When the churches handed education to the government 130 years ago they did so with the proviso that a little time be set aside each week for religious education. In our school we offer Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox and Jewish, all taught by volunteers. Soon we will also offer Islamic.
A few years ago the P&C had a discussion about our options in offering some sort of instruction to children in non-scripture. The policy is that no instruction can be offered. You can't offer anything which might mean the kids at scripture miss out. At the time a Greens Senator put up a private members bill, which died.
I have three kids at the local public school. Initially they went to scripture. I know that a study of literature and art presumes a familiarity with the Judeo-Christian tradition (and Greco-Roman classics). I thought it wouldn't hurt, considering the option was watching a video for entertainment. But my kids were taught to pray for the son of the volunteer who was in jail, and that their parents are going to hell, and they should talk to their little friends about Jesus. Not OK. The teaching of scripture is not objective. It is indoctrination.
I attended Catholic schools. All my family are Catholic. Their kids attend Catholic schools. My area of study is theatre, English and classical mythology. I now identify as atheist. But I'll defend your right to believe whatever you believe, whether you are Christian, pagan, or Jedi, and I expect the same respect. And I certainly understand how belonging to a church fills the need for ritual and community, and the level of support and comfort it can provide.
When I explained to my daughter that she is not allowed to learn anything during non-scripture, she cried. She said it is wrong to stop children from learning.
Last night our P&C had a hearty discussion about whether our school will support the new ethics option. It was interesting that so many parents who don't usually attend these meetings turned up, although they didn't have the right to vote, not being paid-up members. I don't know why members of the religious community care so much about a course their kids won't be taking.
If you agree with the separation of church and state, then an option is to rid public schools of religious instruction. As no-one is suggesting this, then teaching ethics in the time that religious instruction is offered is a compromise.
If the situation was reversed - if children who identified as belonging to a major religion were told that each week for 40 mins they were not to learn anything while the other children were taught something - that would be a problem. No-one would dispute it. If it were Aboriginal children, or Jewish children or Chinese children, or blue-eyed children, it would be called discrimination.
When other options in religious instruction are introduced, there is no problem, for example, when Buddhism was introduced (which could be called a philosophy rather than a religion), no-one asked to see the curriculum. It didn't have to be approved by the P&C.
There is concern about the name of the ethics course - whose ethics? I believe the course that the St James Ethics Centre has devised is based on Socratic methods of enquiry.
Personally, I don't care if the course is called ethics, or philosophy, or lollygobbleblissbombs. I care that my children are told that for 40 minutes a week they are not allowed to learn. And yes, we know that ethics is part of everything, and embedded in the school rules and the way problems are solved. And we know that ethics is not a religion. But to offer something akin to religion, without being religion, ethics is the best we can do. We certainly can't offer French or crafts or anything unrelated that might attract the students currently in scripture because they identify as religious (rather than being in scripture because they think it is better than doing nothing).
There is concern over the curriculum, which is not fully available to the public at this time, and concern about what the course will cover when it is expanded to a full year course for all primary school students. I don't mind what the curriculum covers. I don't check the curriculum for Literacy or Maths either. If I did I would just home school and be done with it. I don't mind if the children discuss white lies or murder, or social justice or sustainability or abortion, with reference to the bible or Harry Potter or Disney films. I trust in the process and the Principal that it will be appropriate. I just want them to have the opportunity to have a learning experience.
Either public education is inclusive or it isn't. By not offering something for children currently in non-scripture, it isn't.