Ethics classes hidden from parents, say supporters

PROPOSED changes to the way parents are notified about the option of ethics classes in NSW schools have been criticised by supporters, who claim they are a deliberate attempt to stymie the classes' take up.

A government-initiated inquiry into ethics classes was held this year following calls for their abolition by the Christian Democratic Party MP, Fred Nile, whose party shares the balance of power in the upper house.

It found the classes should be retained but recommended that parents should not be advised the classes are available until after they have decided to opt out of special religious education, or scripture.

The Greens MP John Kaye, who sat on the parliamentary committee that conducted the inquiry, said if adopted the change would result in ''artificial and illogical barriers'' being thrown up between parents and ethics classes. ''Ethics education is to be treated as a second class option because the O'Farrell government needs the votes of Fred Nile's Christian Democrats in the upper house,'' he said.

Dr Kaye tried to amend the recommendation but the Reverend Nile and the government MPs David Clarke, Marie Ficarra and Sarah Mitchell defeated the motion.

David Hill, the spokesman for the group Parents 4 Ethics, which has supported the introduction of ethics classes into NSW schools, said the proposal was ''nonsense''. ''The committee in every other sense found that ethics should be treated like scripture,'' Mr Hill said. ''They appear to have slipped in this discriminatory obstacle.''

Bruce Hogan, the chairman of Primary Ethics, which provides classes for schools, said it was unfair that the option of ethics would be ''hidden away'' from some parents. ''Members of the school community are entitled to make informed choices, just as they have always been able to do whenever a new [special religious education] option becomes available within a school that is properly communicated to all parents,'' he said.

But Mr Nile said the proposal, which he believed would prevent principals from informing parents about ethics classes via a school newsletter, was designed to ''send a message to principals'' about the primacy of scripture classes in government policy. ''We just want to keep the emphasis on [special religious education] and not cause conflict,'' he said.

The Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, said the government ''agrees that there ought to be an alternative provided for students who are not undertaking scripture classes''. However, he declined to comment on whether it supported the recommendation, noting its official response was not due until November.

''The government will respond to the committee's recommendations by the due date,'' he said.

The right of NSW schools to run ethics classes as an alternative to special religious education was enshrined in law by the former Labor government in 2010.

Previously, department policy forbade schools from offering alternative lessons to students who chose not to take part in special religious education.

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