Parents will be able to choose between ethics and religious education on a single form next year after the NSW government moved to scrap a system that made it harder to opt out of scripture classes.
“We are seeking to resolve the long-standing concerns about transparency relating to parental choice between religious or secular ethics, or nothing at all,” said Education Minister Rob Stokes. “This will also make it simpler for schools.
“With the existing process, you are required to effectively label your child. You identify what religion you would like them to be instructed in. Why should governments be collecting data about religious preferences in an education context?”
Chair of Primary Ethics Bruce Hogan said the change was likely to lead to a surge of interest in ethics classes next year, and called for more parents, grandparents and community members to volunteer to teach the weekly classes in primary schools.
When ethics classes were introduced, parents could tick a box if they chose it. But in 2015, the government removed that box and advised parents who did not want their children to attend scripture to contact their school about information on alternatives, such as ethics or non-scripture.
The government denied it had done a deal with Christian Democrats MP Fred Nile, who opposes ethics and who the government relies on for support in the upper house. But on Thursday, Reverend Nile said he supported the change. “As long as SRE (Special Religious Education) is on the form, it’s up to people what they choose.”
When Labor announced it would include ethics on the form in June, Mr Stokes indicated he also supported a change. But ethics advocates have since been urging the NSW Department of Education to act.
The new form will be sent out in students’ enrolment packs from next year. In keeping with legislation requiring so-called cascading options, it will list religious options first. But if the parents don’t want any of those, they can move to the non-religious section of the form.
Each option available at the school will be listed. If the parent’s preference is not available, parents will be told to contact the provider.
Darrin Morgan, a spokesman for the Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) group, which has been campaigning for enrolment forms to be changed to make it easier for parents to enrol in non-scripture or ethics classes, said schools also need to remove any automatic enrolment into scripture.
“We welcome the change but one of the things we will not be happy with is if the letter doesn’t tell parents what will happen if the form is not filled in or returned,” Mr Morgan said.
According to the information about the change released on Friday by the department, “if the student starts school before the return of the participation letter, the student is to participate in alternative meaningful activities pending a response.”
Parents at a number of government schools have complained about their children being enrolled in scripture classes as the default option if they do not provide written permission from their parents to attend non-scripture classes, with one school recently requiring an updated form every year.