NEW Lambton Heights Infants School children will be among the first kindergarten students in NSW to study ethics from the start of third term in July.
The five- and six-year-olds will be some of the state’s youngest children to consider ethical questions, including ‘‘Should we tell on people who do the wrong thing?’’, ‘‘What are secrets, and when is it OK to tell them?’’ and ‘‘Do rules apply to everyone?’’
They will be part of a small group using a new curriculum designed to introduce very young children to the study of ethics, in what school principal Greg Culhane described as ‘‘a nice, gentle thinking process the children go through on very basic topics they can understand’’.
The kindergarten ethics classes come just three years after a lengthy dispute between parents and church groups about religious instruction in NSW public schools. It ended in December 2010 with legislation confirming the right of parents to have ethics in state schools as an alternative to religion classes.
Primary Ethics chief executive Teresa Russell said ethics in kindergarten classes was a significant step for her organisation, which was working to have ethics classes in about 800 NSW public schools.
Primary Ethics was established by the St James Ethics Centre, and is responsible for training and co-ordinating ethics classes in NSW.
‘‘Primary Ethics has been going for three years, and we now have 1400 volunteers teaching ethics to 17,000 children a week at nearly 300 schools, so it’s been quite an achievement,’’ Ms Russell said.
So far 77 trained volunteers in 26 schools in the Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and Nelson Bay areas have overseen ethics classes for students from years 1 to 6.
While classes have spread rapidly along the coastal strip, they are yet to make their mark in the central and upper Hunter.
Singleton Public School became the first central Hunter school to establish ethics classes as an alternative to religious instruction, after launching the classes last term. In the Department of Education’s Maitland region, only Medowie and Shoal Bay schools have ethics classes.
Mr Culhane said the Primary Ethics curriculum, which is approved by the NSW Department of Education, ‘‘fitted in very well with us because we are a PBL [positive behaviour learning] school’’.
‘‘It’s about really thinking how you interact with the people around you, in your community and in the world around you,’’ Mr Culhane said.
‘‘I’m confident it’s going to be very beneficial for the children.’’
The ‘‘lovely little school on the hill’’ has 84 students. About half the students attend scripture classes and half have opted for ethics classes.
‘‘This is my fifth year here and I’ve noticed the group taking part in non-scripture classes has been growing, probably reflecting shifts in the wider community.’’
Ms Russell said the introduction of ethics classes in schools occurred because of parental engagement.
Public schools without ethics classes are still required to provide ‘‘passive non-scripture’’ alternatives during religious instruction classes, for children whose parents do not want them to attend religious classes.
In some schools children watch videos during ‘‘passive non-scripture’’ classes.
The Primary Ethics curriculum includes discussion about being an ethical consumer, fairness and lying, with a typical question: ‘‘Is it OK to take drugs in sport even if you know you’re not going to get caught?’’
‘‘Kids are thinking about these things anyway, and we just give them a framework in which they can discuss them,’’ Ms Russell said.
‘‘They’re taught how to disagree respectfully with each other. Research shows teaching children ethical thinking and moral reasoning is something they take through their lives.
‘‘The legislation says that no principal and no education minister can stop ethics classes from starting, but the big issue for us is getting parents to know ethics classes are a possibility for children.’’
CHARLOTTE Poposki is ethics co-ordinator at New Lambton Heights Infants School.
From next term the school’s kindergarten children will discuss why we have rules, when it’s OK to tell secrets, and why we have friends as part of the Primary Ethics curriculum for the state’s youngest school children.
Mrs Poposki initiated ethics classes at her son Vincent’s school because of the 30 minutes each week he did very little while other children attended religious instruction.
These days Vincent, 8, and other children discuss ethics subjects including being kind to animals and each other, and imagining what it would be like to walk in another person’s shoes.
‘‘I instigated ethics classes at our school because I have a friend who’s an ethics teacher at Hamilton School, and she thought the program was fantastic, and the kids were getting a lot out of it,’’ Mrs Poposki said.
‘‘Once people have a look at the website and understand what ethics classes are about, they become enthusiastic. The parents who have become ethics volunteers say they’re constantly amazed at the concepts children discuss.’’
Mrs Poposki said it was a ‘‘very easy rollout’’ at New Lambton Heights Infants School because parents had given enormous support.