Likewise, religious education has had a valued place in public education for over 100 years, and volunteers have been visiting state schools to deliver special religious education to students of various persuasions. The Catholic Church has been at the forefront of this community service for much of this time.
Firstly, this happened through the ministry of priests and nuns, and eventually through the commitment of lay people who were specially trained for the task. The Archdiocese of Sydney first offered formal Catechist training in 1961. Over the decades each diocese has adopted similar training programs for its dedicated volunteers. Currently there are over 4,500 Catechists engaged in this service across NSW.
Volunteers in Australian society make a valued contribution when they are committed to, and competent in, the tasks they do. Our beaches are safer because of the efforts of surf lifesavers and the poor and sick are well served by charities and service agencies. Volunteerism is part of the character of our communities. You only have to visit sporting fields on the weekend to see it in action.
However, it is not enough to be well meaning and committed; a Special Religious Education (SRE) volunteer needs to be well trained and resourced. In partnership with the professional religious educators in Catholic schools and universities, highly effective programs of instruction have been developed for the thousands of Catholic children attending public schools. These include programs like Christ Our Light and Life from the Archdiocese of Sydney and Walking with Jesus from the Diocese of Broken Bay. These commercial publications consist of student workbooks and a teacher manual as well as a range of teaching resources appropriate to the various learning ages and stages of students.
Special Religious Education in Public Schools is not the exclusive right of Catholics; each Christian denomination and every faith group is permitted under section 32 of the NSW Education Act of 1990 to educate children in the faith of their families. Appropriately, it is parents and guardians who have the ultimate right to this aspect of schooling. As with sport, if a parent/guardian prefers that the child not attend, he or she can be exempt from the class. In these cases the school organises a productive activity such as private reading or a lesson in ethics (Special Education in Ethics – SEE).
Currently the Department of Education and Communities (DEC) is conducting an independent review of SRE and SEE in NSW government schools. Consultants have been engaged to undertake this review throughout this year. The DEC website (dec.nsw.gov.au) indicates that the terms of reference are aimed at improving the implementation and delivery of SRE and SEE.
Despite the assurance that the review is not being conducted to determine whether SRE or SEE should be offered in NSW public schools, there are those in our community who seem to think this issue is at question. To the relief of the 102 SRE providers and the sole provider of SEE, these detractors simply offer their opinions with very little substance to support them.
Fortunately the reviewers have a precise brief to explore the realities of the provision of SRE and SEE. These realities include procedures for screening, authorising and training volunteers, the publication of teaching programs and resources as well as the approval processes employed by the DEC to assess providers of both SRE and SEE.
Back in the 80s, the first review of SRE in NSW led to many improvements in relations between the education department and religious providers. This collaboration has led to better guidelines, communication and training, which in turn has delivered quality religious education to children of all faith persuasions in public schools. We are confident that the current review will be as effective in the development of SRE into the future.
This will be a future which guarantees families in the Hunter, like their counterparts across the state, the benefit of choice in the education of their children. They will continue to be offered religion as well as sport to round out the education of their young ones – the choice is theirs.
John Donnelly is Director of the Office of Life and Faith, Diocese of Maitland- Newcastle.
You are encouraged to contribute to the Review of SRE and SEE by completing a survey at artd.com.au/sre-see-review
June Marjorie Norris has served as a Catechist, teaching Special Religious Education (SRE) in state schools, for 50 years! Marj, as she is known, was recognised for her extraordinary achievement at the diocesan SRE Mass earlier this year. She shares some of her story.
PICTURED ABOVE: Mike Norris, Maureen Barrett, Linda Norris (standing), Garth Norris and Mark Norris celebrate with Marj after she was recognised for her contribution to Special Religious Education.
I was born 24 June 1925 in the Riverina District of NSW. It was the birthday of St John the Baptist so how could I not spread the faith? My mother, father and grandparents lived the faith and we eight children thought everyone went to Mass and prayed, morning, noon (Angelus) and night!
At Yenda Public School my favourite day was Scripture Day when a lovely lady, Mrs O’Connor, welcomed us with joy to the Good News from the ‘green’ Catechism. I loved it all, especially the Saints; I wasn’t real keen on the sinners but that’s life and our choices decide our fate.
When I made my First Holy Communion, I was starting the spiritual journey which has now led me to celebrate 50 years teaching Scripture. I hope I have played a small part in passing on the Good News to the children in my classes throughout this long and wonderfully rewarding time.
I have been reflecting on my journey as a Catechist. It all began when my friend and neighbour, Eve, asked me to fill in for her Kindergarten class for a few weeks at Telopea Public School. Eve was unable to return so I stayed on, teaching prayers and reading bible stories.
Through belonging to several parishes, various programs and formation opportunities, amidst raising my own children, my experience and confidence grew.
My husband John died from cancer at only 59, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer but recovered fully. My faith supported me through all these trials and I continued teaching SRE. At Old Bar, I even taught my great-grandchildren!
It is so important to have this feeling of belonging to a faith community. I am so fortunate to be living at Old Bar with my family on my doorstep. I am blessed with the joy of living.
Our students need to know that God loves them and they belong to his family. I have known that for almost 90 years and that is why, with the blessings of God and the support and encouragement of my faith community, I am still a Catechist.