The expectation of parents is that the education children receive in the public system is accessible, challenging, balanced and engaging.
We expect that education to give them the strongest foundation on which to participate most fully in our modern world. Many parents would accept that teaching kids some form of comparative religion helps them to better understand the faiths that underpin modern societies across the world. But parents will not cop unknowingly finding their children being funnelled into a system of special religious education because of backroom political deals.
I take this opportunity to explain the current situation. When parents enrol their child in their local public school, they are given a form that asks them to identify their child's religion. That form is then taken by the school administration and used to create a list of students, which is handed to special religious education providers. Then once a week, for up to an hour, those students are provided with instruction by a lay preacher, volunteer or other from a registered special religious education provider.
Those students whose parents did not indicate a religion, are provided with minimal supervision and sit in a classroom or the playground. They are not permitted to undertake any activity related to the current curriculum. Put another way, for one hour every week those children are not receiving an education. That means for 330 hours over the course of their primary school education, these children are not being educated.
These children are entering a global competitive market, so that just does not make any sense to me.
I have spoken to many residents in my electorate about special religious education. Some are opposed outright to religion being taught in our public schools. Some would prefer that it was not taught but can appreciate that it provides some value for their kids. Others have spoken to me about the importance of teaching these fundamental beliefs and religious stories to their children.
Some have raised concern that the special religious education curriculum is developed by providers and not approved by the Department of Education, and that it is being taught by volunteers often with no training or qualifications. Others have been shocked when they found their child had been placed in a special religious education class when they had not identified a religion.
No matter whether or not one supports special religious education in our schools, these valid concerns go to the quality of the public education system in New South Wales.
These divergent views of parents show that choice and transparency should be at the centre of public education. Instead, when it comes to special religious education in New South Wales, this Government is not meeting community expectations—in fact, it is protecting particular interests ahead of the interests of all.
Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile in the other place and former Premier Baird did a deal. Parents are now forced to navigate an unnecessarily convoluted enrolment process if they want their children to participate in ethics classes, rather than undertaking special religious education or sitting in the playground. That deal was transactional, ideological politics at its very worst. It means that balance, transparency and parental choice have been removed.
If those opposite are serious about parent choice, they would not have rejected out of hand the majority of the 56 recommendations contained in the "Review of Special Religious Education and Special Education in Ethics in New South Wales Government Schools" report. Most importantly, they would return the option for parents of choosing ethics classes for their kids on the enrolment form.
Recently I was privileged to observe a class run by Primary Ethics in Marrickville. I went to the class with an open mind. I had a broad understanding of the objectives of the class, but not much more than that. I was awestruck by the professionalism of the volunteer teachers, the level of engagement by the students, and the complexity and worthiness of the material they were studying.
These kids were learning skills that they will use throughout their lifetime—skills to help them better understand and empathise with the experiences of others. I observed a year 4 class focused on being greedy. They were presented with a series of scenarios that encouraged them to see every day experiences from different perspectives. The aim of the class was to learn what it means to balance our personal desires and wants with those of others. It is heady, advanced, complex stuff but, to my surprise, these kids really got it.
These are important values. Some parents will choose for their children to learn these lessons through the foundational stories taught in religious education. Others will choose the superb lessons taught in ethics classes across the State. At the end of the day, it is all about parent choice.
I share the disappointment of parents who feel that their choice has been undermined by the actions of this Government.
However, there is common ground here. The choices we make for our kids are amongst the most difficult and significant ones we will ever make. They go to our values—the values we want to share with our children.
When it comes to public education, we must pull back the pendulum and restore the ability of all parents to make these decisions for themselves.