Ms LEE RHIANNON [7.56 p.m.]: In the early 1960s, as a young girl at Bronte Primary School, I was offered the rich experience of cleaning the school toilets. I was the only child in the school who did not attend scripture classes. Luckily for me, toilet cleaning did not last long after my parents complained. For years thousands of students in public schools around the State have been sitting idle one hour a week because they do not want to attend scripture classes. Those students sit idle because of a government requirement that schools do not offer alternative timetabled lessons during the allocated hour for scripture each week. In an era where there are many moans about a "crowded curriculum" this situation should be addressed by the Iemma Government.
It is something parents feel passionate about. The Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of New South Wales conducted a survey of parents on this issue that was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. The survey found that 59 percent of parents thought it was "important" or "very important" that their child be given the option of attending a secular, ethics-based class and 79 per cent of parents said they would support their children being exposed to faiths other than their own. Almost one-quarter of parents said they would like to see the teaching of faiths other than their own.
The parents and citizens federation has called on the Minister for Education and Training, Carmel Tebbutt, to provide an alternative to the teaching of morals in Christian-based scripture classes for students not attending scripture. The St James Ethics Centre has also knocked on the door of Government with the offer to prepare an ethics course to be taught during scripture time. But Ms Tebbutt has rejected this proposal. Today I received answers to questions on notice I put to Ms Tebbutt. These answers reveal that two churches and the InterChurch Commission on Religious Education have written to the Minister to request that an ethics course not be allowed to run concurrently. The Minister also indicated that she does not support a survey of parents to canvass support for ethics or comparative religion courses as an alternative to scripture.
This rejection goes against recommendations of the Rawlinson Committee that was established in 1980 to review religion in education in New South Wales. Recently Queensland attempted to change its Education Act to broaden religious instruction to take in beliefs other than Christianity, but the bill was withdrawn after an outcry from churches. Public schools are the home of universal values. The elevation of individual religions runs counter to the very mission of public education and is offensive to many parents. In January, in a bid to curb antisocial behaviour, Premier Iemma responded to the Cronulla riots with a plan to make it compulsory to play the national anthem at school assemblies, and to teach students about respect and responsibility.
The rot of the Premier's proposal is sharply accentuated when it is put against his Government's refusal to introduce an optional ethics course for students during scripture time. The Minister for Education and Training is most vulnerable on this issue in her very own electorate of Marrickville. In the 2001 census, Marrickville recorded the highest proportion of people claiming to have no religion—21.2 per cent. Schools in the Minister's electorate must be chock-a-block with students whose parents would prefer their children to receive an education in ethics rather than to sit idle. In August, Ms Tebbutt's Labor colleagues on Marrickville Council voted against a motion calling on the Government to review these archaic policies and to allow a non-religious alternative to be taught.
Public schools do best when they bring together the diverse range of world views that make up Australian society. Excluding some beliefs because they do not satisfy a narrow definition of a religion is unfair and dangerous. The New South Wales Government is effectively mandating what children will or will not believe. It is time for the Iemma Government to renegotiate its longstanding deal with churches, that is, excluding non-religious education options from public schools. It is time it stood up to the entrenched power of organised religion and offered secular alternatives in public schools. Parents who are not part of any organised religion are demanding a much better deal. Their children should be given access to secular, ethics-based classes.