Crusade Against Ethics

In what appears to be a concerted effort to keep its hallowed patch in the NSW education curriculum, the forces of the Anglican and Catholic Churches and the NSW Christian Democratic Party are using their influence to scuttle a planned trial of ethics teaching in NSW schools.

The initial plan is to implement ethics teaching classes as an alternative to scripture lessons. The trial is marked for years five and six students in just ten state primary schools for a two-term period only. Even so, this ‘toe in the water’ approach would be the first time in more than 100 years that the NSW state government had approved the teaching of ethics in schools as an alternative to religious education. The program has been developed by the St James Ethics Centre and supported by the Federation of Parents & Citizens Associations.

But that support is not shared by the religious establishment in the state, which has lobbied Education Minister Verity Firth to at least reconsider the plan, if not cancel it altogether.

And rather than an argument based around religious principles, this has obviously become an issue of ‘market share’. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that “Catholic Church representatives have met with Department of Education officials to express concern that the enrolments for religion classes might drop as a result of the ethics classes.”

The plan was initially approved by previous State Premier Nathan Rees shortly before his ousting in favour of current Premier Kristina Keneally. Keneally is a self-declared ‘Catholic feminist’ and was the president of students at American Catholic Universities.

She has reportedly been the subject of particularly strong lobbying from Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, who suggested, according to the Herald, that “the permanent introduction of secular ethics classes in public schools … would jeopardise the future of religious education”.

The Herald further reports that Minister Firth is “refusing to guarantee [the] trial for secular ethics classes will start [this coming] week in state primary schools as expected, after a flurry of complaints from religious leaders. A spokeswoman for the NSW Minister for Education … said getting the curriculum right was ‘more important than the timing of the trial’.”

Meanwhile, the Rev Fred Nile, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, said (again, according to the Herald) that “the trial should be postponed pending further consultations with all church leaders. He said the trial was being advertised for all children in the trial schools in direct competition with the legal approved scripture classes, contradicting earlier assurances the classes were only for children opting out of scripture classes.”

This campaign has been in the wake of some extremely vitriolic Easter sermons by Jensen and Catholic Cardinal Pell against the rise of atheism.

It is the policy of the state Education Department that children who opt out of scripture classes are not permitted to be taught anything in that period because it would give them a learning ‘differentiation’, even an advantage, over those who attended scripture. In reality, this means those students are largely herded into single classrooms to spend their time reading, doing homework or watching movies. (The son of the author of this piece has reportedly watched Mary Poppins a number of times in the class.)

One (unverified) report suggested that a child in a state school, who was the only non-scripture student in kindergarten, was forced to sit alone outside of the classroom where scripture was being taught.

According to the trial plan, these unstructured periods are to be replaced with teaching and discussion of such topics as ethics, truth and responsibility. Phil Cam, an associate professor of history and philosophy at the University of NSW who developed the ethics curriculum, said the classes were not intended to undermine religious education. “It’s really designed as something rather than nothing for kids who are at the moment getting nothing. The aim is for kids to learn to bring evidence and reason to bear in their thinking about ethical matters.”

Archbishop Jensen was quoted as saying that it was not easy to be heard in the debate about the trial, in part because of “’countervailing forces that may be less scrupulous in putting their case”.

Perhaps being unconsciously ironic, he wrote in the Anglican newspaper Southern Cross that “Without such a religious component, public schools will cease to be inclusive of all children.”

Ethics should not be offered as an alternative to the Bible, he said.