Editor-In-Chief: Charbel Baini

SHAOQUETT MOSELMANE contribution on the teaching of Ethics in Public Schools

I rise to speak to the report of the General Purpose Standing Committee No. 2 inquiry into the Education Amendment (Ethics Classes Repeal) Bill 2011. As members will know, this inquiry was referred to us to determine whether the legislative change that allowed special education in ethics as an alternative to special religious education in New South Wales Government schools should be reversed. We were asked to inquire into the stated objectives and current operation of special ethics education, so the inquiry focused exclusively on special ethics education and its objectives within New South Wales government primary schools.
The inquiry was an informative exercise, particularly to new members like me who were not in government when the 2010 legislation was introduced. However, the inquiry did anger people who felt that this was nothing but a political stunt, a mere grovelling by the Government to Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile, who wanted to repeal the legislation irrespective of the groundswell of support special education in ethics had received from the community. When the Labor Government introduced the legislation 130 parents and citizens' associations voted in support of the ethics classes.
As one witness at the inquiry stated, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a number of polls and apparently 92 per cent of people supported the ethics classes and only 8 per cent opposed them. Throughout most of the inquiry, witnesses who appeared before the committee—or wrote, confidentially or otherwise—generally opposed any move to repeal the Act and, in fact, supported its retention. In some respects, they argued for the expansion of special education in ethics in New South Wales public schools. This is why the committee made a number of recommendations in support of a process that encouraged special education in ethics and special religious education and rejected any move to repeal or undermine the services provided by the special education in ethics volunteers.
The committee reported that ethics classes should continue in New South Wales government schools and, therefore, recommended that the New South Wales Government continue to facilitate the delivery of special education in ethics as an option for students who do not attend special religious education. Special education in ethics was never in competition with special religious education and was never a threat to special religious education in public schools. Any fears that had been whipped up by some had, once again, been put to rest. If anything, this inquiry reinforced the valuable contribution special education in ethics is making to our young people and to the New South Wales education system.
The independent assessment undertaken by the previous Labor Government through Dr Sue Knight of South Australia concluded that the trial classes were successful, the course was effective and the content was appropriate. So why the scrutiny so early in the piece, only a couple of years after the introduction of special education in ethics? Many of our witnesses were baffled. Even those who were at the previous assessment and were opposed to the introduction of special education in ethics argued against any attempt to repeal the Act. I will quote some of the comments that were made in submissions by those who participated in the inquiry. Dr Simon Longstaff, the Executive Director of the St James Ethics Centre, maintained:
The arguments to allow ethics classes as an option for children not attending SRE in State Primary Schools enjoyed not only broad public support—but also the support of many people of faith.
In answer to the question, "Should the Education Amendment (Ethics Classes) Act 2010 be repealed?", Dr Longstaff answered:
It is our submission that the Act should not be repealed. To do so would be unjust, removing from an estimated 100,000 children, who do not attend SRE classes in NSW State Primary Schools, the opportunity to engage in meaningful education about ethics of kind that is otherwise available to children attending classes in SRE.
Murray Norman, the General Manager for Presbyterian Youth, argued:
The implementation of special ethics has generally not impacted on the provision of SRE.
Presbyterian Youth did not advocate the repeal of the Education Amendment (Ethics) Act 2010. It stated:
Subject to the current SEE provider utilising volunteers and meeting all the requirements in terms of child protection, training and pursuing quality teaching in a way comparable to the rising standards in the delivery of SRE, we recognise its place in law.
Reverend Brian Brown, Moderator for the Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, noted:
The Uniting Church maintained a welcoming response to the option of Special Education in Ethics [SEE] for those children whose parents make a decision for them not to attend SRE classes. This continues to be our position today.
He continued:
The Uniting Church also supports the continuation of the option of special ethics classes for students who do not attend Special Religious Education as this can provide a comparable but not religion-based educational experience as students are encouraged to engage in ethical reflective practice in a facilitated manner.
He concluded:
The Uniting Church does not support the repeal of the special ethics classes because we believe we must give priority to learning opportunities for all students, not just those with whom we share faith convictions. We respect the freedom of parents to elect for their children not to participate in SRE and we trust that they might encounter God through other means.
Through its President, Peter Garrigan, the Council of State School's Organisation, made a strong representation and argued:
We are fully aware that many students are left idle, sitting in offices of executive staff, watching videos or left to their own devices in libraries or special classrooms. Young people were not given any meaningful direction or a place to discuss or explore their belief systems. These young people in a sense were discriminated against by not being allowed to do anything meaningful.
The Australian Council of State School Organisations argued strongly against Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile. It stated that it was appalled by Reverend the Hon. Nile's move; they saw it as bullying and unethical behaviour in its purest form. Helen Walton, from the Federation of Parents and Citizens Association, argued:
The outpouring of support for the ethics based compliment scripture has been illustrated by nearly 100 schools sending through formal motions and correspondence to the St James Ethics Centre, following on from this, nearly double that, 171 schools as at 22 December 2011, have taken the opportunity to offer ethics classes to those children who opt out of special religious education.
She concluded:
[The] Federation advocates for our children in Public Education and believes that the removal of Special Education in Ethics would create a void that would see many students being discriminated against ...
A small number of people argued in support of the repeal. The NSW Council of Churches argued:
In pursuing its stated objectives, the St James Ethics Centre directly undermines this valuable cultural and educational service which has been provided by religious groups in the community for more than 130 years. For those who are committed to the removal of SRE classes from NSW schools, such as certain individuals and groups associated with the Federation of Parents and Citizens Association of NSW, the introduction of SEE classes presents an unprecedented opportunity to achieve our goal. This is the "elephant in the room" that politicians and others are unwilling to confront.
The Rationalist Society of Australia took a swipe at both sides and argued that both sides are wrong. It stated:
The provision of SRE is unaccountable, unprofessional and exposes children to unacceptable risks because of the way the system is designed. The provision of SEE, while professionally designed, currently relies on volunteers and therefore also carries risks.
It's time all Australian States and Territories replaced this outdated system with one that supports a world-class education in various world views, religious and non-religious, developed by educational professionals and delivered by professional qualified teachers.
Given all the comments I have read, the committee rightly argued in its report that ethics classes should continue in New South Wales government schools and the Government should continue to facilitate the delivery of special education in ethics as an option for students who do not attend special religious education. I encourage members to read the report and the 14 recommendations that it makes. Special religious education and special education in ethics are not in conflict; they do not clash. In fact, it has been argued they complement each other in the interests of primary schoolchildren who now have an opportunity to learn and understand ethical issues from a broader social and philosophical perspective.
I thank the chair, my friend the Hon. Marie Ficarra, the committee members and the committee staff for conducting an orderly and structured inquiry. I thank all who contributed to a rational, ethical debate that ultimately led to a reasoned report supported by all committee members advocating the retention of the Ethics Act 2010 and, in effect, slapping down Reverend the Hon. Fred Niles' Education Amendment (Ethic Classes Repeal) Bill 2011.

The Hon. Shaoquett Moselmane MLC.
Level 11, Room 1116.
Parliament of New South Wales
Parliament House
Macquarie St, Sydney NSW 2000 Australia

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