The parent behind a new petition calling for reform of the Special Religious Education (SRE) program in New South Wales’ public schools is hopeful it will generate enough support to force a more substantial response than he has been receiving from the government.
In an interview for the latest episode on our The Secular Agenda podcast, Steven Cowgill spoke of his frustration at receiving little to no response from the government to his questions about SRE over a number of years.
Earlier this month, he, as part of a small group of parents, launched a petition on the New South Wales Parliament website calling for the Legislative Assembly to ask the state government to pursue reform of the SRE and Special Education in Ethics (SEE) program.
The petition asks the government to change the state’s Education Act (1990) so that optional SRE and SEE are run only during participating students’ own time, such as breaks or before or after school.
The Act allows normal class time to be set aside for SRE and its secular alternative SEE by students who have parental consent. With the Department of Education’s policy requiring that normal classes for all students must stop during SRE, many students face disruption to their normal curriculum if their parents do not want them to partake in SRE or if SEE is not available.
The suggested change would follow that of Victoria, where the Andrews government moved scripture classes to being outside of regular class hours – a move that New South Wales education minister Prue Car ruled out last month.
Citizens of New South Wales have until 12 April 2024 to sign the petition.
Since 2015, Mr Cowgill (pictured) has been writing to ministers, government authorities and SRE providers challenging some of their public statements about the nature of SRE and the extent of its take-up in schools.
Earlier this year, his daughter’s high school inadvertently released data on participation rates in SRE, showing that only a minority – just 27 per cent – of students were taking part.
“It’s really just been a letter-writing campaign trying to understand why SRE is in law the way it is. There’s been no real engagement with the issues I’m raising,” he told the podcast.
“If [the petition] gets to 500, then there’s a formal response from the minister directly to the petition. That might be an advance on the standard answers from the department that come on behalf of the minister.
“If it gets to 20,000 signatures, then there’s a formal debate held in the parliament on the subject of the petition.”
Mr Cowgill said the petition was not about removing religion from schools or infringing on parents’ rights to educate their children in a particular faith.
“It’s more a simple scheduling change that will be to the benefit of everyone. It’s just the simple observation that this is disrupting schools and there are better ways of organising the schedule that it can happen in,” he said.
“The petition was an idea to just try and raise awareness and do the right thing by the kids who are missing out in schools.”
The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) is urging its supporters and members based in New South Wales to add their names to the petition.
Opposition is mounting to having SRE in class time, with a number of public sector education stakeholders earlier this year having written to Minister Car urging a “long-overdue” independent review.
This year, the RSA has raised concerns with Minister Car about the teaching of creationism in Christian SRE. Also, the RSA has discovered Islamic teaching materials that warn children of “hellfire” and tell them to not “compromise or change your identity”.
You can listen to The Secular Agenda podcast on major podcast apps or here on our website.
Si Gladman is the Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.