John Golden

School of thought: Time to push for an easier, secular option

school

Approx Reading Time-11The process of allowing a primary school child to learn outside the secular curriculum is needlessly difficult. Time for a rethink.

 

 

 

Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby recently stirred the NSW public school education pot when he challenged the teaching of branded religions in NSW schools at the expense of other options like Primary Ethics. But should the debate be even wider?

The former judge pointed out that Special Religious Education (SRE) in NSW public primary schools continues to be compulsory and parents have to take deliberate steps to exempt their children from religion classes.

The non-religion/secular options include Special Education in Ethics (SEE), delivered by the Ethics Centre, a spin-off from the St James Ethics Centre. Alternatively, schools may choose to provide other activities like a session in the library. Parents only get the opportunity to choose Primary Ethics after they have knocked back the religion option twice. You really have to work hard to avoid religion classes, much to the delight of the Reverend Fred Nile and his supporters who seem to view Primary Ethics as Satan’s work.

I’m a volunteer Primary Ethics teacher at the local primary school and I was surprised to learn there is really no focus on civic responsibility or major ethical/moral issues in the standard curriculum. To a certain extent, Primary Ethics attempts to fill that void. The subject matter covers topics like fairness, truth, greed, basic logic, voting and the differences and similarities between people.

Promoting a particular religion or cause would not be part of this proposed approach. The approach would be a “good thinking” one, so the issues would be considered and debated without the answer being predetermined or based on a religion or some other opinion source.

The approach applied in Primary Ethics is that there are no wrong answers. Students are encouraged to argue a case, ask questions and explore further on topics that impact on the social and moral issues in their lives, as well as considering issues that will be in their lives as they grow up. For example, when the topic of voting is discussed, the pros and cons of compulsory voting arise, as do questions about whether there should be plebiscites on big questions like climate change. Other contentious issues like punishment, telling the truth and greed are part of the curriculum. When these more personal topics arise, the children are asked to think through the consequences of their actions and to realise that what they do and think affects people other than themselves.

Primary Ethics classes are in many respects an eye-opener to the workings of children’s minds. In one session I conducted, one young boy strongly advocated that another boy in the class should receive corporal punishment. And I was surprised when one boy named David Attenborough as his favourite superhero.

So what’s happening in the school curriculum now? Some curricula in various states include a civics and citizenship component covering issues such as principles and concepts underpinning democracy, global citizenship and the influence of global events in Australian democracy, multiculturalism and diversity in Australian society, and the environment and sustainability.

This is a hit and miss approach, it seems to me, as content is fitted into the curriculum as part of history and possibly geography and English.

My point is that all students should be exposed to the critical questions we all confront as we enter adulthood and beyond. The consequence of adopting my view is that neither religion nor Primary Ethics would be part of public school education. Rather, that allocated time would be spent in “responsible citizenship” or similarly named classes, and the classes would be led by professional teaching staff.

The suggested approach, as with Primary Ethics, would not be to give definitive answers, rather it would be to define the issues and consider possible solutions and assist kids with strategies to think these issues through as well as they can.

Primary Ethics and religion classes give a good indication of the content of these “responsible citizenship” classes. However, promoting a particular religion or cause would not be part of this proposed approach. The approach would be a “good thinking” one, so the issues would be considered and debated without the answer being predetermined or based on a religion or some other opinion source.

To make the point more clearly, issues such as the following are unavoidable in life and they are too often poorly considered or wrongly assessed: racial differences; religious practices; the teachings of various religions; responsibility for our planet’s climate; fairness at work and in work; self-perception and deception; dealing with loss; responsibilities in a democracy; family break-up etc.

The suggested approach, as with Primary Ethics, would not be to give definitive answers, rather it would be to define the issues and consider possible solutions and assist kids with strategies to think these issues through as well as they can.

I acknowledge that Primary Ethics makes a great attempt at many relevant topics, but the critical question is this: should such classes relating to this type of thinking, and relating to topics relevant to how to think about life, be available to all our children? In many instances I’m confident the answers or best approaches that children settle on would agree with the moral stances of most religions. The point I’m making is that the debate should not start with a presumption as to what’s right or wrong, or a presumption that one religion or another has all the right answers. We do live in a secular society after all.

The wheels turn slowly and the religious lobby is powerful, so until the day that religion is not part of our secular school system, let’s at least give Primary Ethics a fair go.

 

John Golden

John Golden is a writer specialising in industrial relations and employment law, something he’s done for over 35 years. Now he’s a cynical man of mature years with plenty of axes to grind

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