Planning mInister Rob Stokes speaks to the press after a conference on the simplification of urban planning at the Sofitel Wentworth in Sydney on November 25th, 2016. Photo: Brook Mitchell Photo: Brook Mitchell The state government has rejected the recommendations of an independent report into scripture teaching in NSW schools that would have forced providers to track student enrolment numbers and let students who opt out get on with their regular class work during scripture class time.
Less than one-third of high school students are enrolled in scripture, according to a $300,000 review of Special Religious Education (SRE) released by the NSW Department of Education.
But the department has rejected making substantial changes to the teaching of scripture after sitting on the review by ARTD consultants for almost 18 months.
A recommendation to permit the majority of students who do not take scripture to get on with their class work was rejected on the basis it was against the current Religious Education Policy; along with a recommendation to give high school principals the power to opt in to SRE, which was rejected because parents currently have the right to withdraw their child from SRE in writing.
In primary schools, participation in SRE is about 71 per cent, while almost half of all principals report a decline in scripture enrolments in the past four years.
But there is no way to test those enrolment figures, which are based on a survey of principals, because the department also rejected a recommendation to keep centralised SRE enrolment figures on the basis it would not be “the best use of resources to establish an additional statewide monitoring system for attendance in SRE”.
In addition, the controversial 2015 change that removed the ethics option from the school enrolment form, which was viewed by ethics advocates as a sop to Christian Democrat MP Rev Fred Nile who holds the balance of power in the upper house, will stay, against the recommendation of the review.
“I am very pleased that today the NSW Coalition government has continued its positive support for SRE, which is so beneficial to our young people today,” Mr Nile said on Tuesday.
The review was a recommendation of a 2012 upper house inquiry into ethics classes in NSW schools, which recommended the department publish the number of students taking part in ethics and scripture classes, or neither, and that both types of class be reviewed in 2014-15.
Education Minister Rob Stokes conceded the review heard some “concerning anecdotes” but said “there was no widespread or systemic evidence of problems in the present system of SRE or SEE [ethics].
“The Department of Education has accepted a number of recommendations to improve transparency and accountability. The changes include ensuring information about providers and their curriculums are available to inspect online, improving complaint-handling procedures and ensuring age-appropriate content.”
Opposition education spokesman Jihad Dib said: “I have concerns that sensible recommendations such as those about opting in or out have been rejected by the government.
“Even though we have had to wait for 18 months, there are still many questions to be answered,” he said, such as how an organisation could lose its status as an SRE provider, details of the curriculum being implemented and the monitoring of delivery.
Mr Murray Norman from the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools said the group welcomed the government’s response to the review.
He said keeping central enrolment statistics was not practical because there are over 100 providers of SRE in NSW.
Students not doing SRE do “alternate activities, like being able to do homework or reading”.
“We think it’s valuable for students to be able to explore the faith of their family and the other students are able to read or do homework or other alternatives organised by the school. We think that’s an appropriate stance.”
Primary Ethics, the group that co-ordinates ethics teaching in hundreds of NSW primary schools, said it was pleased the quality of its curriculum and volunteer recruitment process was recognised, but was disappointed the department did not support the recommendation to review the existing enrolment form.
Graeme Macpherson from the Fairness in Religion in Schools group, which campaigns against faith-based lessons in public schools, said the report was “disappointing”.
“The Consultative Committee for SRE is made up of the main religious bodies and they’ve effectively been given authority to control the whole process. It’s very insular.”