I have had dozens of conversations since my son started school this year about scripture classes and whether they should be taught as part of a syllabus in public schools. There is passion on both sides of the argument because the subject matter comprises the basis of our personal belief systems. It’s a minefield, but it absolutely needs discussion.
This week the topic has reared its curious head once again in the form of a petition from change.org;
“Christian providers of scripture classes in NSW admit that they are behind plans to draft children into scripture classes without the knowledge of parents or care-givers. They have convinced Premier Mike Baird to change the enrolment form so that the only question asked is, “What is the student’s religion?” This was the question that used to be on the enrolment form before ethics classes were written into law in late 2010. There is no mention of ethics classes and no mention of the fact that you don’t have to go to a religion class in the proposed revised form. For that matter, it doesn’t tell you that by answering that question, you are enrolling your child into a religion class in that faith, if it is available in that school.”
The issue is pretty complicated with lots of stakeholders and therefore solutions seem to be hard to come by. Should religion, in particular scriptures, be taught in public schools at all? If it is taught, should it be taught as a truth, (which it currently is), or should i be presented as a study of a belief system or set of belief systems from an impartial perspective? Should the arrangement be opt in or opt out? Should the enrolment form specifically mention ethics or just religion?
A 2013 study performed by McCrindle found that only around 8% of Australians attend a christian church, (regularly or irregularly). Interestingly, when asked the main reason why they didn’t attend church 47% of people in the study responded that church was irrelevant in their life, and 26% of people said that they did not like how scripture was taught. Certainly there is scope for a serious discussion about whether scripture is at all relevant in public schools based on the feelings of the public.
Aside from public sentiment, many parents are concerned about the context in which scripture is being taught. Children go to school, they have a lesson in how to read, they learn in mathematics that two plus two is four, they go to scripture and hear about Jesus walking on water, and then they come back to practice foundation style handwriting. In a typical day, most of what a child learns is factual. The NSW education system is not based on a belief system, it is based on tangible, provable information or on protocols that help to process that information. SRE is the exception. At the age of 5 when scripture is introduced, (earlier for some children), do we really believe that a child will be able to distinguish between a mathematical absolute and Jesus healing the blind with a touch of his hand? Will a child that still believes in Santa really be able to think critically about a belief system that is taught to them in such a way as to suggest it is factual? The separation of Church and State is recognised in the Australian Constitution – is it ethical, then, for our public schools to be teaching religion at all?
There are many schools where a variety of options are offered for Special Religious Education that cover a range of different religious beliefs. But the fact remains that in a large portion of schools – in fact in most schools – the options are limited and entirely dependant on the geography of your local school and how many volunteers exist for each different offering. During this time children who opt out of SRE are forbidden to learn anything or do any work whatsoever. Does it not discriminate against a good portion of children to teach some, but not all, religions in public schools and insist that those that aren’t offered a suitable choice sit for half an hour a week to proactively not learn? Are we really determining the needs of all school children based on the beliefs of just 8% of Australians?
The problem as I see it is that SRE, by definition, is run by interest groups. The teachers, (who are volunteers), are not independent, but they are also not provided by the Department of Education. They are provided by special interest groups, such as religious organisations, (churches, mosques, ethics organisations etc). So there is no equitable distribution of resources to each school child.
Should the NSW Government decide that SRE is in fact necessary in public school education despite the obvious issue of mingling the church with the state, there should be changes made to this system in my opinion. It should at the very least offer an impartial course which discusses a variety of religions, or funding should be given to boost ethics classes so they are available to all school children equally. SRE should be an opt in, so that children that are choosing to attend SRE are taken out of classes, rather than children that are opting out being forced to sit and not learn. The government should oversee the system, rather than allowing various special interest groups to manipulate it to their own advantage – this is the equivalent of lobbying school children and its rather unpalatable. And each option should absolutely be made known to all enrolling children on the enrolment form. This part is an absolute no brainer if SRE is to maintain any credibility whatsoever as a serious part of the syllabus.
I don’t prescribe to any particular religion, though I would consider myself to have Christian values. I believe in transparency in education, in equality and in teaching children how, not what, to think. Most importantly, I believe we are working backwards – what needs to be considered is the end result for the children, which continues to be completely ignored in this debate. The current system falls short of representing those values. Mike Baird, the system needs to change and the enrolment form needs to represent the interests of school children and not lobby groups.