The NSW Government accused of 'sanitising' review of scripture in state schools

THE NSW Government’s review of scripture in public schools deleted a section of a 2015 draft report showing children were exposed to lessons on the conservative Christian concept of “headship” – where women “submit” to their husbands – and negative messages on homosexuality.

The Department of Education released a final report in April, after a 17-month delay, with sections of the draft report that validated scripture opponents’ concerns about the growing and unacknowledged influence of evangelical Christian groups in state schools deleted or paraphrased.

The deleted sections included a primary principal’s difficulty obtaining evidence of working with children clearances from a special religious education (SRE), or scripture provider, and examples of children exposed to messages on gender and homosexuality that breached department guidelines.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge accused the NSW Government of “sanitising” the draft report which was obtained after a freedom of information application.

The draft ARTD Consultants report found an unidentified major Christian publisher’s lesson material taught “the concept of ‘headship’ and that women should submit to their husbands, abstinence only sex education, negative LGBTI messages and that sexual intimacy is only acceptable to God between a married man and woman”.

The Department of Education deleted the sentence and replaced it with the words: “The text also contained messages about sex education, which is not appropriate or the role of SRE”.

Lesson material on "the concept of ‘headship’ and that women should submit to their husbands, abstinence only sex education, negative LGBTI messages and that sexual intimacy is only acceptable to God between a married man and woman".

ARTD Consultants December, 2015 draft report

The department also failed to include the deletion in a schedule of materials sent in response to the freedom of information application, and later explained it as an “unintentional omission”.

The concept of “headship” is most strongly supported in Sydney Anglican Diocese where women cannot be priests, but it divides even Christian groups. Some delegates walked out of a recent evangelical women’s conference in Sydney after a speaker suggested women should submit to men at home, in church and in the workplace where they should consider themselves “helpers” of male colleagues.

The department deleted a section of the draft stating the conservative Sydney Anglican Diocese-backed Generate Ministries “has become a very influential player” in the delivery of secondary school SRE. The organisation was founded by Sydney Anglican Youthworks, Presbyterian Youth NSW, NSW Baptist Churches and Scripture Union NSW.

The department also deleted that “parents (and schools) appear to be largely unaware of the links their high school SRE teacher might have with Generate Ministries”, and that the “influence” of third party groups “such as Generate Ministries on the delivery of SRE is currently unacknowledged”.

It replaced the section with a sentence noting that the roles of boards, committees and “third party groups doing their human resource functions may not always be known or clear to parents”, and without identifying Generate Ministries. 

Generate Ministries is governed by its founding partners, has at least 110 SRE “boards” and received $4 million in government funds in 2016 to provide chaplains in more than 200 NSW schools. Its website values include seeking to “be dependent on God” and “model courageous, entrepreneurial, servant-hearted leadership”. 

The final ARTD Consultants report released in April noted some NSW school principals reported feeling “undue pressure” from a scripture provider, but the Department of Education deleted the draft report’s naming of it as an Anglican provider.

The final report retained a section of the draft showing a large Christian publisher’s workbook in 2015 contained material that was “age-inappropriate and insensitive to children’s welfare”, with “negative passages” including that “cancer is a consequence of our sin and a gift from God” and that “we should die for our faith if necessary”.

The ARTD report found the level of complaints about SRE was low but they were most often about lesson content. Parents were less satisfied than principals and scripture providers that complaints were handled appropriately.

Mr Shoebridge criticised the Department of Education for initially refusing to disclose the deleted sections which showed “distressing details about exactly what goes on behind closed doors in SRE” classes.

The role of the Department of Education is to protect children in its care, not the religious bodies that want to be preaching at them.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge

“The role of the Department of Education is to protect children in its care, not the religious bodies that want to be preaching at them,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“We can now see some of the serious child protection concerns that the department wants to hide, including scripture teachers holding dual roles as school chaplains and the reluctance of some SRE providers to provide working with children clearances.”

Fairness in Religion in Schools spokesperson Darrin Morgan said it was unreasonable to expect a parents’ group to “have to go to the lengths we are going to gain a truthful picture of what is going on during scripture in NSW public schools”.

“Scripture providers and the Department of Education cannot be trusted to do the right thing by students and their parents,” Mr Morgan said.

A NSW Department of Education spokesperson said it provided “general feedback and suggestions to ARTD to improve the accuracy, consistency and readability of the report”, but ARTD made “final editorial decisions”. 

The deleted “headship” section referred to in the draft report related to a 2015 text that is no longer taught in SRE classes, the spokesperson said.

Generate Ministries general manager James Flavin said it was “just a statement of fact” that the organisation was very influential in NSW SRE delivery and he wanted to expand the group’s reach in NSW schools. He did not agree with the view that such an aim was proselytising.  

He said Generate Ministries was working with other faith groups, including a Buddhist and Islamic group, to gain access to NSW high schools, but did not support any processes that placed students in scripture classes by default.

“The last thing we want is kids in classes whose parents don’t want them there,” Mr Flavin said.     

A spokesman for the Sydney Anglican Diocese said the decision to remove the deleted section of the draft relating to “headship” was “correct.

”The deleted section of the report, to which you refer, concerns discussions with the Education Department in 2015, well canvassed in the media at the time, about the appropriateness of some material used in secondary school SRE,” the spokesman said.

“All issues regarding age-appropriateness of the material were resolved with the Department and the Minister, and the Department supported the view of the consultants to omit the relevant section from the final report.”

The NSW Government was criticised in April by groups including the NSW P & C Federation for rejecting key recommendations of the ARTD report, including that the majority of high school students be able to do homework while a minority attend scripture, and that ethics be reinstated on school enrolment forms as an alternative to scripture.

The enrolment form was changed in 2015 after complaints from religious groups and Upper House Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile.