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NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes

Despite complaints raised by parents about controversial and potentially damaging content being taught in special religious instruction in school, the New South Wales government has decided against banning the practice in state schools.

Parents complained to principals in an independent review of the program that it contained “inappropriate, homophobic and anti-science” lessons in religious instruction. But the NSW government has decided to keep the program, ignoring recommendations for substantial changes, and parents who object can opt their children out of it. Of course, News Corp papers have described this decision as “retaining the long-held principles of freedom of religion”.

An independent report to review special religious education and ethics classes in New South Wales was commissioned by the state government in 2014 and delivered to the government in 2015, but it was only publicly released yesterday. Secular parent groups had attempted to get the government to release the report over the past year, but requests were refused while the government considered its response.

The report found that 22% of principals had received complaints from parents about what religious instruction teachers were teaching students, and secondary principals in particular were concerned about the attitudes of religious instruction teachers to issues such as sexuality, which the principals felt could adversely impact on vulnerable students’ mental health. 

Some of the complaints from parents claimed that there were inappropriate topics discussed that had “disturbed or frightened their child”, with many of the lessons being “too evangelical”. Some children were taught that people who did not believe in God would “die young”, people who did not love Jesus were “the enemy” and children who stopped going to scripture (or religious instruction) would “go to hell”.

Some of the materials examined in the report contained negative passages about abortion and said cancer was a consequence of sin and a gift from God.

While religious groups complain about the teaching of sex education issues, the review found that religious instruction teachers were “overstepping the mark” in addressing issues of sexuality, and explicitly expressing homophobic views. One parent reported this could impact on the mental health of students questioning their sexuality.

The NSW Education Department responded that issues related to sexuality should only be taught in health classes.

The report also found that some teachers were teaching fundamentalist or literal interpretations of scriptures that were anti-science, including teaching creationism and claiming dinosaurs never existed.

In one instance, a principal reported receiving threatening letters from a religious instruction teacher after raising concerns about what that teacher was telling students.

The controversy over Safe Schools originated over lesson plans available publicly on the Safe Schools website, but the review found just over one-third (39%) of religious instruction providers made the curriculum taught in those lessons available on a website, and in many cases the review found teachers weren’t sticking to the material they were supposed to, or were teaching age-inappropriate lessons.

NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes said the government would make the curriculum available online, and it would complaint-handling processes and ensure the content was appropriate.

He dismissed the complaints raised in the report as “anecdotes” but not evidence of systemic problems in religious instruction in government schools.

Parents can opt their children out of religious instruction classes, but the review said the majority of secondary school principals — seeing a decline in the number of parents keeping their children in religious instruction classes — said it would be easier to move to an opt-in for religious instruction in secondary schools but keep opt-out for primary schools. The NSW government rejected this suggestion because parents can still object and have their children removed from religious instruction in secondary schools. 

The introduction of ethics classes in NSW as an alternative to religious instruction has proven very popular, and the review found that the main barrier was a shortage of ethics teachers to meet demands for the classes.

Peter Fray

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