Thursday, 3 February 2011

Ethics classes in NSW schools

I see that the coalition (that is, the guys who will be governing NSW in just a few months) have reneged on their promise to scrap ethics classes, which means that a lot of state schools in NSW will be offering them as an alternative to school scripture this year.

This is one of those bad news-good news items. In the short term, it is pretty much all bad news. The selling point was that this would provide an option for non-religious families to involve their children in considering ethical issues, but wouldn't be promoted as suitable for all students and certainly wouldn't undermine existing Scripture classes. That was always going to be spin, and even during the trial period rhetoric didn't match reality (see this report for some examples). Lying liars from Mendacity City, Arkansas, have told their lying lies and now we are left with the result—ethics classes available to all state schools in NSW and broadly promoted to all students and parents as a desirable and good thing.

Add to that, the coalition parties in NSW said they'd remove the classes, and then promptly backed down and said they wouldn't. That doesn't look good even when you assess it in purely secular ethical terms. Lots of thoughts here about yes, maybe some of those involved in political promises would benefit from a bit of ethical instruction before promoting it to the great unwashed as the solution to many of life's problems.

The good news (I think and suspect), is that school scripture is now safer than it was. Yes, there were constitutional safeguards to ensure that it always was safe, but the way the ethics trials have been introduced show how easily such things are circumvented at local level when parents are told by governments that their children are being treated unfairly. It may never have occurred to parents that their children were missing out by being denied instruction in philosophical ethics; now many of them are persuaded that they have been deprived in the past and that this new course will meet their needs.

Now that the classes are going to begin to be offered, a lot of the intensity of feeling will go out of the whole discussion.

So I predict that the new classes will be nowhere near as wonderful in execution as they are meant to be in theory, falling at an early hurdle for lack of parents and citizens to teach them. It's one thing to be excited about ethics as a good thing for kids to learn, it's quite another to sign up to a roster to teach it for weeks and terms on end as a volunteer. Ask any school scripture teacher about that cost.

Not only that, but any heat in the campaign of some secularists to remove school scripture from schools will dissipate due to the well-publicized introduction of a secular alternative. The same argument that says 'we want choice for our kids' is the one that Christians will and should use to keep on going with existing school scripture classes (which remain constitutionally protected as a part of the state school education system). If those scripture classes are well-taught and well-run, children will be happy, parents will be happy, schools will be happy and one brilliant opportunity to teach children the gospel will remain in place.

[UPDATE: A lawyer friend corrects me by pointing out that the right to teach Scripture in NSW state schools is strictly speaking legally protected, but not constitutionally protected. Thanks Neil!]


michael jensen said...

This makes sense to me. (You could post this to SMH Opinion)
So: were we right to be so fearful about the classes in the first place?

Gordon Cheng said...

Nice to see you last night Mike, sorry didn't say hi.

Yes I will sit on this for a little bit and think before I send anything to the papers. But I personally have never been particularly fearful of ethics classes; seems to me that if they are good then they are good, if they are bad they will be seen to be bad and lose support, and in the meantime we will keep trundling along and teaching school scripture as we always have. Just with smaller classes, which is in itself a mixed blessing.

John Smuts said...

Hey Gordo - back from Tathra? Enjoy the coffee at the beach cafe?

Good article. I sent something along these lines as a letter to the SMH about 6 months ago but it didn't get published.

I've told our school that we will even help them administer Ethics if they need help. At the moment it looks as if there isn't enough interest for it to happen though! (Amazing for the inner west.)

The only bit of bad news that I think you have left out is the following progression that I predict:

1. Becomes obvious that it is an administrative nightmare doing ethics through volunteers.

2. Pressure on Government to streamline it - i.e. either employ chaplains to teach it or pay teachers to do it as part of their curriculum.

3. Alongside no. 2 it is only possible to this if ethics becomes the compulsory replacement for SRE for all pupils.

I'm not trying scaremonger but I can just see down the track pressure going in this direction.

I have to say that I'm amazed it has taken so long. From a democratic perspective I'm amazed that a tiny minority of the population is able to teach its religion in normal lesson time to the kids.

As you say my slippery slop argument has actually been delayed by what has happened. Because of all the fuss people the level playing field will stay for a bit longer. Any move to make ethics a sort of compulsory replacement to all SRE couldn't happen for quite a while.

John Smuts said...

sorry for all the typos.

Most my arguments are slippery slop.

Slip. Slap. Slop.

To hot.

Erin said...

I don't see a stack of benefits, but I do hope it encourages more people to be involved in teaching scripture, and that it also encourages us to keep trying to do it really well.
In Wee Waa all the kids do scripture, but it falls to a very few to teach it. It'd be great to see some change there.

silkworm said...

Let's not pretend that the purpose of scripture classes is to teach ethics. Their purpose is to indoctrinate students with ideas about sin and heaven and hell. A little honesty from so-called Christians would be welcome.

Gordon Cheng said...

silkworm, I'm not sure why you would think that Christians are pretending to teach ethics. My argument (and that of most other Christians I know) has always been that they aren't— which is one of the reasons why the teaching of ethics classes is no substitute.