Public education should be secular and should favour no religion over another. This principle protects religious students most of all.
My desire to see a fair and appropriate system for religious education in schools was why I watched the recent inquiry into scripture and ethics classes with interest (Science Party policy is to add Ethics to the curriculum and move any SRE classes outside of regular class time).
Two-and-a-half years and $300 million taxpayer dollars later, the inquiry is nearly over. Sorry for not following up on my previous blog posts for so long. At least I didn't stall for as long as the department did. Hah.
Timeline of the inquiry
In mid-2015, the NSW Department of Education commissioned a review into Special Religious Education (SRE) and Special Ethics Education (SEE) in NSW public schools. ARTD Consultants completed this review on 23 March 2016.
By the end of 2016, individuals and organisations were getting impatient for the review and the department's response to it. I was not alone in making Freedom of Information (FOI) requests into the status of the review. I queried the department in November and December 2016, February and finally on 23 March 2017.
I was informed on 29 March that: "...the recommendations [of the report] are under consideration. The review is not yet publically available. There is no current timeline for the release."
Did we ever get to see the report?
For a project with no timeline for release as of 29 March, the department did a stellar job of pulling everything together to release the report along with their responses four working days later on 4 April!
The disconnect between the response I received and the department's actions suggests that the department operates in a state of chaos at best, or chose to deceive the public at worst.
But they're going to act on the recommendations, right?
The department's response to the recommendations is explored in the two news articles linked above, and others. The ARTD report exposed some of the disturbing content taught at least in isolated instances.
Some lowlights regarding administration of SRE begin at recommendation number one:
"...implement ways to provide accurate and regular monitoring data about the nature and extent of SRE in NSW Government schools..."
The department rejected this recommendation because:
"Actual participation and attendance in SRE at the school level changes frequently and does not reflect the data collected at enrolment. The department does not consider it to be the best use of resources to establish an additional state-wide monitoring system for attendance in SRE."
You can't improve what you don't measure. Refusing to measure the thing is the perfect policy if you don't want to improve the thing. No one knows how many children attend SRE; without knowing precisely how few, it's harder to argue for it to be removed from the school curriculum.
These two simple recommendations were outrageously rejected:
"...assess the suitability of the new school enrolment form (October 2015)..."
"An opt-in SRE participation process is more suitable for secondary school students and the department should facilitate this change..."
SRE is an opt-out activiity in NSW primary schools. Before 2015, parents could check a box on the enrolment form to opt their children out. Now, time-strapped parents must personally "contact their school" after enrolment to opt their children out.
In secondary schools, participation is low. But the department's insistence on making it difficult to opt out is strongly suggestive of bias in decision making.
Is it over yet?
Thirty-four recommendations were answered in the department's response; 10 rejected, 14 supported and 13 "supported in principle".
So, we will see in 2018 if the department manages to wrap up this review within three years of its start date, and whether the recommendations from this costly review are implemented effectively.
Some typos in this blog post were corrected on 16 January 2018.