Give Parents Choice on Ethics Classes

Today we called on the Liberal Government to stop pushing religious education onto our kids and to make parents aware of all alternative options available, including ethics classes. 


Ms JENNY LEONG (Newtown) [12.38 p.m.]: People in the Newtown electorate are extremely passionate about education, particularly public education, and want to ensure that their children's education aligns with their values. A joke in the Daily Telegraph is that the Newtown electorate is a "godless lot". It is correct as we have the highest proportion in the census of people who marked the box "no religion". That is why it is so important in the Newtown electorate that many parents who choose to send their children to our public schools and nominate to have their children participate in ethics classes, rather than be taught Christianity via special religious education, have that choice. Recently, a number of concerned parents have contacted my office about reports of a deal done between Fred Nile's Christian Democratic Party and the Baird Government to remove from primary school enrolment forms information about the option for children to opt out of special religious education classes and instead attend ethics classes. One parent wrote:

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to support the parents and children in your own electorate and act against this shocking deal … all parents have a right to know about all options that are available for their children at school: SRE (special religious education), ethics classes and supervised activities. Without this information, parents cannot make an informed decision about where to send their children during this time.

That parent really gets to the heart of the matter. Freedom of religion, expression and association means that people are able to make an informed choice. This deal potentially removes transparency and removes that choice for parents with children at public schools. The rules currently say that special religious education in New South Wales may include any religion, but in practice that is not the case. In practice, the classes favour a certain Christian agenda. An example of this open-door access to children and young people has been brought to light by parents involved in an excellent campaign via the Fairness in Religions in School website. The site gives examples of the types of lessons to which children are exposed. One lesson involves children being provided with coloured beads on a bracelet. I have an example of the lesson plan here. The beads remind children of values by which to live their lives. The lesson plan explains the symbolism of the black bead as follows:

Mankind disobeyed God, which is sin. Darkness entered the world and things weren't perfect anymore.

This is a lesson being taught in our public education system. The red bead teaches children that God fixes all problems. In the electorate of Newtown, coloured beads or rainbow flags usually have a different meaning—that is, the celebration of diversity and acceptance of difference. Unfortunately, that is not what is delivered in religious education lessons. Last week in Victoria the Government took a strong and positive step to remove religious education from the public school curriculum. There is a place in our community to teach people about religion and religious beliefs, but it is not in the curriculum. The curriculum should teach the importance of understanding various religions rather than proselytising a certain religious belief.

In a world where one woman a week is killed by domestic violence, where one in three women have experienced sexual or physical violence at the hands of a partner and where suicide is the leading cause of death among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex [LGBTI] people aged between 10 and 24, we should learn a lesson from the curriculum change in Victoria. We should use the time that was previously allotted to special religious education to teach children about domestic violence and creating healthy relationships. We in New South Wales should take inspiration from the Victorian example to ensure that public education teaches children and young people about respectful relationships and about the intersections between history, culture, religion, faith and ethics.

We need to recognise the damaging effect that poorly conceived education can have on young people who are questioning their gender. We should not limit the rights of parents to determine how their children are taught in the public education system by hiding behind closed doors any deals done on religious education. As one teacher recently said at the National Safe Schools Symposium held at the University of Sydney:

We want our school to reflect the world we want to live in. We want a world that accepts the diversity amongst us.


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