NSW Government accused of favouring faith in school scripture debate | poll

EDUCATION Minister Rob Stokes has declined to comment after questions about his department’s response to a critical report into scripture material authorised by Sydney Anglican diocese, and used across NSW public schools including in the Hunter region.

Mr Stokes declined to say if the department responded appropriately after a Queensland Department of Education report in August found some “Connect” scripture material, produced by a Sydney diocese-linked evangelical youth group, was consistent with “possible grooming behaviour”.

This was despite the Newcastle Herald advising Mr Stokes’s office that his department had not answered questions about whether it contacted Sydney Anglican diocese, which authorises the material, or raised the issue with the then Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, or issued a directive to NSW principals, who have a duty of care to children in their schools, and after evidence some principals may be unaware scripture material is not approved or vetted by the department.

The department also did not respond to questions about whether it suspended use of the “Connect” material, pending a response from Sydney Anglican diocese or its scripture producer Youthworks, after the Queensland report found the material contained “some content that may encourage undesirable child safe behaviours”.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said it was “clear the Government is bunkering down and hoping concern about school scripture blows over”, but there were serious concerns about the current system.

They include that scripture providers authorise their own material and provide annual assurances to the department that they “have in place processes that satisfy the requirements for teaching SRE in NSW Government schools”, but where the department and minister have no power to approve material.

It is clear the Government is bunkering down and hoping concern about school scripture blows over. - NSW Greens justice spokesperson David Shoebridge

Concerns also include that children are placed in scripture classes as a default position where parents do not state in writing that they do not want their children to attend scripture classes.   

“Keeping children safe must be the number one priority in our schools, not pandering to extreme religious views,” Mr Shoebridge said.

He called on Mr Stokes to release the $300,000 NSW report into Special Religious Education and Special Ethics Education which was completed more than 12 months ago but is still to be released to the public.

“The NSW Government has kept the review of scripture classes secret for more than 12 months while pretending to work out what to do with it. This is simply not good enough,” Mr Shoebridge said. 

“The NSW Government needs to listen to the justified concerns about these programs, rather than any conservative religious elements within their own cabinet.”

The Queensland Department of Education review in August recommended removing a lesson for children aged 10-12, which suggested scripture teachers “bring in a dead animal to dissect”.

The review found other lessons had the potential to be upsetting, inappropriate or likely to affect the social and emotional wellbeing of children, including a lesson for children aged 7-9 about a man born blind, which asked: “Was it a punishment from God because his parents or someone else had done something wrong?”

The material also included a lesson requiring children aged 7-9 to list ways to “get rid of” a person, after a Bible story about people “getting rid of” Daniel, and a concluding prayer where children “pray that we may not be like the Israelites”.

The review noted “Connect producer”, the Sydney-based Anglican Youthworks, amended lessons about Indigenous children and children with disabilities after community anger that scripture teachers were told “SRE, a barbecue and an afternoon’s sport would be the most pleasurable experience Aboriginal Primary students could imagine”. Scripture teachers were also reminded not to see children with disabilities as “unintelligent”.

In September Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) wrote to the NSW Department of Education with questions about how it was responding to the Queensland report.

The department replied in December, thanking FIRIS for sending a copy of the Queensland report, noting it took its duty of care to children seriously, but not responding to specific questions and referring the group to its Special Religious Education policies.

FIRIS spokesman Darrin Morgan said the “risk management of the issues identified in the ‘Connect’ review required robust policies and procedures to ensure parents make an informed choice to expose their children to its content’.”

“Over the last three years of correspondence, the Department of Education has made it clear that it is not interested in risk managing Special Religious Education at a systems level. In fact, it seems that it has acted in the interests of SRE pressure and made policies and procedures weaker,” Mr Morgan said.

In response to an earlier Herald article Youthworks said all “inconsistent” lesson material identified in the Queensland review had been amended to the standard required by the Queensland Department of Education.

“The changes required by Education Queensland have also been applied to our material sold in NSW, and our teachers are being trained to use the new material accordingly,” the statement said.

The NSW Department of Education said it was the responsibility of SRE approved providers to authorise scripture material, provide an annual assurance to the department that authorised teachers were only using authorised material, to make information about lesson content accessible on a website and provide information about lessons when requested by parents or principals.

“The department takes its duty of care to students seriously. If an allegation is made against a person providing religious education in a government school, it will be investigated with any reasonable action taken to protect students from any foreseeable harm,” a department spokesperson said.

“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, in an age appropriate manner and that authorised teachers are only using materials and pedagogy authorised by the provider.

“Principals and parents can ask for full details of SRE materials used by providers and providers are expected to provide these details. Any issues regarding refusal to provide materials should be referred to the department.”

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