Robyn Bernstein, with her sons Ed and Kai Hall, questions why Special Religious Education should be held in class time. Photo: Steven SiewertA parent group that successfully ousted church-run classes from public school class time in Victoria has turned its focus to NSW, but this time they are campaigning to get religion off public school premises altogether.
The Fairness in Religion in Schools group claimed victory in Victoria in 2015 when the state’s Minister for Education James Merlino announced that Special Religious Instruction was to be pushed out of school hours from 2016 and treated as an after-school elective.
It was replaced with an in-school class about the major religions, secular humanism and ethics, taught by class teachers.
Now the group is targeting NSW, where Special Religious Education (SRE) is delivered in class time by religious groups unless parents opt their child out.
Catherine Walsh from the Fairness in Religion in Schools group, a mother of three children at inner west Sydney high schools, said she was shocked when she found out SRE classes were not run or regulated by the Department of Education, despite their presence in the enrolment paperwork.
She accused the department of negligently suspending its duty of care for children during the time they spend in SRE.
“I believe that any program which requires the suspension of the department’s own policy and curriculum should not operate in public schools. To do so is to risk children’s protection and the department’s duty of care,” Ms Walsh said.
Ms Walsh alleges SRE is in breach of the department’s Controversial Issues in Schools policy which prevents teachers or visitors from using schools to recruit students into partisan groups, among other things.
A spokesman for the department said religious education was part of the Education Act and said the policy did not apply to SRE teachers.
He also said the department kept no central record on the number of students or schools that participated in SRE; and confirmed it did not authorise or oversee the material taught. Religious providers authorise their own content and self-certify once a year that they are teaching with appropriate materials.
“The department takes its duty of care to students seriously,” he said.
Robyn Bernstein, who has a child at Sydney Secondary College, said she objected to religious groups of any persuasion having influence over public school curriculum and timetables and access to students.
“Why should SRE be in class time?” she said. “There are hundreds of kids who participate in the school’s extra-curricular music and sports programs, which stay well clear of school hours.”
FIRIS is also concerned by a 2016 Queensland government review of the “Connect” materials used by several Christian faith groups to teach SRE, which found it contained inappropriate material that should be removed, “including content that may encourage undesirable child safe behaviours, such as the keeping and intentional hiding of secrets and the formation of ‘special friendships’ with adults.”
The Anglican Diocese is one of the largest providers of Christian SRE, and the Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, is responsible for authorising Anglican SRE content in NSW including “Connect”.
He confirmed the “Connect” material had been changed as recommended across all states after the Queensland review, and defended the importance of SRE in public schools, saying religious education taught by a person of faith was a key part of helping children understand religion.
“We’re in a multi-religious country and atheism is a very small part,” he said.
“We don’t proselytise in religious education. That’s the accusation but that is not true. We present a history of the Bible, which is a very significant literary document in our culture.
“For the vast majority of parents who want their children in SRE it gives them the opportunity to have a broader education.”
FIRIS describes itself a grassroots parents group, with 3000 Facebook followers. It argues that education about religion in public schools should instead be delivered by department teachers using materials developed by the department.
On February 8 it launched a modest crowdfunding campaign to fund brochures and outdoor banners, which was more than 50 per cent subscribed two days later.
The FIRIS group has been given a boost in its NSW campaign by inner west parents displeased by the expansion of SRE into the inner city Sydney Secondary College for the first time this year; and a contentious change of timetable that put SRE in the middle of the day at Fort Street in Petersham last year.
Fairfax Media has spoken to parents at both schools who are irritated about the timetable change apparently forced by SRE.
Hilary Bell, who has two children at Fort Street and is not connected with FIRIS, said she was told by the SRE provider in a phone call last year that there were eight students enrolled, out of a school population of 900.
Under department policy, students not enrolled in SRE can not have any other classes while SRE is on. This meant hundreds of Fort Street students were wasting time while just eight received SRE classes. (Enrolment may have increased this year.)
“They’re sitting there doing nothing. They’re supposed to be studying. Whenever you bring this up, people just shrug and say it’s the law, what can we do? I believe the law should change,” Ms Bell said.
SRE is a politically contentious area of education policy.
Under former education minister Adrian Piccoli the department’s primary school enrolment form was changed, so that parents marking a religion on the enrolment form would have their children automatically enrolled into SRE, without any advice being given about the alternative secular ethics program available in some schools.
In high school, where there is no ethics option, parents must pro-actively opt out of SRE if they don’t want their children to participate.
Then premier Mike Baird was forced to deny there had been a deal on the enrolment form changes done with the Christian Democrat MLC Reverend Fred Nile to secure passage of government legislation in the upper house.