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Opting out the only way to opt in

Ethics class in action.  Image: Primary Ethics/Summer Hill Media

Imagine for a minute that you’re the parent of a young child and you’ve just received a letter from his or her school asking whether you would like your child to be included in scripture classes or not. You re-read the letter, wondering if there’s an alternative option you’ve missed, but it remains a simple yes or no. So you say yes and send it back, glad that your child will be included and hoping the school will provide important moral teaching.

If you had said no, however, you would have received a follow-up letter informing you about ethics classes that are being offered as an alternative. These are the volunteer-provided Primary Ethics classes that were created to provide children with a secular alternative to scripture classes in New South Wales (Australia) government schools, which are nominally non-religious. The program, funded by the St James Ethics Centre, aims to teach children about ethical decision making, how to think logically, formulate arguments and rationalise information in an inclusive environment. It was initiated in 2010 partly for children not taking part in scripture classes, whose only alternative had been being physically separated from their classmates without alternative class work. According to Helen Walton, the president of the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations of New South Wales, “ethics classes provided parents a choice in how their child was meaningfully engaged when other students were participating in SRE (Special Religious Education)”.

Despite a trial conducted by the Department of Education in 2010 finding 97% approval from 750 submissions on the introduction of ethics classes, politicians such as Christian Democrats MP Reverend Fred Nile have consistently attempted to block the classes. The Legislative Council of NSW resolved in November 2011 to conduct an inquiry into the ethics classes program in response to a bill introduced by Nile to abolish ethics classes.

Following the inquiry, changes in the system are to be adopted by the state government in 2013 whereby “parents will not be told of the availability of ethics classes in their school until after they have opted out of special religious education, or scripture”. John Kaye, an MP for The Greens, described the change as “a massive roadblock” to informing parents about the options available to their children. “The government will now force schools to hide the existence of ethics classes,” he said. 

Nile has declared that he would “torpedo” government legislation if the classes are not stopped, though the Premier of NSW has denied making a deal with the Christian Democrats, which hold the balance of power in the upper house.  In response to queries about possible miscommunication caused by the follow-up letter, Nile claimed, “It’s appropriate that the main policy emphasis is on scripture classes. Ethics is an alternative. We don’t want to confuse people.”

If withholding information from parents and denying them the ability to make an informed decision is Nile’s plan to prevent confusion, then I suggest he enrol himself in an ethics class.