School scripture gets a good report card

“Scripture in schools counteracts fundamentalism” is one surprising message that comes from the release of a report by “Better Balanced Futures” an umbrella group backed by Christian and other faith groups that teach religion in schools.

Asked on Brisbane radio about the value of having volunteers teach religion in schools, the report’s authors, professors Zehavit Gross of Bar-Ilan University Israel, and Suzanne Rutland of the University of Sydney gave a surprising answer.

Both Jewish, they see fundamentalist secularism that disrespects religion as a source of social division. Quality religious education that teaches students to understand faith within a schools context of tolerance contributes to a better society.

The independent report into Special Religious Education (SRE) in NSW schools has found that SRE brings important psychological benefits to students’ mental health and wellbeing and reduces the risk of mental illness. It also makes an important recommendation that SRE providers review the style of teaching to lift the impact of the lessons.

Positives in the report include findings that SRE:
• Strengthens multiculturalism
• Creates safe spaces for students to explore faith
• Empowers student decision-making by providing effective values education.

The report cites studies that indicate positive student health and wellbeing outcomes are linked to belief in a higher being, concepts of generosity to others, gratitude, and values education.

Special Religious Education has been part of the educational firmament in NSW for 170 years,” Rob Stokes, NSW Education Minister, told Eternity at the report’s launch at Parliament House yesterday.

“I believe the role of SRE is becoming more and more important in contemporary Australia as we become more diverse.” – Rob Stokes

“It is an essential part of our uniquely Australian brand  of religious freedom. We believe that talking about faith and different types and varieties of religious perspectives on the world is a really important part of a young person’s education.”

He added: “I believe the role of SRE is becoming more and more important in contemporary Australia as we become more diverse and there are more faiths celebrated by more Australian families. It is important we get a shared understanding, and get a deep knowledge of what we believe so we can test it in discussions with others.”

A key change to SRE recommended by the report is a shift in the teaching style used by SRE teachers. “Research shows that young people respond better to a more interactive and personalised learning approach” the report says. “Values education conducted through SRE must ensure that students are not presented with a dogmatic approach to values. Instead students should be exposed to the variety of religious approaches to ethical dilemmas within their specific faith community and encouraged to grapple with this plurality that is central to crucial moral and ethical beliefs.”

The ‘opt-in’ nature of SRE in NSW schools will be strengthened with a new enrolment form for school students in 2019 , the NSW Government announced yesterday. The new form will list all the SRE options available at a school, including ethics classes. Until now indicating a religion on a enrolment form led to a child being sent to a SRE class. The new form will make the process of enrolling a student in SRE more transparent.