Scripture is "a can of worms" for NSW public school principals, says retired Newcastle East principal John Beach

Criticism: Retired Newcastle East Public School principal John Beach says scripture in schools is "a can of worms for principals" because "you can't say no to the scripture people". Picture: Jonathon Carroll.
Criticism: Retired Newcastle East Public School principal John Beach says scripture in schools is "a can of worms for principals" because "you can't say no to the scripture people". Picture: Jonathon Carroll.

SCRIPTURE in NSW public schools is “such a can of worms” for principals that they “avoid seriously looking into it because they don’t want to be enmeshed in controversy”, said just-retired Newcastle East Public School principal John Beach in response to mounting criticism of the NSW Government’s handling of scripture concerns.

“You can’t say no to the scripture people,” Mr Beach said, after describing the Education Act’s guarantee of scripture time in NSW public schools as “legislative insurance” for some groups which tended towards zealotry.

Mr Beach said the government must release a $300,000 review of Special Religious Education (SRE) it has had for more than 12 months, after becoming aware only after his retirement in 2016 that the Department of Education did not approve or vet scripture material.

“I thought the syllabus had to be approved by the department. I’d always understood it was an agreed syllabus that avoided issues like creationism,” Mr Beach said.

He agreed to speak after strong criticism of the NSW Department of Education’s failure to respond to questions about what it did after a Queensland Department of Education review in August of scripture material, used in NSW schools, found material consistent with “possible grooming behaviour”.

The political nature of scripture meant it was “probably regarded as too hot to handle for principals”, he said.

You can’t say no to the scripture people.

Retired Newcastle East Public School principal John Beach

He had never had a child protection complaint involving a scripture volunteer in his 25 years as a principal, but he told two scripture teachers to leave and not return because of statements to young children.

“There were a lot of SRE teachers doing a very good job and there were some shockers,” Mr Beach said.

In one case he was in the room when an elderly SRE volunteer told a class of infants to obey their parents or they would go to hell.

One of the most serious issues was scripture volunteers “in their zealotry straying from scripture material”, Mr Beach said.

He was shocked to realise the Department of Education doesn’t have “clearer supervision over the content that’s being taught” and Education Minister Rob Stokes does not have power, under the Education Act, to approve scripture material.

“There should be more ministerial control over the content that’s being taught,” he said.

Mr Beach said the community had a right to know what was found after a taxpayer-funded $300,000 review of SRE and Special Ethics Education (SEE), which was due for completion in December, 2015. It is currently being considered by Mr Stokes.

“In the interests of clarity and accountability there doesn’t seem to be any good argument to keep it under wraps,” he said.

Mr Beach said he required class teachers to remain with children while scripture was being taught, but he was aware of other principals who did not.

NSW Department of Education religious implementation procedures say class teachers “are not required to attend classes in SRE” but may, “with the agreement of the teacher of SRE or at the request of the principal, assist with behaviour management”.

Mr Beach was a principal in the Riverina and in the Hunter for 25 years, and was Newcastle East Public School principal from 2001 until retirement in 2016.

He said he could understand historically how scripture lessons are within the school timetable but the Education Act limits department power over scripture and “I don’t think it’s reasonable”.

Mr Beach said the introduction of ethics classes in schools was a “good safety valve for issues that had been bubbling along for awhile”.

“Parents were increasingly unhappy about the mixed messages coming out of scripture. They didn’t want their children attending scripture, but they also weren’t happy with the alternative, which was kids having to sit in the corner and not do anything during the scripture time. Ethics provided an outlet.”

While former Education Minister Adrian Piccoli had been a good minister, his changes to school enrolment forms that were “clearly seen to favour the religious groups” was not a good decision, Mr Beach said.

He had always advised parents that having an understanding of religion helped a child, but lessons teaching comparative religion and the development of religions in history, coupled with ethics lessons, would be of more benefit, he said.

He was “not really opposed to kids learning about religions, but it’s the unexamined views of scripture teachers I have a problem with”.

“If I was still a principal I would see it as a can of worms. If you do the wrong thing you’ll have the churches complain about you, and go to the department, or you’ll have parents complaining to you about the SRE. It’s a really narrow path principals have got to walk,” he said.

Mr Stokes declined to respond after he was made aware of Mr Beach’s comments to the Newcastle Herald.