After 25 of years teaching in Catholic schools I was surprised when I first visited a Government school in 2003. The small village school nestled in a beach suburb had all the usual facilities that one comes to expect, fields, courts, bench seats and gardens surrounding classrooms, offices and a multi-purpose hall.
As I walked through the gate the sense of community was tangible; parents chatting at the gate, little kids riding bikes on the path, and teachers directing students and visitors to the assembly. It was the last week of Term 1 and the Easter assembly was being celebrated. With the excitement for the end of term mounting, it seemed that the sun shone brighter and faces were alive with smiles and joy.
The bell chimes rang and the children vanished into their respective rooms guided by their loving teachers. I remember noting the caring nature of each relationship I witnessed that morning. Children, parents and teachers all greeting each other with warmth and respect. Even as a casual visitor I felt part of the community as I was greeted and escorted by school leaders to the assembly hall.
As I sat waiting for the Easter celebration to begin I noticed on either side of the stage two huge boards, one with the National Anthem, the other with the Lord’s Prayer painted upon it. Soon I was to learn that these were sang and prayed by the school community each time they gathered. This was the morning I realised that Catholic schools did not have a monopoly on pastoral care or prayer.
Since that time I have visited hundreds of Government schools across the Central Coast and Hunter Regions. My first glowing impression of public education has not diminished. Sure there are some schools that do not exude so much warmth and welcome, but in the main I have experienced well organised, caring learning environments where the needs of children and their families come first.
More often than not what takes me into Government schools is religious education, special religious education in fact. Parents and carers in New South Wales have the choice to have their children educated in the faith of their families for one lesson each week. The Catholic Church along with other Christian churches has been providing volunteers to present these lessons for over 100 years. Since 1990 this right was also extended to other faith groups such as Buddhists, Jews and Muslims. In 2010 the NSW Government also made provision for families to choose non-religious ethics lessons. The partnership between the providers of these lessons and the NSW Department of Education (DoE) is responsible for a significant and unique contribution to public education.
As an Approved Provider of SRE the Catholic Church complies with the requirements set down by the Minister for Education. The thousands of volunteers who attend the schools each week are screened with Working with Children Checks, the same standard that is applied to professional teachers. Catholic SRE volunteers (Catechists) are authorised by their parish leaders, formed by leaders of the ministry and regularly refresh their training in child protection procedures and classroom management.
Periodic reviews of the provision of SRE ensure that the practice is monitored and improved. The most recent of these reviews was conducted in 2015 by an independent research firm, ARTD. Everything from sign on procedures to training courses were reviewed. Particular attention was given to examining the various SRE curriculums by an educational consultant.
As the editor of a Catholic SRE program I am particularly interested in the findings of this review as we endeavour to modify and improve the service we provide to Catholic families with children in Government schools. One of the challenges of our work is to maintain the high standards required by the Department of Education on behalf of the families it serves. Recently these standards have been increased to include more personal details of volunteers so even more rigorous checks can be done on the suitability of those who present SRE lessons. It is gratifying to know that we are all committed to the protection of children with authorisation, supervision and investigation procedures in place.
The fact is that NSW Public Education provides families with a unique educational opportunity which is offered in partnership with a diverse group of believers and non-believers who reflect the attitudes and practices of our multi-cultural, mutli-faith society. What would be unfair and dare I say un-Australian, would be for one group, such as “Fairness in Religion in Schools” (FIRIS) to assert their own beliefs on everyone else. Believers have been accused of indoctrination for centuries and it would be a shame if non-believers continued this injustice into this century. Ideally rather than withdraw SRE from schools we would continue to offer freedom for families to choose what is best for their children.
Recent polls in the Newcastle Herald indicated that, most respondents wished to see the provision of SRE continue in the government schools of the Hunter.
Each week I, along with hundreds of volunteers, present religion and ethics lessons to school children whose families choose it for them. We do so under the supervision of the local school authorities and within the guidelines set down by the Department of Education and the Minister for Education.
Parents and citizens of all school communities are welcome to visit school websites and access the local arrangements and curriculums to better inform themselves. Upcoming Easter assemblies and Education Week (31 July – 4 Aug) may be opportunities to judge for yourself what is really happening in your school. I hope your experience is as enjoyable and informative as my first visit.