Change to enrolment form hurting ethics classes, volunteers say

DILEMMA: An ethics class at Merewether Public School. Picture: Dean Osland.
DILEMMA: An ethics class at Merewether Public School. Picture: Dean Osland.

A CHANGE to the school enrolment form that removes a clear choice between ethics and scripture has held back enrolments in Hunter ethics classes, volunteers say.

Medowie Public School ethics coordinator Bobbie Antonic said the new enrolment form had coincided with her school’s kindergarten class shrinking from 19 last year to its current size of eight.

“My class for kindy this year has plummeted, and it’s the new enrolment form coming in,” Ms Antonic said.

“It has already filtered through.”

Lee Upton, the ethics coordinator at New Lambton South Public School, said the “administrative drain” associated with the change of form had delayed the school’s inaugural kindergarten ethics class.

“We’re ready to go, but because of this administrative process we’re now waiting for students to opt out of scripture before we can proceed,” Ms Upton said.

“We’re now in week five of the term, and it will be at least another week before we can get the ball rolling.”

The previous form provided a box that parents could tick to enrol their children in ethics classes.

The new form has no such box and advises parents of children who don’t attend scripture to contact their school about information on alternatives, including ethics.

The change to the form was revealed last year to uproar from ethics advocates.

Critics see it as a concession by NSW Premier Mike Baird to the Christian Democratic Party MP Fred Nile, whose vote the government has relied on to pass key legislation.

Alisa Kelley, general manager of the charity and ethics class provider Primary Ethics, said parents faced significant new hurdles to finding out about the classes.

“If your child is in scripture, you are not allowed to know ethics is an option,” Ms Kelley said.

“We are not allowed to promote to anyone who hasn’t already opted out of scripture.”

Of the change to the form, a Department of Education spokesman said, “the school enrolment form lists both [scripture] and [ethics] classes as options for students”.

If a parent leaves their child’s religion blanks on the form, the spokesman said, they are not automatically enrolled in scripture classes and the school will contact the parent to clarify their preferences.

Parents who choose not to send their children to scripture are told they can contact the school to ask about ethics, the spokesman said.

More than 1300 students participate in ethics classes in 32 schools across the Hunter, with an estimated 530 more ready to enrol.

Sue Sneddon, the Newcastle-based executive officer of the Inter-Church Commission on Special Religious Education in Schools, said her organisation did not keep numbers on scripture class enrolments.

Ms Sneddon reiterated the Inter-Church Commission’s stance of “commending” NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli for removing the “confusion for parents” that she said the previous enrolment form had caused.

Ethics classes were introduced in NSW primary schools in 2010, and are taught based on a curriculum designed by the academic Sue Knight.

They are legislated to run at the same time as scripture classes.

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