THE NSW Teachers Federation will campaign to remove scripture from NSW public schools after criticising “antiquated” policy that leaves thousands of students unable to do formal school activities if they opt out of scripture classes.
Recent changes including removing special religious education (SRE) from school enrolment forms were a step in the right direction, but the “key principles” of free and secular public education were challenged by Department of Education policy on SRE and Education Act SRE requirements, the federation council said.
It follows federation confirmation that under previous department policies children were enrolled in scripture without parents’ written consent or knowledge.
“Federation’s policy is that NSW public schools must be completely secular in order to provide for students from diverse cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds,” said federation SRE and special ethics education (SEE) delegate, Jack Galvin Waight, after the federation council decision in late 2018.
“For years members have been raising concerns about what is being taught to students in SRE, the quality of the instructors who are not approved by the department, and the antiquated departmental policy that prevents students not participating in scripture from participating in academic instruction or formal school activities,” Mr Galvin Waight said.
“Federation asserts that all education, religious or not, should be done in line with an approved curriculum and by a qualified teacher, and will start a campaign to amend the 1990 Education Act in regards to the removal of mandatory SRE.
For years members have been raising concerns about what is being taught to students in SRE (special religious education or scripture).NSW Teachers Federation Newcastle member Jack Galvin Waight.
“Requiring time be made available for SRE takes away the opportunity for teaching time, professional learning and extracurricular activities from an already crowded curriculum and school day.”
The council decision was moved by Newcastle Teachers Association and voted on by about 300 elected delegates representing about 70,000 NSW public school teachers.
The decision was made as the NSW Secondary Principals Council told a NSW Government curriculum review in December that scripture should be scrapped because it is taking up valuable time for high school students that should be spent on learning.
Because SRE is mandatory for 40 minutes per week where students opt to take it, and ethics is not offered in high schools, students who opt out of scripture are not allowed to do any meaningful activity during that period.
“With the issue around the crowded curriculum, it’s one of those things that’s in there chewing up time,” said Secondary Principals Council president Chris Presland.
“It’s hugely inconvenient in the secondary system. At the majority of secondary schools, the participation in religious education is minimal.”
In a statement on Wednesday Mr Galvin Waight said it was Teachers Federation policy that all education in public schools should be by qualified teachers using an approved curriculum.
The federation is concerned that churches, and not the Department of Education, authorise scripture material and instructors, Mr Galvin Waight said.
In 2017 retired Newcastle East Primary School principal John Beach warned that scripture was “such a can of worms” for public school principals that they avoided “seriously looking into it because they don’t want to be enmeshed in controversy”.
“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 tend towards zealotry.
The NSW Teachers Federation pushed for changes after the NSW Government withheld a scripture review for 18 months until April, 2017 and rejected key recommendations, including allowing students who opt out of scripture to do regular school work.
The Department will send a generic letter to parents about all scripture and ethics options available at their school after the federation pushed to have scripture removed from enrolment forms.
“Parents will receive much clearer information about the options for their children – most notably, the ability to choose ethics and to opt out of SRE,” Mr Galvin Waight said.
“These changes should also result in a much clearer process for schools, greater transparency and accountability for the SRE providers and more clear and fair options for parents.”
A new department fact sheet makes clear no child can be enrolled in SRE without written consent from their parent or care giver, and if a student starts school before the parents’ letter is returned they are to take part in “alternative meaningful activities” rather than scripture as the default option.
“This has been an issue and it is now explicitly clear in department documents this should not occur,” Mr Galvin Waight said.
The federation has advised members that if schools or scripture providers are not adhering to the new policies and procedures they should contact their local federation representative.
Read more: Critical thinking and ethics classes
“Federation will continue to pursue with the department to put the best interest of our students first, and will consult with members, to look at how changes or the removal of SRE can be best accommodated in our school system,” Mr Galvin Wright said.
He acknowledged the work of the group Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) for holding the Department of Education to account over the administration of government SRE policies.
FIRIS spokesperson Darrin Morgan said his group believed all instruction in NSW schools should be by qualified teachers.
“We want the churches out. If there’s a study of religion we would support an objective and neutral course on world religions and beliefs, taught by professional educators,” Mr Morgan said.
“Of course we support professional educators in taking the stance they have on scripture in NSW public schools.”
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