Churches should welcome ethics classes
Howard Packer explains the pilot of ethics classes in government schools and attempts to allay the fears of those who see it as an attack on special religious education.
The ten-week pilot of an ethics-based complement to scripture in ten New South Wales primary schools has created a lot of controversy within churches and the media.
For the last 18 months I have been involved in lobbying for and implementing the pilot.
I am an active member of the Uniting Church and president of the P&C of Rozelle Public School, one of the schools conducting the ethics pilot, with 63 students in years 5 and 6 participating.
In my spare time I am a barrister working in the areas of criminal and children’s and family law.
I also have been trying to improve Sunday school teaching within my local congregation, particularly for the older children, for whom craft is increasingly not an attractive option.
Provision of religious education in New South Wales primary schools is based on an agreement between the church and state dating back to the mid-19th century.
When the state took over public education — previously the domain of the church — it agreed to reserve an hour a week for special religious education (SRE).
Undoubtedly, a majority of parents would have approved of this at the time. In 1901 census figures revealed only 0.4 per cent of the Australian population identified themselves as having no religion. At the last census (2006), however, that number had grown to 18.7 per cent.
While the number of students who do not attend scripture is not officially recorded, anecdotal reports suggest as many as 25 per cent of children enrolled in New South Wales primary school are sitting idle for that period every week. Much higher incidences are reported in some schools.
The shift to a more secular society, and the related increase in children opting out of scripture, makes the need to provide a viable complement to scripture all the more pressing.
For the last three years of my P&C presidency, the issue that has been raised more often by parents than any other is why their child, who they did not wish to attend scripture, cannot do something meaningful during the time set aside for scripture.
New South Wales Department of Education policy prohibits children not attending scripture from receiving any formal instruction during this period and specifically not in the area of “ethics, values, civics and general religious education”.
I regard New South Wales Department of Education policy as unfair; all children ought to be entitled to ethical exploration and its associated benefits, regardless of their parents’ religious persuasion.
Contemporary research has empirically linked the opportunity to explore purpose, meaning and virtues with vital youth mental health. By denying this to any children we are denying them an opportunity to contribute to their own wellbeing and, by extension, that of the community.
The research confirms what I have seen anecdotally through my work in the criminal justice and family law systems when dealing with young people in crisis.
It is important to remember that for primary school aged children the decision as to whether they attend scripture classes or not is usually made for them by their parents. While children who, like mine, attend scripture receive the ethics and values fundamental to Christian faith, those children whose parents opt them out of scripture miss out.
The ethics pilot is designed to engage students in ethical inquiry rather than to offer them ethical instruction. The treatment of the subject matter is intended to stimulate students to explore ethical issues through dialogue and discussion.
Participating students are involved in building a collaborative and inquiring community.
Here is an example of a topic covered in the pilot:
Fairness. This activity asks students in groups to judge whether a scenario is fair or not fair.
- No-one would own up to having broken the classroom window, so the whole class was made to clean up the schoolyard.
- Although Robert worked very hard at school, he nearly always received very poor marks.
- Naomi found some money in the playground and handed it to the teacher. As no-one came to collect the money, the teacher let Naomi keep it.
- Bethany knew who had broken the classroom window, but she wouldn’t tell. So the teacher punished her.
- Jackson pulled the cat’s tail, and the cat scratched him.
- Maria stole something from you, and so you steal something from her.
- Since Sally’s brother is older than she is, he is allowed to stay up later than her.
- Lola writes wonderful stories without even trying. She won the school writing prize.
When the group presents its findings, and during the discussion, the teacher distils any criteria that are being used to make judgments as to why what happened in the scenario was fair or not fair. The discussion ends with a list of considered criteria for what makes something fair or not.
Other topics covered include if it is ever okay to tell a lie and the use of animals in medical research or sport (foxhunting, bullfighting).
Parents at Rozelle are already reporting lively discussions around the dinner table following on from the Thursday Ethics classes taught by volunteer parents.
A client of mine, whose daughter attends another school involved in the pilot, told me his daughter has said that the two classes she attended had helped her better understand what her parents were going through in their divorce proceedings — she understands that things are not always black and white.
To me the types of questions asked and the methods used seem very similar to those in Jesus’ stories.
Jesus’ parables were not arguments or explanations. They did not seek to persuade. Rather, the stories are scandalous or contain a joke that arrests the listeners and calls attention to how unsatisfactory their own worldviews are and shocks the hearers into fresh and independent thought.
I see no reason why children who are stimulated by this course, as they gain more control over their lives, would not want to explore the ethical understandings they have gained in a faith-based context.
The New South Wales Department of Education will be employing the services of an independent assessor to evaluate the course and the operational arrangements supporting it.
Students, parents, ethics “teachers” and school principals will be asked to respond to questionnaires as a part of the pilot project.
I do not think the church has anything to fear from this project. Indeed, it should welcome it.
I hope that the polarisation of views encouraged by the media on this issue will become a dialogue for the benefit of all our children.
Howard Packer is a member of Balmain Uniting Church, a member of the UnitingCare NSW.ACT Board, is Synod Advocate and was the Bible study leader at the 2008 Synod meeting.