By JR on Thursday, November 17, 2011
Queensland's Liberal National Party has strongly backed religious instruction in state schools, arguing Islamic and non-religious parents often want children brought up with a Judeo-Christian grounding.
brisbanetimes.com.au sought comment from both sides of politics about the prospect of introducing secular ethics classes in Queensland, nearly a year after the New South Wales government rolled out such courses state-wide as an alternative for non-religious students.
Both Labor and the Coalition in NSW support the ethics classes, saying students who did not attend religious education sessions should have access to some structured learning rather than being sent to the library for private study.
But their Queensland counterparts appear to be lukewarm on the idea. LNP education spokesman Bruce Flegg said the party was not planning to alter any legislation at this time, but would be happy to consider any proposals or submissions.
“The LNP believe that the overwhelming majority of Queenslanders want their children brought up with a Judeo-Christian grounding in religious education,” he said in a written response. “In many cases this applies to people who themselves may not be particularly religious.
“I am sure this also applies to the increasing number of Queenslanders who identify themselves as Islamic. The LNP is therefore supportive of RE in schools.”
Dr Flegg said he respected the view of people who objected to a faith-based RE program but the overwhelming majority “still want their children to understand values as they underpin our community”.
The government was last night unable to provide figures on the extent of religious education participation in Queensland state schools.
Queensland's education laws allow approved representatives of denominations and faith groups entry into state schools to provide religious instruction of up to one hour per week.
However, this is meant to be provided only to children whose parents have nominated that religion on their enrolment forms or to children whose parents have given written permission. Parents can opt out, with students sent to alternative activities, such as reading or studying.
Education Minister Cameron Dick did not express a view on ethics classes but said Education Queensland would seek further information from NSW following the first full year of the program, which began at the start of 2011.
Mr Dick said principals had discretion over the types of activities offered to students who did not attend religious instruction classes.
“Alternatives already exist, which include wider reading, doing personal research, revision of class work or other activities at the discretion of the principal,” he said in a written response. “These decisions are made by principals at the local level. Principals may decide to provide an ethics-based class.”
A year ago, the then-Labor NSW government announced it would give parents the choice to place their children into secular ethics classes instead of religion lessons after declaring a pilot program a success.
In the trial, year 5 and 6 students explored philosophical issues surrounding how they ought to live and what principles should guide ethical decision making.
Each of the 10 lessons in the trial explored a particular ethical question, such as what made a practice or action fair or unfair, and students had to discuss their reasoning. Other topics included lying, ethical principles, graffiti, the use and abuse of animals, interfering with nature, virtues and vices, and children's rights.
The ethics classes were spearheaded by the St James Ethics Centre which developed a 10-week lesson program delivered by volunteers.
The philosophical ethics program was rolled out more broadly from the start of this year, with students encouraged to engage in dialogue and discussion on ethical issues.
The NSW Coalition, which swept to power in March, insists it will maintain an election commitment to keep the ethics classes available "because the government believes that there ought to be an alternative provided for students who are not taking scripture classes".
Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens' Associations state president Margaret Leary said yesterday the ethics class idea had not been raised as a major topic within the organisation. She said non-religious students were sent to the library or other areas to read, study or perform other learning activities.
It would be interesting to see how the ethics courses worked in NSW, she said.
University of South Australia ethics and philosophy lecturer Sue Knight, who last year evaluated the NSW pilot program, made a broader point about the lack of structured alternatives to religious instruction in state schools across the country.
Humanist Society of Queensland president Maria Proctor said last year ethics classes had merit, but they should not be limited to students not attending religious instruction.
Ms Proctor said her organisation, which defended the separation of church and state, disliked religious instruction being provided in state schools and believed students should not be “segregated based on what their parents believe”.