 August 2010)
- Kegworth Public School (26 August 2010)
- Mount Riverview Public School (26 August 2010)
- Darlinghurst Public School (27 August 2010)
- Medowie Public School (30 August 2010)
- Mt Riverview Public School (30 August 2010)
- Central Coast P&C Association (30 August 2010)
- Annandale Public School (31 August 2010)
- Curl Curl North Public School (1 September 2010)
- Glenmore Road Public School (1 September 2010)
- Tempe Public School (6 September 2010)
- Pennant Hills Public School (7 September 2010)
- Newport Public School (7 September 2010)
- Leura Public School (10 September 2010)
- Crestwood Public School (12 September 2010)
- Normanhurst Public School (13 September 2010)
- Floraville Public School (14 September 2010)
- Castle Cove Public School (14 September 2010)
- Bondi Public School (14 September 2010)
- Kulnura Public School (14 September 2010)
- Corrimal Public School (14 September 2010)
- Berowra Public School (15 September 2010)
- Platsburg Public School (19 September 2010)
- Asquith Public School (21 September 2010)
- East Maitland Public School (14 October 2010)
- Double Bay Public School (20 October 2010)
- Adamstown Public School (25 October 2010)
- Dulwich Hill Public School (27 October 2010)
- Mosman Public School (28 October 2010)
- Cawdor Public School (1 November 2010)
Add your P&C to the list of those supporting the introduction of ethics classes for children who opt out of SRE.
To add your school to the list all you need to do is:
- Ask your P&C to discuss and vote on the following motion:
“That the NSW Minister for Education changes DET policy to allow secular ethics classes to operate as a complement to scripture/SRE classes in NSW primary schools.”
- Then write a letter on P&C letterhead indicating your support and we will add you to our list. Please email it to trussell [at] aapt [dot] net [dot] au or post to St James Ethics Centre, GPO Box 3599, Sydney NSW 2001.
You might like to use the following paragraph in the P&C section of the school newsletter.
“The NSW Federation of P&C Associations is asking the government to change the Department of Education’s policy on the treatment of children who opt out of SRE/scripture. It has joined with St James Ethics Centre to develop a secular ethics program for children who do not attend SRE. The program is being piloted in ten NSW schools in Term 2, 2010. There is absolutely no desire or intention on behalf of the P&C Federation or St James Ethics Centre to remove SRE from its current position, protected under the NSW Education Act. The issue lies solely in the policy. It is hoped the Minister will change the policy to allow those who don't attend SRE to have the option to attend secular ethics classes. You can find out all about the initiative at http://www.specialethicseducation.com.au ”