News – 24 September 2013

News 2013 – Volunteers for ethics in schools

The Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) is planning to coordinate a demonstration course of ‘the community of ethical inquiry’ for a few State primary schools, if they wish to consider an extra-curricular enrichment program. The method of community of inquiry is favoured because it is well suited to the kind of ethics lessons where process is more important than content. We are not proposing to introduce secular ethics as some variety of special religious instruction (SRI) under the Education Act (sec. 2.2.11). In fact the Society has always been opposed to the provision of SRI in government schools.

Only four State primary schools teach philosophy, so a pilot program has to start with finding some volunteer teachers and giving them specific training. This training will be available from the professional body, Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools. People interested in teaching should contact HSV at victorianhumanist@gmail.com.

If the trial were successful, it would then be up to individual school principals and school councils to request volunteer-led ethics lessons, with no need to refer the matter to the Education Department (DEECD). The school would decide whether to schedule the classes for all students in particular grades or for those excused from SRI. An office to administer the program would have to be created. Initially the supply of volunteers would be limited, so only schools in the Melbourne metro area would be likely to participate.

If demand grew, schools that ran SRI might apply in order to give parents a real choice. Schools could even request ethics classes outside school hours and might consider moving SRI out of school hours similarly. Our interest in the program continuing would lapse when the ethics component of the new Australian Curriculum was operating with Departmental teachers to the schools’ satisfaction or when SRI had effectively vacated the schools.

It is a different situation in NSW, where the law had to be amended to enable ethics classes, run by volunteers, to operate on the same basis as ‘SRE’ volunteer classes. The NSW organization Primary Ethics is looking to expand its existing program in about 200 schools to cover the whole State (approx. 3,000 schools), which may be unrealistic using only volunteers. There is a pedagogical difference also. In NSW the purpose is partly didactic, teaching that you have to defend what you think about ethics, whereas the Victorian aim is more modest, to guide children so that they learn from one another how to think about ethics.

We know of no organization in NSW advocating either the abolition of ‘SRE’ or an expanded general religious education, with trained Departmental staff teaching ‘world-views’ (religions and conscientious beliefs). Both such moves are advocated in Victoria by HSV.

Report by John Russell and Stephen Stuart