Seven years ago, Simon Longstaff, the executive director of the St James Ethics Centre, was approached by a small group of parents. Longstaff's not-for-profit organization in north Sydney usually teaches businesses about making ethical decisions, hosts debates on topical issues and provides free counseling for people wrestling with ethical dilemmas. The parents were hoping he could extend his services to their elementary-school-age children.
In public schools across New South Wales, children have an optional one-hour lesson of special religious education usually Christian Scripture every week. Those who don't go participate instead in activities that Longstaff describes as ranging from "punitive to vaguely useful." Depending on the school, some children spend an hour collecting litter, some do homework, some watch videos, and still others sit outside the principal's office with a book. "The parents felt that what their children were required to do at the school during this time was meaningless," recalls Longstaff. "They wanted [them] to have access to something that other children had access to, but without the religious component."
Getting a religion alternative into the classroom took time. In 2003, Longstaff asked Philip Cam, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales, to design a secular-ethics curriculum for elementary-school students. He also approached the state's then minister for education, Andrew Refshauge, with the idea. Refshauge didn't believe it could garner sufficient support to be successful, nor did his successor, but eventually Longstaff proved that his idea had enough backing for it to go mainstream. Cam's curriculum was tried out this year in 10 primary schools with children ages 11 to 12. Volunteer parents trained by the St James Ethics Centre taught the program, and classes were only made available to those that weren't enrolled in special religious education.
Australia is not the first country to wade into this controversial territory. In 2008, Quebec installed a compulsory ethics-and-global-religions course across the Canadian province. This June, a landmark court hearing ruled in favor of a Catholic school in Montreal seeking to be exempted from teaching that curriculum on the basis that the school disagreed with presenting ethical and religious perspectives as morally equivalent to each other. In Germany, ethics classes have been compulsory in Berlin's public schools since 2006, after the honor killing of a Turkish woman by her brother. A referendum in April 2009 to give religious classes, which are optional, an equal status confirmed that no one wanted to change the status quo. Only 14% voted to make religious education compulsory. (The rest of Germany's public schools give students an option between studying ethics and religion.)
In Australia, the ethics pilot program has also been met with mixed response. Sue Knight, a lecturer from the University of South Australia in Adelaide who was commissioned by the New South Wales Department of Education to write an analysis of the curriculum, said the classwork was effective in making children more aware of ethics in everyday life. The state's Education Minister Verity Firth is expected to announce by Christmas whether Longstaff's proposal will be adopted in every public school in New South Wales next year. The classes would be available only to those who have opted out of Scripture, but Longstaff hopes the contents of the secular-ethics curriculum will eventually be made available to everyone: "Those teaching [religion] can use whatever part of the curriculum that they find helpful."
Religious groups, however, feel the program is, by design, exclusionary. Make a Stand, a website run by the Australian Christian Lobby, has more than 50,000 signatures on their "Save Our Scripture" petition to ban the new ethics program from schools on the premise that it's unfair to make a child choose between Scripture and secular ethics. This belief was reiterated by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in September. He said Christians were excluded from the course: "It's the same as if you were offering reading at one time and sport at the same time, therefore forcing parents, and children, to choose between two good things."
The national debate that has sprung up around the course has come as a surprise to Longstaff, but he is pressing ahead. The curriculum, which references a range of philosophers from Socrates to Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, covers topics like lying, fairness and the abuse of animals. "Our job is not to provide answers but to rib students into thinking about the questions," says Longstaff, who says parents have particularly commented on the dinnertime conversations that follow the classes. "[Parents] like the battle between compassion and honesty. The question of 'What do you do when grandma knits you a sweater for Christmas and you don't like it?' was very popular."