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Review of Scripture in NSW announced while VIC parents get more informed choice on religious education

An independent review into Special Religious Education (SRE) in New South Wales state schools is on its way, according to NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli.

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Piccoli spoke at an SRE celebration at Parliament House in Sydney last week, and told his audience the review has been put out to tender.

The review comes as a result of a 2012 Parliamentary Inquiry that recommended a full review of the nature and extent of SRE and ethics programmes, complaints procedures, training structures, opt out policies and supervision levels for students not attending SRE or ethics classes.

The full terms of reference and further details of the review are expected to be announced soon, with the review scheduled to wrap up by the end of 2015.

In New South Wales SRE is taught by approved teachers, the majority from Christian churches. These teachers are volunteers, and it is estimated that there are between 10-12,000 of them in NSW primary schools. This does not include Scripture teachers from other religions such as Islam and Buddhism.

ICCOREIS  (Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools) chairman Neville Cox said the body is happy to participate in the SRE review.

“We see the potential for further improvement in the delivery and process around SRE,” said Mr Cox.

“We are always seeking ways to improve the quality and consistency of what we deliver through our training, curriculum material and best practices.”

ICCOREIS is the peak body for SRE in NSW, representing 80 per cent of Christian providers delivering SRE to schools across the state, including the Baptists, Brethren Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Salvation Army, Uniting Church, Australian Christian Churches and most Anglican Dioceses.

There are also SRE teachers in around two thirds of secondary schools in NSW. Of these some 200 secondary schools in NSW have a scripture teacher provided by a local combined churches board that fundraises for the position.

Generate Ministries is a third-party provider that supports 90 of these boards and employs over 100 scripture teachers in 120 secondary schools. Generate also provides training, professional standards and an interdenominational high school SRE curriculum.

Peter Robinson, CEO of Generate Ministries says scripture providers in the state have been expecting the review since last year. He said any impartial review that examines the quality and effectiveness of SRE in state schools would be a good thing.

“Generate has been working very hard to raise the quality of high school SRE for some time now.”

Robinson’s immediate concern was that the upcoming review would be run through the early childhood education section of the department, even though SRE runs across primary and secondary education. He also highlights a disconnect some boards feel between the NSW Education Act 1990, the implementation procedures for SRE and their local situation. Generate seeks to help boards find the best way to resolve their concerns with the NSW education department.

“I would hope that the review not only puts a spotlight on the most effective ways of delivering SRE for the benefit of young people, but would also highlight ways to improve the administration of SRE for schools.” 

Neville Cox from ICCOREIS says faith providers of SRE no longer have a monopoly, after the introduction of ethics (SEE) classes in NSW state schools. As a result, SRE providers “need to improve our communication with parents about the benefits of SRE in the education system and how it adds value to a well-rounded, balanced education.”

He said Christian providers are keen to support one another and work cooperatively to ensure “we are doing the best job we can” in offering scripture to state school students.

Meanwhile, in Victoria, the parental consent form for religious education in schools has been made clearer, giving providers hope parents will be able to make a more informed choice.

It’s been a confusing year for parents who filled out a form at the start of the year, and then had another “interim” form to fill out mid-year following changes to SRI guidelines in Victoria, and now, the latest form, which will be used for 2015 classes, has been released.

Access Ministries had concerns about the clarity of the interim form, which put in bold print: “Given the religious nature of the program, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development does not endorse program content used to deliver SRI by accredited volunteer instructors.”

The disclaimer is retained in the current form, but is no longer in bold. CEO of Access Ministries Dawn Penney says there’s nothing controversial about the DEECD not endorsing their syllabus.

“The Department has never approved not only our material, nor any of the faith providers’ material—they’re not equipped to do that, they’re not theologically trained.”

Other changes include providing two check boxes – one for yes and one for no. The last form only had one check box: to opt-in. The change took place after consultation with the faith providers and following parent and public feedback.

“The Department did come to us and I believe other SRI providers and ask for input and comment on the form. We certainly didn’t get everything we asked for, but the form is certainly a little clearer; it’s easier for schools to use, and I believe easier for parents as well.”

Access is also pleased that under the revised guidelines, faith providers are allowed to offer parents information about what they teach and who they. A few months ago Access Ministries feared they would not be allowed to give out any information about their programs due to a departmental directive which ruled against the distribution of any such material. But the Minister over-ruled his Department and an A5 brochure will be distributed.

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