NSW principals concerned about scripture consent

Challenge: NSW Greens Justice spokesperson David Shoebridge said he will use the courts, if necessary, to compel the NSW Government to release a review of scripture in NSW schools.
Challenge: NSW Greens Justice spokesperson David Shoebridge said he will use the courts, if necessary, to compel the NSW Government to release a review of scripture in NSW schools.

A NSW primary school principal removed a Catholic scripture teacher who took a brooch of two little feet into a class to show children “that was the size of an unborn baby’s feet”.

NSW Primary Principals Association president Phil Seymour said it was the only time he was compelled to act against a scripture teacher in 19 years as a principal, and the church responded.

But Mr Seymour and association treasurer Rob Walker expressed concern about whether parents had enough information to give informed consent to their children attending scripture in NSW public schools, and whether all principals knew scripture material was not approved or vetted by the Department of Education.

Mr Seymour said he had not been aware the education minister does not have the power to control scripture material under the Education Act, and the news came as a “surprise”. 

Mr Walker, who is the association representative on a NSW Department of Education consultative committee on scripture and ethics, said he would raise the question of whether a disclaimer was needed on enrolment forms with the department.

“Parents may well form the view they’re signing a Department of Education form giving permission for their children to attend scripture and as a consequence their understanding is that the content of the scripture lesson is endorsed, approved and vetted by the department, and that’s not the case,” Mr Walker said.

The disclaimer could take the form of parents acknowledging that in giving permission for children to attend scripture, they were aware the material was approved by the scripture provider and not the department, he said.

In NSW a large percentage of scripture material is provided by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney’s Youthworks, and is based on evangelical Christian teachings including that the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, is historic fact.

The Youthworks Connect scripture material was the subject of a Queensland Department of Education review which raised serious concerns about lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour”, and attitudes to people with disabilities, women and Indigenous people.

On Tuesday Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Bill Wright authorised a statement saying the Connect material was not used in the diocese. Newcastle Anglican Bishop Peter Stuart said he was “troubled” by issues raised in the Queensland report and the material was being reviewed.

In a statement on Thursday NSW Greens Justice spokesperson David Shoebridge repeated his call for scripture in NSW schools to be immediately suspended pending release of the $300,000 review into scripture, which was completed more than 12 months ago. 

“The NSW Education Department must release the comprehensive report they have undertaken into special religious education in NSW, following the public release of the comparable report in Queensland,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“The Queensland review shows that the unvetted material used in NSW scripture classes encourages behaviour that put children at risk of sexual abuse, such as having special relationships with adults and keeping secrets.

“Given the ongoing risks to children we will be demanding its public release, through freedom of information, parliament and if necessary the courts. Until it is released, scripture should be suspended.

“It’s time for the NSW Government to listen to the justified concerns about these programs, rather than any conservative religious elements within their own cabinet.

“We are calling on Rob Stokes as the new Education Minister to urgently suspend scripture classes in public schools,” Mr Shoebridge said.

Darrin Morgan from Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) said the lack of ministerial oversight of scripture material and whether parents had enough information to make informed consent were risk management issues for the Department of Education to consider.

“Over the last three years of correspondence with FIRIS as we’ve raised these issues, the Department of Education has made it clear that it is not interested in risk managing Special Religious Education at a systems level,” Mr Morgan said.

“In fact, it seems that it has acted in the interests of SRE pressure and made policies and procedures weaker.”

In complaints about proselytising (attempting to convert someone) by scripture teachers in NSW schools the department has told FIRIS that principals are responsible for the implementation of the department’s religious policy in schools.

“If a parent/caregiver or community member believes an SRE provider or volunteer is proselytising as part of SRE, ten a complaint should be made to the principal,” the department said in one response.

Mr Morgan accused the department of “dumping responsibility” for dealing with scripture issues on to principals “without providing them with clear and robust procedures to assist them to ensure they fulfil their duty of care responsibilities to all students”.

“The department is also making parents use a reactive and frustrating complaints process,” he said.

In a statement on Monday the department said it took its duty of care to students seriously.

“If an allegation is made against a person providing SRE in a government school, it will be investigated with reasonable action taken to protect students from foreseeable risk of harm,” the department said.

“Parents/caregivers seeking information about lesson content for their child’s SRE class, or prospective SRE class, should contact the relevant provider of SRE.

“Approved providers of SRE submit a written assurance to the department stating that they have in place processes that satisfy the requirements for teaching SRE in NSW Government schools. This includes an assurance that SRE teachers are teaching the curriculum with sensitivity and in an age appropriate manner.”