Thursday, May 07, 2015

Religion in public schools - what are the policies?

Religion in NSW Public Schools

There are a number of ways religion is present in NSW public schools. Here’s a fact sheet.

In primary schools, a unit on Understanding our Communities, which covers religious diversity, can be taught by the class teacher in Human Society and its Environment (HSIE) in Stage 2 (Year 3-4).
In secondary schools, Studies of Religion is a Board developed course for the HSC.  Aspects of religion may also be included in other Board approved HSC courses and Year 7-10 syllabuses (English, History, Society and Culture).
In all of these cases what children learn about religion is the responsibility of qualified teachers working from Board approved materials.

There are three other avenues through which religious belief may be raised in public schools.

The first is through Special Religious Education (SRE), often referred to as Scripture. Scripture is delivered by volunteers in accordance with Department of Education and Communities' Religious Education Implementation Procedures (REIP) and related policy documents. SRE is offered when parents request it and authorised volunteers are available to deliver it at times when the school can timetable it. It is usually timetabled in weekly classes of 30-60 minutes and is limited to forty hours per year.
Volunteer SRE teachers must be the representatives of a religious organisation that is an approved provider. Approved providers use their own materials which don’t need to be approved or vetted by the DEC. SRE boards, associations and incorporations are not approved providers. The list of authorised providers is here:
Students are placed in SRE classes by the school when there is a class available in the religion nominated by their parents/caregivers on their enrolment forms. Parents can make written requests to schools to change a child’s placement.
Students not approved by their parents to attend SRE attend non-scripture, supervised by qualified teachers during Scripture times, but students are not allowed to be taught anything by them.
Some primary schools offer Ethics Classes as an alternative to non-scripture. As with Scripture, Primary Ethics is taught by volunteer visitors to the school. Unlike Scripture, its curriculum is approved by the DEC and its teachers must complete a specified training program.

The Controversial Issues in Schools Policy, which states that visitors to schools are not to recruit students into partisan groups, is suspended during the Scripture timeslot. However, all volunteers must comply with the DEC’s Code of Conduct.

The second avenue is voluntary student gatherings such as lunchtime clubs. REIP (updated 25 March 2015) states: "Voluntary religious activities and prayer groups are not part of special religious education, but may operate under the auspices and supervision of the principal. Scripture Union (NSW) coordinates Interschool Christian Fellowship (ISCF) groups in secondary schools and Scripture Union Primary Age (SUPA) groups in primary schools. Principals in their supervision of voluntary religious activities and prayer groups must ensure that:                   
- parental permission is obtained                   
- appropriate child protection checks and practices in relation to any volunteers coming from outside the school               
- the content of the activities undertaken are monitored                       
- students or members of religious persuasions do not engage in attempts to proselytise or convert non-adherents of their religion to their faith in the course of school authorised activities."

Other programs, such as JOLT (Jesus Over Lunch Time), STIVE (Students Alive), RICE (Renewal & Inter-Church Evangelism), and ones run by Generate Ministries and local churches, may operate. Extra curricular religious groups and clubs may not be run by school staff. Neither may they offer food or other inducements to students to attend nor may they try to persuade other students to adopt their religious beliefs. Principals are to monitor the content and delivery of information for these groups.

The third avenue is the School Chaplaincy Program. The chaplain’s role is to offer pastoral support to students without proselytizing.

There is no other avenue through which religious organisations can access students in public schools. No religious group is authorised to deliver religious instruction during regular class time.

Schools must inform parents and caregivers about all religious activities at school via enrolment forms and by providing information in newsletters and on their school website. No student may be allocated to an SRE class or admitted to a religious club unless informed prior parental/caregiver approval has been given. 

Public schools have policies about inclusion, embracing diversity, and rejecting racism, homophobia and bullying. The core values are integrity, excellence, respect, responsibility, cooperation, participation, care, fairness and democracy. It is unclear whether these policies apply during SRE timeslot.

The Australian curriculum’s general capabilities, which include critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, intercultural understanding and ethical understanding, do not apply to SRE because SRE is not part of the Australian Curriculum.

NSW DEC is currently undertaking a review about Scripture and Ethics in schools. Consultation closes 31 July 2015. Parents are invited to contribute.

You can call the Department of Education and Communities about the SRE policy on 9244 5607.
Under these policies parents have a right to information and have the right to complain to the principal.

If your child’s school is not compliant with DEC policies, speak to your school principal, or raise the matter at your P&C meeting. Principals can terminate agreements with visiting groups if they breach policies. According to the Controversial Issues in Schools Policy  Implementation Procedures: If visiting speakers will not guarantee to respect this policy, access to the students must be declined. [3.32]