Schools must be upfront on ethics

Ethiics debate: Former Justice of the High Court Michael Kirby. Picture: Peter Braig
Ethiics debate: Former Justice of the High Court Michael Kirby. Picture: Peter Braig

When I was at school I went to "scripture" classes on Thursdays and church on Sundays. Scripture was taught at Fort Street High, a public school, by the Anglican Dean of Sydney, Stuart Barton Babbage. He became a lifelong friend. The Church of England class was by far the biggest. Catholics were few; but they had taken themselves off to their own schools. Jews were fewer still. They went to "non scripture", basically reading under supervision with pupils whose parents were non-religious. I liked the scripture class.

But does religious education still have a place in secular schools? It's a question guaranteed to give rise to a range of opinions, with those at one extreme or the other likely to dominate the discussion.

Special Religious Education (SRE) continues to be compulsory for students in NSW public schools. Parents have to take positive steps to exempt their children before they can even learn what secular options are available.

Secular options now include Special Education in Ethics (SEE), delivered by Primary Ethics, the approved provider. Additionally, individual schools may choose to provide other activities or studies for students who are not enrolled in either SRE or SEE.

Even if parents don't nominate a religion or write "no religion" on their child's school enrolment form, the current protocol requires a school to offer the religious options yet again to the parents. There must be no mention of the secular alternatives. Only if they opt out a second time, are parents and carers presented with all available options.

This approach creates a whole lot of unnecessary red tape and administrative burden. But more than that, it presents religious instruction as the given, with anything else requiring an act of exclusion. If a child is to attend a religious class, it should to be a product of well informed choice, not by default.

It is entirely unacceptable that enrolment in secular ethics should be made so difficult, given Henry Parkes' principles for public education: free, secular and compulsory. The need is even greater today, given our community's religious and ethnic make-up.

In a richly multicultural society, where only a small number of available religions can feasibly provide volunteers to teach at local schools, it is essential that parents, and children when mature enough, have all the options presented to them from the outset. Clearly. Once and for all.

Public schools should be places that reflect our society, comprising religious and non-religious pupils; pluralism and basic secularism. No child should be forced into private or religious schools. Public schools are a birthright in Australia.

On the basis of the 1866 compromise within the Public Schools Act, the religious component in education in public schools in NSW will necessarily be small. It should, if so desired, be supplemented by being sent to church or temple outside school hours, as happened to me.

I was raised and remain a member of the Anglican tradition. I'm glad to have learnt the Book of Common Prayer. But I understood why it had to be learnt at church and not school. The latter was a space where I mixed freely with many pupils of different faiths. . In my school experience scripture allowed children to learn the basics of their family faith. It was not used to preach discrimination.

Removing the option for ethics classes from the enrolment form in 2015 was a serious backwards step. I believe it was a political decision. If the Department of Education is to continue to give children the opportunity to engage in religious instruction while at their local school, then parents need readily available information on all options. And today, appropriately, that includes secular ethics.

  • Michael Kirby is a former Justice of the High Court.