Strong bipartisan support for Special Religion Education (SRE) was in evidence at a Virtual Celebration of SRE attended by teachers and eminent members of many faith groups yesterday.
Opposition Leader Chris Minns and Shadow Minister for Education Prue Carr gave warm personal endorsements of the importance of SRE, emphasising Labor’s historic role in enshrining its place in the state’s public schools.
“In fact, it was the Wran Labor government in 1980 that established the principle that learning about religion should be part of the education available to children in NSW government schools, that the teaching of faith and scripture should be available for the children of parents who wanted it,” said Minns.
“The other principle of the Wran era reforms that underpin Special Religious Education is that of parental choice – the choice to have your child participate in religious education classes is an important one. And the Wran reforms also established that this teaching be provided by suitably qualified people. The result is a partnership between individual schools and local faith groups in their communities.”
Minns said he was a product of SRE instruction at Mortdale Public School in the 1990s. But in today’s more diverse and multicultural society, SRE is now available in all religions with more than 100 approved providers working in NSW schools. While the majority are Christians, other providers represent Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh and other faiths.
He thanked SRE teachers, the vast majority of whom are volunteers, for their dedication in continuing to provide this service online through the COVID pandemic of the past 18 months.
“This has posed enormous challenges for everyone involved in education, principals, teachers, school support staff, and of course, parents. SRE teachers responded with professionalism and dedication, wherever possible they kept teaching going by adapting to the challenges of online learning,” Minns said.
“I saw that first hand at my own house; SRE teachers produced material to allow lessons to continue at home. This helped parents keep their children engaged and thinking about their religion. And it also helped parents answer questions every young person has about the world, their life and their relationship.”
“We would never have gotten through this huge crisis without the work of faith groups.” – Chris Minns
He also thanked faith groups, particularly those in western and southwestern Sydney, who helped the community during the lockdown, working tirelessly to support the needy, providing food and clothing, along with emotional and faith support.
“We would never have gotten through this huge crisis without the work of faith groups and the support that their congregations and memberships provided to individuals and families in need,” he concluded.
The Labor leader’s Shadow Minister for Education Prue Carr, echoed his strong support for SRE in terms that set the ALP apart from its counterpart in some other states.
Acknowledging the “incredible work that the SRE community at large has done during the last four to five months of lockdown”, she made a particular tribute to the SRE community “going above and beyond to actually do work outside of their remit” in reaching out to schools, students and communities and in particular encouraging communities to get vaccinated.
She said the 90 per cent double vaccination rate achieved this week was thanks to “the amazing work of people across the communities of NSW, particularly of faith communities.”
“We know how important that is – not just to learn the faith of their family, but also on many, many occasions it’s used as a way to contribute to the world around us.” – Prue Carr
She reaffirmed Labor’s support for SRE in schools and the right of a parent to choose for their child to participate in instruction in their own faith.
“To many parents across NSW, we know how important that is – not just to learn the faith of their family, but also on many, many occasions it’s used as a way to contribute to the world around us.
“So thank you very much for everything that you do. We are here to help and support you. Please know that Labor is here to support what you do in schools and feel free to reach out at any point.”
Earlier in the broadcast, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said his government had a commitment to ensure that “SRE is stronger than ever as we move forward.”
“This has been the most disrupted school year in a long, long time, and many SRE educators will have felt the sense of distance from their students and I very much want to thank you for the work that you’ve undertaken in supporting students, where it was possible, and looking at innovating and new ways of doing things,” the Premier said.
“We’ve all had to learn in our own areas of work different ways of connecting with people. And there could be no more important connection than looking after our young students and giving them that support with the challenges that we’ve gone through over the last 12 to 18 months.
“From the bottom of my heart, I really thank you and congratulate you on how we’ve gone through and the work that you’ve undertaken over the last 18 months, particularly the last few months where we’ve seen many of our schools had to be closed to keep our kids safe.”
“There could be no more important connection than looking after our young students and giving them that support with the challenges that we’ve gone through over the last 12 to 18 months.” – Dominic Perrottet
He also thanked the faith communities who had come to the aid of people who needed food, clothing and shelter and had provided social support to those feeling isolated or suffering mental health challenges; this had played an important role in keeping communities connected through lockdowns.
As well as being important in a crisis, faith communities are a vital part of any thriving community and society, he said, because they are naturally outward-focused and exist for the sole purpose of serving others.
They had laid great foundations throughout history in our country, building hospitals, schools, orphanages, benevolent societies, and caring for the most vulnerable, the sickest, and those most in need.
But as well as their great historical and current attributes, “faith communities bring great joy and hope to me and many people, and their role, particularly for young people, is incredibly important.”
“Governments can do a lot, but there will always be that specific role, in my view, of faith communities to enrich our culture and to make our society whole. And that’s why I personally believe that a strong and healthy society, any strong, healthy society must make space for faith. And that’s why I believe it’s also important to make space for faith education in our schools as well.
“And I want to ensure that no one is ever persecuted for their faith. We are united against any form of religious vilification.”
“As our students return to school, your work will become even more important, helping them to adjust to the challenges that they’ve gone through.” – Dominic Perrottet
He said SRE enriches students’ experience at schools, encouraging students to go beyond the academic basics of education and ponder the bigger questions about our place in the universe and what it means to live a good life. “And that is something that I believe and our government believes is vital.”
Perrottet said he was keen to hear how the government could better support SRE teachers in their vital work. “And as our students return to school, your work will become even more important, helping them to adjust to the challenges that they’ve gone through in the last 18 months.”
Education Minister Sarah Mitchell also spoke warmly, saying she was grateful for SRE both as a parent and as a minister, and she hoped that next year’s celebration could be held in parliament as in previous years.
“We, as an education team are working really closely with NSW Health on all of our restrictions and all of our COVID-safe operations that we need to have in schools. I’m really happy that from yesterday, we were able to announce some changes for our level-three settings, which means that from this week, we are seeing some additional activities recommencing our schools, which also includes our Special Religious Education, Special Education in Ethics, and also voluntary student activities of a religious nature in schools to return.”
“The government’s commitment to digital enrolment in SRE is very welcome and crucial.” – Kanishka Raffel
Both the Education Minister and Sydney Anglican Archbishop Kanishka Raffel mentioned that a new online enrolment application process for SRE and SEE will be developed in time for the 2022 school year.
“We welcome and appreciate so much the announcement that the department will ensure that a digital enrolment process will be deployed in time for enrolments next year,” Raffel said.
“And that this will include both the SRE participation letter and a question on religious identity. This will ensure parents can be empowered with an informed choice about the faith education of their children, something we consider of great importance. The government’s commitment to digital enrolment in SRE is very welcome and crucial as it practically deepens and strengthens the partnership between faith communities and governments and in schools and parents as together we seek to raise, confident, resilient children who know they are unconditionally loved by their Creator God.”