Primary Ethics

Here in Australia, scripture is still taught in schools. One of the problems with this is that scripture classes eat up some of the scheduled classroom time, and children whose parents don’t want them to attend religious education are specifically not allowed to do anything during that time which might give them an academic advantage over students attending scripture. So the students not attending scripture are typically not allowed to use that time to study, or do homework, or do anything else that might be “educational” in some sense. Often they just sit in a room and watch videos.

About 15 years ago, a group of people decided to do something about that and offer secular ethics classes during this time when other students are doing scripture. Since the scripture classes purport to be offering ethical education, it couldn’t be argued that the non-scripture children were doing anything additional.

However, this campaign fell foul of religious interest groups, who felt that ethical instruction without religion was inherently evil or something. The religious groups fought long and hard to have secular ethics classes banned from schools.

I’m pleased to say, however, that they lost the fight and some years back a completely non-government-funded volunteer group called Primary Ethics was granted permission by the NSW Department of Education to offer ethics classes as an alternative to religious scripture in New South Wales primary schools. The curriculum very specifically does not attempt to teach children “what is right” or “what is wrong” – rather it teaches them skills in critical thinking, and that many issues are complex and that not everyone agrees on what is right or wrong, and the value of considering things from other people’s points of view.

Since its inception, Primary Ethics has grown to be extremely popular, with many parents (including many religious ones) wishing to enrol their children in ethics classes. The problem is, being non-funded, Primary Ethics needs volunteers to actually teach the courses.

Recently, I volunteered to become an ethics teacher, and I just completed my training (which includes federal police background checks and clearance to work with children). I will be starting tomorrow, with a class of Year 4 students (about 9 years old). I’m proud to volunteer my time to teach a new generation of people the principles of ethics and critical thinking, and I hope they all go on to become better adults because of my efforts.

4 Responses to “Primary Ethics”

  1. Jeff Zeitlin says:

    The only problem I have with this, conceptually, is if the scriptural education is funded by the government – it leaves scriptural education and secular ethics on an unequal footing, and has the effect of promoting scrip ed over sec eth: Any given school is guaranteed to have someone to teach scrip ed, but if an area doesn’t have anyone who can afford the time to teach sec eth, there’s no option for those who don’t want their kids in scrip ed.

  2. For the record, scriptural education in New South Wales is not government funded either. However, there’s no lack of organisations and volunteers to provide scriptural teachers for the majority religions – Catholic and Anglican. Minority religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism tend to have long waiting lists for schools to receive a qualified volunteer teacher.

  3. Chuk says:

    Sounds like you guys need a little separation of church and state. Ethics courses for primary age kids is a great result, though — here in Canada public schools don’t cover it, you’d have to get ethics in post-secondary school.

  4. Jeff Zeitlin says:

    As an American, I do favor separation of Church and State – but as a nominally rational human being, I understand and accept that Not Everyone Will Do It The American Way – nor should they, if it doesn’t work for them.

    I agree, though, that some sort of ethical education, starting early in life, would be a Good Thing, and is just as rare in the US as Chuk suggests it is in Canada.

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