12 December 2010

The battle for a Ethical Australia

Australian Government, Ethics for Children and Religion  (NSW)

There can be no uncertainly that a large proportion on the MPs in the Australian Government in the Federal and State level are definitely pro-christian, this is rather odd in a time when church attendance is all time low, or is it?

You would think that a civil society would be pleased that children are being taught ethics at an early age. It's  it discussing life, how to treat people, and how to live with others.

But no, some people find the idea of children encountering ethical ideas that don't include their idea of god to be an anathema to the purpose of education in Australian schools.

In New South Wales the state has to provide Scripture classes and children...well find them rather boring, I certainly did when I had to take them, I got a note from home pretty quick.

I'm sure I'm not the only one and many parents wanted a alternative, for those children not doing Religion, so it was decided that Ethics classes would be a good idea. I say a "good idea", unless you have a vested interest in having Religion taught in schools.

I'm not one for reading Hansard, but this has a good summnation of the point very well:-

Dr JOHN KAYE [9.10 p.m.]: Since its inception in 1880, special religious education in New South Wales public schools has unfairly and irrationally discriminated against the growing number of children from families that reject the organised religions on offer. Verity Firth is the first Minister for Education in 130 years to take up the challenge. By accepting the offer from the St James Ethics Centre to trial an ethics option, the Minister is taking an important step to addressing the absurd consequences of the monopoly power of organised religions over the hour. Since the passage of Henry Parkes' Public Instruction Act and the infamous compromise that handed over one hour a week to scripture, children from families that do not accept the religious choices on offer have been forced to squander a valuable hour a week. The so-called settlement not only discriminated against children from atheist families, it also excluded those who followed a creed that was not offered in the school as well as the many parents who felt that religious instruction is a private matter.

Section 32 of the Education Act 1990 imposes no requirement on the non-attendees. It is only by practice that the hour is not to be gainfully used other than for religion and that practice is at last being challenged. The practice is discriminatory and wasteful and is founded only in the conviction held by some religions that their beliefs should hold a privileged position. That is not only clearly unacceptable in a multi-cultural and multi-faith free society but also deeply offensive to those who do not share confidence in the infallibility of the religious beliefs.

Professor Philip Cam from the University of New South Wales developed the course materials that invite students to develop responses to challenging ethical dilemmas. Ethics or the science of moral reasoning is a well-developed area of study and has been taught successfully in schools around the world. The developmental consequences for students are well documented and always positive. It is clearly understood that the course does not substitute for the values and ethical reasoning that are already taught across the curriculum in public education. It is surprising and alarming to watch a number of churches and religious organisations seek to stop the trial.

Jim Wallace, the managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, vehemently attacked the secular nature of ethics in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 April. Mr Wallace's arrogant contention was that moral reasoning cannot stand without the Judeo-Christian basis on which he contends it is founded. Retired Brigadier Wallace is certainly entitled to his opinions, even if they are out-of-date, insulting, arrogant and ill-informed. However, his allegation that the ethics classes are designed to draw students away from the scripture classes is simply a lie. And even if it were not, does the brigadier have such little faith in the power of the religions he purports to defend that he is worried that offering an ethics alternative will result in an outbreak of atheism and heathenism? The next day, a report in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, had visited the Premier to voice his concerns. Dr Jensen had previously written in the Anglican newspaper Southern Cross:
      Be warned: if the Government allows this course to continue after the trial, it will jeopardise religious education in public schools
This week, Robert Haddad, the director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, told the Sydney Morning Herald that alerting all parents to the existence of the ethics class was "an example of the abuse that will inevitably follow". Dr Jensen, Brigadier Wallace and Mr Haddad all share a lack of confidence in their faith's ability to maintain market share in the face of a secular alternatives. In effect what both of these men are saying is that religion should not have to compete in the world of ideas. They are effectively arguing for the entrapment children in their classes by maintaining a veil of ignorance about the alternatives.

Reverend Fred Nile, the Leader of the Christian Democratic Party, called for the trial to be postponed pending further consultations with all church leaders. He was also upset by the idea that the ethics alternative was not kept secret to the families that did not attend scripture classes. A liberal democracy does not entertain the right of churches to restrict options available to the non-believing public. The Sydney Anglicans, the Catholic Church and even Fred Nile are free to tell their followers what they might or might not believe, and what their children might or might not be exposed to. It is ultimately up to the followers whether they continue to follow and believe.

However, it is completely unacceptable that organised religions seek to restrict the rights of those who do not subscribe their creeds. Ethics classes in public schools are none of their business and they should not be allowed to undermine the options available to children who do not follow their creed. The Greens welcome the trial and congratulate the St James Ethics Society, Prof Philip Cam, the Parents and Citizens Federation and the Minister for Education and Training on the roles they have played in offering students ethics classes as an alternative in special religious education.

A disturbing reaction by the NSW opposition party:-

However, the opposition spokesman for education, Adrian Piccoli, attacked the decision. He pointed out that the Board of Studies had to remove inappropriate draft course material before the trial of ethics classes earlier this year. ''If they want to legislate for a course, which has previously included subjects on terrorism and designer babies to be taught to 11-year-olds, then that's a decision for the Labor Party,'' he said.

A spokeswoman for Ms Firth said: ''First the Coalition failed to listen to parents and now they're trying to scare them. All course material will be vetted by the Board of Studies'

The NSW government is facing and election that they will probably loose, bu they will retain power in the State upper house, so the Ethics classes are now Law, and the opposition can't undo it. (Win for the good guys!)

And the reactions from the Clergy? (apart from those above)

Bishop enters battle against secular ethics classes

Jacqueline Maley
April 14, 2010
THE Bishop of North Sydney has urged Anglican priests to collect information from principals of public schools to stop the spread of the secular ethics classes the Sydney Anglicans believe may threaten religious education.
In an email seen by the Herald, Bishop Glenn Davies urged ministers to contact the principals of public schools in their parishes to ascertain the exact numbers of children enrolled in religious education. This was even though most schools were not involved in the trial, which is being piloted at just 10 schools under the guidance of the St James Ethics Centre.

But chairman of the NSW Anglican Education Commission, Bishop Glen Davis, said the trial was flawed and the premier should reconsider it.
Bishop Davis said allowing a secular organisation to deliver its program at the same time as the current religious teachings set a "dangerous precedent" if other groups wanted access to students.

Sorry Bishop, other groups do have access to students, unfortunately they are your groups.

Bishop Peter Ingham, Bishop of Wollongong, spoke for us all when he expressed the disappointment of the Church at the State Government’s decision to allow ethics classes to be conducted in NSW public schools from next year during the time set aside for Special Religious Education (SRE). 

"Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen said the ethics rollout was "a bad decision ... which will impoverish the education of many NSW public school children

David Hutt certainly doesn't like it, but then as his job  NSW Director for the Australian Christian Lobby, that's  no surprise

 From the Minister for Education and Training Verity Firth:-

"The evidence has been overwhelmingly positive in support of ethics classes in NSW," Ms Keneally said.
"The evaluation report found a high level of support for the course in school communities which participated in the trial and that has also been reflected in the response from the wider community."
Following the release of the evaluation report for public comment in October, 745 community submissions were received with 730 in favour of ethics continuing.
"From next year, schools can opt to offer the course following consultation with their school community," Ms Keneally said.
The classes will initially be offered to Years 5 and 6 and then progressively extended to Years K-6.

So, 730 in favour out of 745, So I wonder how many other Government initiatives have ever had such a high positive feedback?  

So why after all these years did someone finally decide on Ethics classes, and what do they hope to gain? :-

St James Ethics Centre executive director Dr Simon Longstaff says the ethics classes sharpen and improve the children’s critical thinking skills while complementing and extending the work of primary school teachers who, through the school curriculum, already engage the children in activities that look at ethical issues.

“What you end up with as a result, is an opportunity to engage in meaningful activity for all children in NSW, and not just those who go to SRE,” he says. “It teaches them how to think about ethical issues in an environment where they can bring to bear their own cultural, religious and other world views, which they have derived from home or from their life in the community.”

The pilot is the result of a long campaign by parents of the NSW Parents and Citizens’ Federation over several years. Dr Longstaff says he was first approached seven years ago by a group of parents who wanted a program that looked at important questions that arise in the children’s lives. They wanted it without the theological or spiritual dimension that is an integral part of SRE without removing or damaging the existing programs in NSW schools.

“The thing that’s been really striking about this debate in NSW is that it’s been driven by parents of all faiths and no faiths who have this common concern for the welfare of the children who don’t attend SRE,” Dr Longstaff says.

Parents were concerned because in some NSW schools children who had opted out of SRE were made to sit outside the principal’s office “as if they had been naughty”, reports Dr Longstaff, and he adds that this is “unjust and it’s wrong”.

Hang on, what did he say?
                  "the ethics classes sharpen and improve the children’s critical thinking skills"

So is that the reason the Christian Lobby is up in arms? Teaching children critical thinking?

It seems to be very clear what is going on, non elected, non government, vested interest groups, are trying to get their own way, against the best interests of the Parents and Students in their own schools.

I think the French have it right, they teach philosaphy, as part of High School, and have just started it for 13 yr olds.

 A televised debate on the Ethics issue can be viewed here

The classes will be taught from the beginning of the first term in 2011, more information on the classes can be found here

The full report on the Ethics trial can be downloaded here

I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.- Albert Einstien

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