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Wrong to compare state religious education programs

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Much has been made by the NSW media of the plan to remove religious education classes from Victorian Government schools and predictable calls from the Greens, the atrociously named Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) and myriad other run-of-the-mill secular atheist groups, for the similar removal of Special Religious Education (SRE) from NSW schools.

Unfortunately, the ABC, Sydney Morning Herald and various other mainstream media organisations have again rushed to quote the ‘dumbed down’ sound bites provided by these groups, ignoring the facts about SRE in NSW schools.

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The Catholic Conference for Religious Educators in State Schools in a recent media release highlighted that (SRE) in NSW is not similar to the Special Religious Instruction (SRI) of Victoria.

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The reality is that the Religious Instruction provided in Victorian State schools can’t be compared with the quality or capacity of SRE delivery in NSW. To put it plainly, we would not be so much comparing apples with oranges, but apples with sultanas to compare the two systems.

SRE in NSW is world best practice, with the NSW government giving all faith groups, as well as Primary Ethics, the opportunity to offer classes to children in government schools and form Children in the faith of their families.

In Victoria, one group, Access Ministries, provides religious instruction, for a small number of Christian children, with no real concern for denominational differences. The program does not have strong backing across denominations; although there is a small involvement of other faith traditions.

Only about 30,000 students attend religious education in Victoria.

No wonder it was an easy target, as it really was not something that was providing the sort of formation in faith that parents in NSW schools enjoy.

By comparison, around 300,000 young people attend SRE in Government primary schools in NSW. That is about 67 per cent of the primary school population. About 260,000 of them attend Christian SRE. In all 20 per cent of primary school students go to Catholic SRE, accounting for 37 per cent of total SRE enrolment in NSW. An additional 20,000 students attend the classes delivered by Primary Ethics.

Another feature of delivery in NSW is that our trained teachers use authorised curricula with age-appropriate lessons that are publicly available. Furthermore, the NSW Government is looking to further enhance SRE; a review being conducted by the Department of Education is providing the feedback to enable that to happen.

Finally, rural, remote and minority faith groups are choosing public education because their children have the opportunity to be educated in the faith of their family. This can only be good for Australia as our country is a multi-cultural and multi faith nation and the 40,000 students who attend SRE in faith traditions such as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Baha’i faiths are steadily growing.

As such, in response to recent suggestions that SRE be removed, the NSW Board of Jewish Education president David Selig said that this would deny a proper Jewish education to thousands of students. He said the proposal is “flawed and by definition a prejudiced approach that devalues the intrinsic importance and beauty of our faith”. Further, he believes that “all aspects of religious education must be encouraged and nurtured, a view that has consistently been enshrined in state legislation, for over 100 years, and for good and obvious reasons”. Similar views continue to be espoused by SRE providers of the major religions and across Christian denominations.

It is disappointing that religious education in Victoria has reached this point of removal and a pity the Victorian Government didn’t have the vision to explore the development of a system of delivery as robust and diverse as ours in NSW.

The imbalance of reporting evident in the debates about same-sex marriage has been just as evident in the reporting of SRE.

It is undeniable that religion, God and faith are good for kids. Countless studies show the benefits of formation in faith as evidenced in measures of happiness, fulfilment, resilience, meaning, purpose and the fact that it is a good ‘vaccine’ for young people against depression, substance abuse and self-harm. People of faith know this intrinsically and parents know it, too, and thus continue to choose SRE in public schools in such large numbers.

SRE in NSW is strong and valued because of the great work and dedication of SRE teachers. I want to say thank you to our catechists across NSW for the contribution they make to this great feature of public education. The fact that all religions come together in unity to provide this educationally sound choice for parents is remarkable and education systems around the world should be envious of. Nevertheless, it is obvious that there are powers at play that despite all of the evidence of its value, want SRE to be removed as it offends their atheist world view. We need to respond with prayerfulness.

As such, I am asking catechists across NSW to pray for our ministry. Pray for those CCD directors representing you at the inquiry into SRE. Pray for balance in reporting, pray that parents and politicians continue to appreciate its profound value for young people in NSW.


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