THERE are more than 100 faith organisations providing special religious education, or what is more commonly known as scripture, in NSW public schools.
The majority are Christian, but Jewish, Hindu, Islam, Buddhist, Baha’i, Sikh and Vedic is also taught at some schools.
In 2015 the NSW Department of Education commissioned a $300,000 taxpayer-funded review of special religious education and special ethics education after controversy following its decision to change enrolment forms so that parents had to opt their children out of scripture. This followed a brief period when parents had to opt their children into scripture, which sent scripture numbers across the state crashing, and Christian scripture providers appealing to the NSW Government.
The ARTD Consulting review had a December, 2015 deadline, but it controversially remained with the Department of Education and NSW Government until its release on Tuesday.
The review contents, and the Department of Education’s rejection of all recommendations of substance, make it plain why the department sat on this for so long. The findings highlight serious issues with transparency, provider accountability, compliance monitoring by the department, parental choice and availability of information, the quality of what is taught and the amount of trust the department relies on when it comes to scripture providers in a self-regulating environment.
The department’s wholesale rejection of major recommendations reminds us what a politicised field scripture in state schools has become, only weeks after respected former Newcastle principal John Beach described it as “a can of worms” for principals because “you can’t say no to the scripture people”.
The department’s rejection of one recommendation – that secondary school students opting out of scripture should be able to do regular classwork while scripture lessons are held – is particularly troubling after the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council expressed “serious concern” that the choice of a minority of students denied the opportunity for learning for others.
In a statement the department noted the framework underpinning scripture dated back to 1848. The ARTD review supports more modern concepts of transparency, accountability and parental choice. The department needs to get with the times.