The fury the P&C Federation is expressing over primary students being forced to waste their precious school hours is absolutely justified. The NSW Special Religious Education regime is an anachronistic mess. It is 2017 and we cannot afford to be profligate with the precious time our children have to learn. We need to be giving students every advantage they can possibly get as they head into a hyper-competitive Asian Century.
What we certainly can't do is continue with a policy that removes children from any kind of learning for 300-plus hours over the course of their primary schooling. Yet that is precisely what our system does.
Unless children are being taught scripture by a church volunteer, they will be forced to do nothing during that time. There can be no curriculum learning, and alternate ethics classes are available only in 30 per cent of the schools. So some children colour, some chat with friends and some are on emu duty, picking up rubbish in the playground.
To add insult to injury, the Berejiklian government actually runs a little hustle on parents to try to bolster scripture class numbers through administrative trickery. When parents enrol in a public school, they are asked to identify their child's religion. That is used by the school administration to create a list of students, which is handed over to religious education providers. Those providers then divvy up the students among their volunteers based on faith indications. Children whose parents have chosen "no religion" will, by default, end up in the time-killing stream. They will have minimal supervision as they while away the time in the classroom or playground.
The only way "no religion" students end up in ethics class is if, weeks later, their parents notice a second letter in the mail, which contains the option for what's known as Special Education in Ethics or SEE. As a result, ethics classes struggle and students are left to languish in the time-wasting stream.
This two-stage system is a two-bit scam. It is administrative trickery that would cause the dodgiest insurance company to blush, or fall foul of the ACCC. It is not awkward bureaucracy, but a calculated, deliberate effort to deceive parents.
It was dreamt up by former NSW premier Mike Baird, who understood that funnelling more children into scripture class would please the Christian Democrats in the state's upper house. And it is utterly indefensible. Can you imagine this dodgy two-stage system being justified in any other context? Imagine if during the next election the votes of citizens were simply channelled to one party or another based on previously indicated ideology. Could those with no ideological identification perhaps receive a new ballot in the post weeks later with further options? Ludicrous.
And yet this is what parents are being asked to swallow as a result of the government's shoddy deal. As a result, we now have a situation where the parents of many of the children taking Special Religious Education would have preferred ethics if they were offered it properly.
Indeed, a recent Department of Education review of the system found examples of Special Religious Education classes that contained "negative passages about abortion, passages saying having cancer is a consequence of sin and a gift from God and that people should die for their faith, if necessary".
Even if such disturbing content is relatively rare, surely it should be up to parents to decide if they want to take the risk. After all, there is no mandated curriculum for Special Religious Education.
And let's never lose sight of how valuable the hours we are talking about are. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, the average adult requires 480 hours to achieve basic fluency in a "Group 1" language – including Indonesian, French, Spanish, German and Italian.
How do you think the sponge-like mind of a child would go if allowed to spend 300 hours with one of these languages? Recently, I was privileged to observe a Year 4 Ethics class in Marrickville. I was awestruck by what I saw. Students were presented with a series of situations to learn what it meant to balance our personal desires with those of others. The kids thrilled to the challenge of discerning right from wrong, and all the grey in between. They revelled in the difficult ethical hypthoticals. As a first step to reform, these ethics classes should be available – and clearly and unambiguously offered – to all NSW public primary students. Because forcing our kids to waste time at school is a disgrace.
The Berejiklian government should not be allowed to get away with this a moment longer.