Religion classes under fire

A Sydney bus carries an advertisement for Special Religious Education classes in NSW schools.

The NSW Teachers Federation is pushing to have religion classes removed from government schools.

The push comes despite the fact the classes are part of the curriculum and have been found to contribute to students’ wellbeing and cultural diversity.

Currently, Special Religious Education (SRE) is offered in primary and secondary public schools for at least 30 minutes a week. Students are able to opt-out of the classes and Ethics is offered as an alternative wherever instructors are available.

Jack Galvin-Waight from the NSW Teachers Federation was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying they will “start a campaign to amend the 1990 Education Act in regards to the removal of mandatory SRE.”

“For years members have been raising concerns about what is being taught to students in SRE, the quality of the instructors who are not approved by the department, and the antiquated departmental policy that prevents students not participating in scripture from participating in academic instruction or formal school activities,” Mr Galvin-Waight was reported as saying.

However, a study of SRE released at the 2018 Parliamentary Celebration of SRE, found that SRE contributed to students’ wellbeing and was “an important part of the rich tapestry of contemporary Australian life.”

The Study of SRE and its Value to Contemporary Society was co-authored by Associate Professor Zehavit Gross at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and Sydney University’s Professor Emerita, Suzanne Rutland.

The review stated that SRE provided, “an effective values education that empowers student decision making, fosters student action and assigns real student responsibility.”

It also found SRE strengthened the “multicultural fabric” of Australian schools, provided “important psychological benefits to students’ health and wellbeing,” and created “safe places for students to explore deeper questions of identity.”

NSW Minister for Education, Rob Stokes, presents an award to a HSC High Achiever in 2018. Mr Stokes said religion classes in public schools contribute to Australia’s diverse culture. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

The NSW Government’s Independent Review of SRE states, “The NSW Government, through legislation and related policy, recognises the diversity of Australian society and supports parental choice in educating children about their faith.”

Late last year the NSW Minister for Education, Rob Stokes, praised religion classes in public schools saying, “In other societies, there is an Orwellian tone of ‘freedom from religion’ where any celebration of any religion is prohibited.

“So, isn’t it wonderful that in this country we have the freedom to celebrate religious diversity … isn’t it wonderful that SRE offers us some concrete truths that we can teach our young people?” he continued.

“To create a moral citizenry, people who actually don’t just care about themselves but care about one another; surely, that has to be one of the objects of education. They need instruction not just in academic pursuits, not just in sporting pursuits, but also in emotional and spiritual wellbeing.”

Sydney media reported that in response to the Federation’s concerns about students being enrolled in religions classes without parental consent under previous departments, the NSW Department of Education will send a letter to parents, alerting them to all scripture and ethics classes offered at their children’s schools.