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Ten reasons the ethics trial is not a good idea

A trial of ethics classes in NSW schools is about to begin. Although suggestions like this have been made in the past, successive education ministers have not allowed it. The only reason it became reality this time was the personal intervention of Premier Nathan Rees, in the dying days of his incumbency.

Christians have been put onto the back foot, forced to answer the dual question, “What’s wrong with teaching kids ethics?” and “What’s wrong with giving non-SRE children something to occupy their time as they sit idle during SRE?”. Some Christians will not know how to address these questions. Many schools breach SRE guidelines anyway. We must educate ourselves on this vital topic.

Thousands of volunteers and supporters of SRE in local communities have worked tirelessly in schools and receive little recognition of their extremely positive work. On the other hand, the non-religious St James Ethics Centre (SJEC) has already received wide exposure. Why? I think their support has been boosted by those who see this as a chance to break SRE and remove all trace of religion from public life.

I’m pleased to see other denominations and faiths starting to make their views known. I’d like to suggest 10 reasons why the ethics trial is a bad development and why you should urgently pray about it, then make your views known to your local MP. for the petition.

1. Mainstream ethical behaviour is taught every day in schools by existing teachers. An educational review has shown these classes are not needed. Are we saying that teachers are not doing their job?

2. An ethics course promotes a philosophical system. The St James Ethics Centre is a self-confessed secular organisation. Why is this approach favoured? Why not give this course a more accurate name, such as “Secular Philosophy”?

3. The reason given for trialling the course — that non-SRE children are sitting idle — is untrue. Non-SRE children are occupied and supervised in well-managed schools. In any case, as the new classes are voluntary, how does it solve the ‘problem’? There will still be children neither in SRE nor this course.

4. Anglican SRE is taught mainly by local volunteers. There is a proven track record of positive community involvement. They are properly screened, trained and authorised. Who will be the teachers of the SJEC course? How will they be trained, what connection will they have with the school, and for how long will they keep teaching the course?

5. It is being presented as new, exciting and more useful than SRE. The result may be that fewer parents will choose SRE. But this time has been set aside for religious instruction as a recognition of the importance of this subject. Secular ethics is not an alternative. This trial is of ethics (minus God). Next it could be more maths or English. We still want children to be taught about God.

6. To be blunt, what this Government has done in approving the trial is renege on an assurance given by governments to the churches since 1880, and reaffirmed in 1990 and 2008, that it would not permit ethics or any other programs to be delivered at the same time as SRE. How can we be sure that it does not gut SRE from the curriculum?

7. The local Parents and Citizens associations are already being compromised by being invited to support this initiative without proper consultation. The P&Cs occupy an honoured role in our society (I was once a P&C president myself!) as they support the whole school community. They are being invited to offer sectarian support for an untried initiative.

8. The study of religion is vital to an understanding of our culture, art, faith and human history. A recent survey showed that 50 per cent of Australians believe religion is important to their lives. A significantly greater number believe in God. In the face of this, is less than an hour of SRE per school week too much to ask? In fact, is it enough?

9. Why is St James Ethics Centre being favoured for this? Why was a multi-faith group of primary educationists not invited to write it? Can other providers offer the course? If not, why not? Why is it being offered to all students, including SRE students, as a ‘complement’ to SRE when it was supposed to be for non-SRE students only?

10. Be warned: if the Government allows this course to continue after the trial, it will jeopardise religious education in public schools, and without such a religious component, public schools will cease to be inclusive of all children. We Anglicans have always been committed to public education. Any decline of SRE would make public schools less attractive to Christian parents and will accelerate the shift to non-government schools.

There are more reasons, not least the vital part which SRE plays in keeping alive a knowledge of God in our society. There will be many challenges ahead for Christians in the society of the 21st century, but few more significant than this.

Written by Dr Peter Jensen, Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Southern Cross Magazine, April 2010.
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