Each to their own – the free choice of religious education in public schools

On Friday 5 June, Rosemarie Milsom wrote an opinion piece in the Newcastle Herald titled ‘The Ethics of Education’. Rosemarie made a number of points but ended her piece by stating that it “only seems right” that faith groups respect her decision to send her daughter to ethics classes and opt out of special religious education (SRE).

Like many others, Rosemarie has made a choice for her children to go to a public school. Rosemarie has always had the choice of either being able to have her children attend a Special Religious Education (SRE) lesson or not.  In 2016, Rosemarie will have the additional option of sending her daughter to lessons in Special Education in Ethics (SEE). 

“No child at a government school is to be required to receive any general religious teaching or special religious education if the parent of the child objects to the child’s receiving that teaching or education” (Education Act 1990 Section 33)."

This freedom of choice in NSW public schools is extended to all families regardless of their faith or non-faith.  Christians, Jews and Muslims are very active in SRE across NSW and Buddhist, Bahá'í and Hindus make use of the provision wherever they can. 

We not only respect this choice, we welcome the fact that tens of thousands of parents in NSW have a choice.  Unlike some commentators, we understand these families are well informed by their school principals and capable of making appropriate choices for their children.

The NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) consults regularly with the 129 providers of SRE as well as the provider of SEE to ensure the Education Act (1990) and its 2010 Ethics Amendment are implemented according to procedures. The DEC has commissioned an independent review of SEE and SRE with specific terms of reference and aims to improve the provision of both.

The Hunter Christian SRE Committee has trained and supported volunteers for more than 20 years. In 2014 over 120 people completed training on what and how to present SRE lessons in line with the approved curriculum and the agreed training standard.  Each received a copy of the DEC SRE Implementation Procedures.

According to the 2011 Census, Anglicans and Catholics account for over half the children in Australian government schools. Catholic Churches all across NSW are committed to offering free religious education to all who choose it for their children.  Like other persuasions, the church offers lessons designed to educate children in the faith of their families. I disagree with Rosemarie’s assertion that SRE is “… part of a recruitment drive by Christian faith groups”. Volunteers understand the rights of parents and honour their choices by not evangelising or proselytising.

A significant component to the SRE lessons families are choosing involves Christian ethics and morals.  It would appear that this is something that most want in schools in order to support what they are doing in their homes.  Last year there were 459,455 children in NSW Public Primary schools and an estimated 250,000 attended SRE across the whole of the state.

In those schools where SEE classes are available, the option is a philosophical ethics program developed by the only SEE provider, Primary Ethics. In 2014 they reported student numbers of 16,000 which were concentrated in cities and rural centres, for example, 31 schools in Newcastle City.

Another criticism raised by Rosemarie is regarding SRE Providers’ revisions to the DEC enrolment form that was changed in 2014 to include a section on Special Education in Ethics.  Whilst is true that SRE providers have lobbied the government about the enrolment form, what Rosemarie fails to mention is that one reason for this challenge is because the form gives the impression that SEE classes are available in every school. 

Religious freedom in our country means we all have the right to choose the faith of our families. With this comes the responsibility to respect the right of everyone else to do the same.  In this way, we are a unique people who have something to show the world about harmony and tolerance in a multicultural, multi-faith and modern society. 

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