SJEC seeks to heal SRE damage

Jeremy Halcrow

In a wide-ranging and in-depth interview, Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre (SJEC) has responded to concerns about the implementation of the ethics trial in public primary schools, particularly the way the lessons competed directly with Special Religious Education (SRE).

In a major development in the debate, Dr Longstaff concedes that the ethics lessons should not compete head-to-head with SRE, but rather that SRE should remain 'opt-out'.

Significantly, he suggests a process for how this could operate in practice.

The interview also reveals that the SJEC does not yet have clear plans for the ethics lessons in 2011.

In other developments, Dr Longstaff dismisses concerns about the involvement of DET staff in teaching ethics lessons.

He says classroom teachers will not be approached to fill gaps when community volunteers cannot be found, but rather are "not being excluded from volunteering".

The full interview is reprinted below. Other issues covered include:

* Why the SJEC is adamant about using the name 'ethics' rather than a less contentious alternative such as 'secular philosophy'.

*  Criticisms around the pedagogy of the ethics lessons.


JEREMY HALCROW: Simon, thanks for taking the time to clarify a number of contentious issues surrounding the proposal for ethics lessons.
One issue that has been raised by letter writers to Southern Cross are links between the St James Ethics centre and atheist organisations. Is the funding for the ethics lessons coming from any humanist or atheist organisations?

SIMON LONGSTAFF: The ethics course is not being funded by a humanist or atheist organisation.

SJEC has no connection - formal or informal - with the Sydney Atheists or any other organisation of a similar ilk.

The Centre's funding does, indeed, come from a broad cross-section of the community. The bulk of the funding has come from three people - two of whom I know to be deeply committed, prominent Christians. Beyond this, I have no knowledge of the religious, political or other beliefs of our donors.

JH: The major SRE providers are reporting losses of between one third and one half of their students. So a key matter of contention is why the trial course was offered to all SRE students. What is your response?

SL: The decision for the trial classes to be made available to all students in years 5 and 6 at participating schools was made by the Department of Education and Training.

To do so was inconsistent with the Ethics Centre's own position - that ethics classes only be an option for students who have chosen not to attend SRE.

However, the DET insisted that we be subject to its usual policy which requires all parents to be advised of any new offering made available during SRE.

For example, if faith groups introduces a new SRE option into a school - say, the Bahai - then all parents must be advised of this - including those whose children are already attending SRE offered by an existing provider - say, Anglican.

To make matters worse, we were instructed by the DET that the communication must be sent on SJEC letterhead and that the text of the communication be approved by the Department.

All of that said, I think that the letter sent to parents on our letterhead was unduly welcoming in tone, partly explained by the fact that the primary intention of the letter was to speak to non-SRE parents. Still, I would have worded the letter with more circumspection.
Once alerted to the fact that the letter was causing misgivings, we actively supported a process by which a new letter was sent to the same cohort of parents in order to clarify the situation.

In particular, I personally insisted that the DET clarify the point that even if children had nominated to participate in the trial of the ethics classes, then this would not limit their options to return to SRE. This second letter was sent out before the end of the school term before the ethics classes were due to commence.

JH: Simon, I have been told that it is the SJEC’s intention to implement a K-6 curriculum from next year. Is that correct? And is it right to assume that the current intention is to offer the course to all primary school students in 2011?
SL: As to the future, we are still coping with the extraordinary reaction to this pilot program.

I had assumed - wrongly as it turned out - that the various religions, and the churches in particular, would see the ethics classes as a welcome opportunity to provide a meaningful option for children not attending SRE classes and that this would be recognised as a major advancement on the status quo - not least because it would make the allocated period valuable to all students and not just those attending SRE.

That is, it would shore up the public's support for the period, which would be better than relying simply on the law which, if anyone cared to read it, actually offers less to the religions than many people assume.
At present, our plans are quite provisional. Not only do we have to await the outcome of the evaluation. There is also the political landscape to be negotiated.

In principle, we would want to ensure that all children in NSW State Primary Schools could be offered a meaningful - not merely useful - option to doing nothing.

In this regard, our policy is that parents would be asked to decide whether or not to choose to undertake a class in SRE. Having made that decision, then those who have chosen not to opt in to SRE would be offered a distinct and additional choice to opt in to an ethics class. That is our policy. I do not know if it will be acceptable to the DET.

Given that those adversely affected by the decision not to attend classes in SRE are children from K-6, we do envisage a program being developed for years K-6. Should this be done, then all material would be made freely available to SRE providers, for use as they think fit - naturally amended to meet their own religious orientation.

As previously stated, making the material available to all is a conscious decision to help ensure that no child is drawn away from SRE simply out of a desire to gain access to something new and different.
So, that's the position in principle.

In practice, I doubt that the development process could achieve this broad outcome by next year - especially given the likely late notice we would receive if approval is given to proceed beyond the trial.

Mind you, it may be that the churches will come to recognise that their best interests would be served by working with us, rather than against us, on this program.

In that case, progress would be collaborative and potentially much more swift.

JH: Simon, you have told me that you have felt some aspects of the reporting in Southern Cross June was misleading: in particular that the SJEC proposal will invite "school teachers to run ethics classes when volunteers are not available". So can you please clarify your policy?

SL: The situation is as follows: The ethics classes would only be taught by volunteers; no teacher will be required to teach ethics classes, nor will the provision of ethics classes create an additional burden for teachers.

Teachers will not be excluded from volunteering, but solely in their capacity as a parent or citizen.

JH: A major aspect of the Anglican Church’s concern about your proposal is that your course claims to be universally designed for all students, in a way no SRE course is written or marketed. This means any involvement from DET classroom teachers may muddy its status as non-mainstream, opt-out, community-based and a mere alternative to SRE.

SL: As I said earlier, our policy is to merely provide this course to children who do not opt to attend an SRE class.

Nevertheless we do not make any more of a universal claim than does any SRE provider.

I gather that, say, the Anglicans would welcome to their SRE class any child wishing - or whose parents wish for them - to attend.

Likewise, the ethics classes are open to any child who is not attending SRE who wishes to attend. If anyone makes ‘universal’ claims, then it is one or more of the faith groups that proclaim a universal truth. At least in the case of many Christian churches such a claim would include the source of universal salvation - with the Gospel being universal in it’s relevance to all.

JH: You may have misunderstood what I meant by the ‘universal’ objection. Perhaps my question was poorly expressed. The objection is not about any universal claims made in the course content. Rather it is about the way the ethics course appears to undermine the entire rationale or basis for SRE provision. From the very beginning, SRE has been specifically provided on a denominational or sectarian basis: Roman Catholic SRE for Catholic families; Muslim SRE for Muslims; Jewish SRE for Jews. By definition it is 'denominational' or 'special' religious education. Your course obliterates the rationale for SRE by specifically requiring the participation of a diverse cohort.

SL: Your premise about ‘universalism’ is false.

As I understand it, the providers of SRE classes welcome any child to attend. I gather that, say, Jewish children may attend Anglican SRE if they wish to do so.

I take this to mean that Anglican SRE is universally available to any child attending a school where Anglican SRE is offered. If this is not so, then could you please let me know.

If no child would be turned away from Anglican SRE because of their faith or lack of faith, then I would say that the provision of Anglican SRE is ‘universal’ in the sense that you are using the term.

Ethics classes would be offered on an identical basis - but to students who have chosen - or whose parents have chosen for them - not to attend SRE.

JH: It is possible to conceive of a non-religious alternative to SRE that still respects the 'denominational' rationale for SRE. Overseas there are school courses in secular humanism provided by humanist organisations.

SL: I cannot agree to this reasoning, for it assumes that the only people currently not attending SRE classes are the children of non-religious families.

In fact, there are children from religious families who do not attend SRE because their parents do not wish to have their children receive religious instruction from relative strangers, from outside the home, or because their particular faith community does not offer SRE classes.

JH: This may be true, but the push for the ethics lessons is mainly coming from atheists and other non-religious parents. The argument is that an alternative provision could be made for them that does not undermine the rationale for SRE.

SL: I would like to suggest that far from undermining the position of SRE in NSW schools, the proposal to introduce these classes represents one of the most potent measures to support the provision of SRE on a continuing basis.

As things stand, the trend is for parents to choose, in increasing numbers, not to have their children attend SRE. If the churches had supported our proposal then it would have been possible to ensure that a majority of parents had a strong interest in maintaining the period assigned for SRE - not simply because it is allowed for by legislation (for some a grudging acquiescence) but in recognition of the valuable opportunity the period would offer to all children to engage in meaningful activity.

Unfortunately, church opposition to the introduction of ethics classes for children not attending SRE has been perceived as indicating a preference for institutional self-interest over the interests of the children. In turn, this has increased concern, in some quarters, about the maintenance of a reserved period for SRE.

What a pity it is that despite our best efforts to consult with faith groups, it has not been possible to secure a wide-spread common front to ensure that the period set aside for SRE is of value to all children.

JH: Partly that is because fears remain about the power imbalance specifically implied by classroom teacher involvement in a 'non-denominational' course, especially as you can’t guarantee how the DET would implement its guidelines for teachers. It is fair to say you can't guarantee any future DET policy, correct?

SL: While I cannot guarantee what the DET will do in the future about teacher involvement, I can say that the NSW Teachers’ Federation shares our view.

As such, I doubt that any government would seek to impose additional burdens on teachers who already work so hard in the service. I believe that the same principles should apply in relation to SRE and that any teacher wishing to volunteer to teach SRE in a school should be allowed (but not required) to do so.

JH: Simon, the use of the term 'ethics' to some Christian ears sounds like you are marketing the course as an alternative moral vision to Scripture. You have said repeatedly that this is not the case. So why insist that the course be called ‘ethics’ rather than something less provocative and contentious? Archbishop Jensen suggested ‘secular philosophy’ - why do you reject this option?

SL: The reason for calling the classes ‘ethics classes’ is because this is the specific focus of the program: rather than, say, ‘logic’ classes or ‘ontology’ classes or ‘metaphysics’ classes, etc. As the Archbishop must know, the term ‘secular philosophy’ covers many topics including: logic, ontology and metaphysics. Our focus is on ethics.

Furthermore, this helps to distinguish the classes from those offered by SRE providers because although they deal with ethical issues - albeit through the application of their preferred moral framework - they, in fact, more so teach theology and Scripture etc.

The ethics classes only address a subset of the matters covered in SRE. Even then, they are considerably more meaningful than simply doing nothing.

JH: The point you are making here reminds me of one other concern that has been raised… around pedagogy. You confirmed to me earlier that you were looking at providing a course that covers K to 4 as well as Years 5 and 6. Are you certain that kindergarten children (aged 5 years) are capable of the required level of self-reflection?

SL: No, I am not certain and would defer to experts on this matter.

However, I have heard it said that children of quite tender years are quite adept at addressing issues appropriate to their age - far more so than used to be thought the case.

[Professor] Phil Cam could provide you with a much better answer about what is known/not known around this issue.

JEREMY HALCROW: Thanks for your time Simon. I trust my readers find your answers informative.