Onyer, Verity!

From the State Government that brings car racing to our most idyllic park, turns nature reserves over to shooters, refuses to cap political donations, reneges on public transport promises faster than it makes them, and philanders while its health system burns, it’s nice to see a sensible decision once in a blue moon, even if it’s a no-brainer.

Despite very recent accusations that she was ‘stalling’ on the decision, the NSW Education Minister Verity Firth has approved a pilot ethics course for children in state primary schools.

In the existing arrangement, forty minutes of class time is allocated weekly to Special Religious Education (known to everyone as `scripture’), conducted by volunteers from various denominations. Currently children who opt out attend `non-scripture’, which involves reading, catching up with homework or watching a film.

The Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations of NSW proposed that these children instead participate in an ethics course, commissioned by the Association and developed by the Saint James Ethics Centre and UNSW philosophy professor Philip Cam. The first step would be a pilot, beginning `as a 10-part discussion-based program for students in years 5 and 6, covering issues such as truth and fairness.’

In practice the reform means amending the current policy, which now contains this clause:

3. Schools are to support SRE by ensuring that no formal lessons or scheduled school activities occur during time set aside for SRE. Such activities may create conflict of choice for some parents and for some students attending SRE.

The Government has shown no sign of being anything but craven and gutless until now. The Opposition, for its part, has been craven and gutless:

The Opposition’s spokesman on education, Adrian Piccoli, said the content of ethics classes would raise as many questions for parents as scripture classes. He said the minister should consult curriculum experts about the education needs of primary schoolchildren before making any decision.

The main spokesman for the proposal’s opponents has apparently been one Reverend Mark Hillis, from something called the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education. His ‘argument’: `It doesn’t have the support of the religious community, that’s just a pragmatic reality’.

In other words: this is a battle for young minds — why would you expect us to give any ground? ICCOREIS seems unable to mount any coherent official defence of the policy, suggesting rather that the DET should sponsor ‘impartial’ research to obtain a ‘broad picture of SRE in NSW Government schools’.

The standard complaint, articulated by the one-in-ten talkback callers who support the status quo, is that making the ethics course available only to non-scripture students is discriminatory. But the Centre’s Executive Director Simon Longstaff has responded sensibly to this:

We have anticipated this risk and have offered to share with all religious groups the material that we hope to develop. They could then make use of this material as a public good that could be reframed within each religious tradition.

It has to be said that if we want to bring more philosophy in general, and more ethical philosophy in particular, into the primary curriculum, this is not strictly the correct basis on which to do that. If ethics instruction is so valuable, why should kids miss out because they happen to have religious parents? Indeed, it would be damn good thing to show children from religious families that religion doesn’t have a monopoly over ethics. Ideally, if we want to insist that the non-religious kids do something wothwhile in ‘non-scripture’, it’s only reasonable that we make it the least important item in the curriculum.

However, pragmatism is the name of the game. If, for the time being, this is the only means by which (1) some kids can study a bit of ethical philiosophy, and (2) ‘non-scripture’ kids can use that timeslot more productively, then I’m happy to embrace it as a second-best solution.

I just wish Northmead Public was one of the schools involved in the pilot study.

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Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
14 years ago

1. If it is demonstrable that “religion doesnt have a monopoly over ethics”, it is blindingly self-evident that scripture classes – at least the ones I experienced as a kid – aren’t even IN the ethics market.

2. Giving parents of ‘non-scripture kids’ the option of sending their young’ns along to ‘ethics discussion groups’ – and assuming the discussions are good – might compel the people running the traditional scripture classes to lift their game to the same level. If the latter fail to do so, it might result in some parents of ‘scripture kids’ pushing their little rays of sunshine into the rival ethics classes. Market forces and all that.

Tony Harris
14 years ago

A “philosophy for primary school students” program was successfully piloted in NSW many years ago with backing from the Humanist Society and a grant to a uni lecturer to organise the course.

The students showed great capacity to think both critically and laterally when offered the opportunity but the whole thing fell over when the grant ran out and there was no coordinator.

Round about the same time or earlier there was a move inside the NSW Dept Ed to develop a “value free” ethics syllabus, the idea being to have discussion of ethical issues with no particular point of view being used to lead the way. I was consulted informally on that in my capacity as a Humanist committee member and amateur philosopher. I don’t know where it ended up.

Nowadays I have reservations about schools taking on things like sex and drug education which really belong to the responsibilities of parents. Evaluation of the outcomes of school drug education is equivocal at best.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
14 years ago

@Rafe Champion
“Nowadays I have reservations about schools taking on things like sex and drug education which really belong to the responsibilities of parents. Evaluation of the outcomes of school drug education is equivocal at best.”

If sex and drug education were merely taken as topics for ethical discussion (as per the post), it is difficult to see why this should be prohibited. Maybe open and frank discussion would produce ‘good outcomes’ to a greater extent than than didactic “dos and don’ts” information sessions. (And one assumes that what constitutes ‘good’, and whether we should think merely in terms of ‘outcomes’, would also be part of such a discussion rather than being closed-off by predetermined views.)

14 years ago

“Nowadays I have reservations about schools taking on things like sex and drug education which really belong to the responsibilities of parents.”

Um, I always though the whole point of school was to expose to you to views beyond that of your parents. Some families can be great incubators of wisdom and commonsense, many others can’t. Remember, 100% of all incest (something that nearly all people agree is ethically and morally wrong) happens within families.

Very good point Edward@3.

Especially since some of the biggest ethical challenges many people will face in their lives revolve around sex and relationships and around personal and financial interactions in the illegal but often peer approved world of drug use – both of which usually manifest themselves first during high school years.

At the very least, it would provide ethics classes with case studies the students can really relate to.

“You have a mad crush on Kayleen but she will only sleep with you if you give her an eccie at Chris’ party this Saturday. The only money you have to score with before then is earmarked for your baby sister’s birthday present. Also you are a hormone charged 16 year old boy who’d fuck anything up to and including mud if you had the chance. Discuss.”