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Ethics should be a course for all pupils

By Robert Haddad - posted Monday, 22 November 2010

Special ethics education should not be allowed for children not attending scripture classes. Nor should ethics education be "special". Rather, it should be available to all children, not only those withdrawn from scripture classes.

We have a serious problem. Even though special religious education (SRE) accounts for only 3 per cent of teaching time, it is outrageous that some students not doing SRE are left doing nothing educationally worthwhile. I have witnessed such myself in the inner-west this year. This is an intolerable injustice that ought to be deplored by all concerned parents and educators.

A solution needs to be found and found immediately. But is special ethics education the only or appropriate solution to the problem? Is it possible to address the legitimate concerns of non-SRE parents without raising the ire of SRE providers?


I say it is.

Ethics as a subgroup of philosophy should be taught to all students in the mainstream curriculum. There is already ample provision within the syllabuses for human society and its environment and personal development, health and physical education for the teaching of values and informed decision-making.

However, I would go further. The author of the present ethics trial curriculum, Associate Professor Philip Cam, has recently worked to integrate philosophy into the teaching program of years 7 and 9 at Ashfield Boys' High. Rozelle Public School this year ran a philosophy course for primary students in the mainstream curriculum. Both have been highly successful.

Professor Cam and Dr Sue Knight (author of the final report into the ethics trial) both assisted in a working party that argued last year for one hour a week of philosophy to be included in the proposed national curriculum as part of civics and citizenship.

Such a course would have the advantage of being taught by qualified professionals rather than well-meaning volunteers with just two days' training. Let us introduce philosophy and ethics to everyone through the front door, not to non-SRE students only through the back door.

If a K-12 philosophy-ethics course were ever to be implemented as part of the new national curriculum any special ethics course taught during SRE time would become an unnecessary duplication, leading undoubtedly to a drop in parent and student interest in the latter. It should be a philosophical ethics course, not simply lessons in "values clarification" without a "moral compass", a concern raised by some school principals and acknowledged by Dr Knight. Nor should it be a course simply committed to developing rational processes of argument and justification where peer acceptance is the sole measure of what is right. Value neutrality is impossible. Students should be taught the consequences of ideas.


The true complement to SRE is general religious education (GRE), as recognised by the Rawlinson Report way back in 1980. It makes no sense to have students graduating utterly ignorant of all religion, let alone worldwide religious traditions that are now prevalent in our multicultural Australia. Knowledge gained through GRE would only assist with tolerance and understanding of the "other". P&Cs could work with the NSW Association for Studies of Religion to identify and co-ordinate volunteers.

Students whose parents do not prefer either SRE or GRE could use their time to further their education and/or sense of social justice, through:

  • Supervised, active student-centred learning, consisting of reading, study, homework, research etcetera. This would include reading for the Premier's Reading Challenge, Reading Recovery or "hurdle help".
  • Social justice action groups, such as Knitting for Africa, or Knitting for Charity.
  • A School Environmental Corps, School Community Gardens and Water Watch groups.

These examples are all meaningful activities as well and remind us that education is no longer just "instructional" in a 1950s sense.

The premise for introducing special ethics education was to solve the "twiddling of thumbs" by providing an option of educational worth. But one-third of non-SRE students still did not take up the offer to enrol in ethics, not to mention those who dropped out during the course of the trial.

We return to the original core of the problem - student management. All that is needed is a commitment by all schools to properly abide by the existing Department of Education and Training policy for SRE. There is no excuse for the continued abuse by a minority of schools whereby non-SRE students are left to watch videos in the “naughty room” or assigned to do "clean-up" duty.

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About the Author

Robert Haddad is the director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and lectures in Scripture and Church at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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