HSV Lecture 2016 – Teaching Humanism in schools

HSV Public Lecture by a panel of speakers, Dr Harry Gardner, Stephen Stuart and John Russell, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 24 November 2016

Dr Harry Gardner

In 1973, the Victorian government reviewed religious education in State schools. The Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) made a submission recommending two changes: that Ethics and Comparative Religion be taught, and that the classes be outside regular school hours.

In 2006, when the law was amended, Religious Instruction (RI) became Special Religious Instruction (SRI), and a new category of General Religious Education was created, encompassing comparative religion. Harry devised an ethics curriculum based on Humanist material, which could be delivered by parents or other volunteers. He submitted it to the accrediting authority, Religions for Peace, who gave it qualified approval. His course of ethics covered a wide range of topics, including the Art of Living, Philosophy, Rights and Responsibilities, the Environment, Behaviour and Science. However, a short time later, the Minister for Education ruled that Humanism was not a religion and HSV had to withdraw.

However, HSV remained committed to work for change and Harry was gratified to see SRI become an optional subject, with a range of alternative activities for the children who did not participate.  After successful lobbying by Teachers’ Union, volunteer instructors were banned from the classroom and the Department reviewed the curriculum in this area.

Harry believes that science has an important contribution to make to understanding ethics.  While he is aware that others do not share this view he maintains that scientific method helps us appraise issues and that scientific facts assist us to understand and appreciate the diversity of mankind.

Stephen Stuart

In 2011 Dan Kerr, convener of the HSV meet-up group at the time, invited parents who were dissatisfied with the SRI program to come together. Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) grew from this. It became a platform for airing the discrimination experienced by children not attending SRI classes and raised awareness of the proselytizing activities of the churches, despite the requirement in law that public school education be generally secular.

Formal complaints by parents against the Education Department resulted in a hearing at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in March 2012. The judgement delivered eight months later was conservative. It maintained the status quo, while also acknowledging the grievances raised by the parents. The Education Department changed the protocol for SRI, making it an opt-in process rather than an opt-out one as had formerly been the case.

In 2015, after representations from HSV and Rationalist members, the newly elected Labor government directed that SRI should only be offered for 30 minutes at lunchtime, or, alternatively, before or after school. Children of any age would be free to attend. The new Ministerial Direction 145 decreed that school principals should have regard to the variety of religious views within their school communities and that the personal religious views of the Principal be discounted in any decision-making. This was a major turn-around from the previous program, in which Access ministries supplied instructors State-wide. If a school was approached by a volunteer, most principals felt a strong obligation to make provision for a period of SRI within the classroom curriculum.

In March 2015, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) invited HSV and the Rationalists to attend a consultation about curriculum revision. From 2017, a new subject will be taught. It will help children learn about world views and religions, including secular Humanism and rationalism.

John Russell

VCAA is collating resource material for the introduction in 2017 of the new subject about the five main religions in Australia and secular humanism. This will be offered from preparatory grades up to Year 10. The curriculum also addresses skills and capabilities in addition to knowledge, and therefore ethics will be incorporated into many learning areas of the curriculum, as well. Rosslyn Ives, John and Stephen have been meeting monthly with other members, Marietta Elliott and Kathryn Bowden, both of whom have professional expertise in this regard. As a result, HSV has already provided VCAA with relevant resource information and will continue to do so. Fortuitously, the British Humanist Society (BHA) updated their teaching material in May 2016 and has agreed to allow us to make use of this. The material, which covers a range of age-groups and topics, can be viewed in detail on the Understanding Humanism section of the BHA web site.

For more information about the development of ethics education by HSV and related groups see the Education section of the HSV web site.

Report by Jennie Stuart