Ethics classes were introduced into NSW schools in 2011, after families and P&Cs recognised there were many students that were opting out of religious education classes and saw an opportunity to make better use of that class time.
There are now around five hundred schools offering Ethics classes across the State. We spoke to John Gray, Coffs Bellingen Regional Manager, and Kim Luckie, Ethics Teacher at Sawtell Public School, about the Primary Ethics Program and their experience with the students and classes.
Hi John and Kim. Tell us about your relationship with the Coffs Coast.
JG: The coast and the mountains is where I feel most at home. I grew up on a farm on the Clarence River and have lived and worked as a teacher on the Mid North and Coffs Coasts for 30 years now. I’ve cycled most of the roads and bush tracks, and I am also a guide at the Botanic Garden in Coffs Harbour.
KL: I moved here from Sydney 12 years ago to pursue my career with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. After nearly 20 years in environmental resource management, I’ve decided to retrain as a secondary science teacher. I had some readily transferable skills from my experience in community engagement, and being a volunteer ethics teacher showed me how rewarding teaching can be.
Volunteering allows us to connect on a deeper level to issues and you can also give something back to the community.
Tell us about Primary Ethics and where the idea for the program came from?
JG: Families and P&Cs recognised an opportunity for ethics classes for around 100,000 primary school students who had opted out of weekly religious classes and who weren’t doing anything productive in this time.
In 2010, Parliament amended the NSW Education Act to allow schools to offer ethics classes as an option. A new not-for-profit organisation, Primary Ethics, was established to develop the program.
KL: The ethics curriculum is written by Dr Sue Knight, whose background is in philosophical education for children, and it’s reviewed by an expert panel. It’s really well designed.
How long has Primary Ethics been running?
JG: Ethics classes were introduced into 56 NSW schools in 2011 and now it’s in 500 schools.
What is your role within the program?
JG: I’m a volunteer regional manager. Recruiting ethics volunteers and school liaison are the two main aspects of the role. Supporting ethics volunteers is also important, and we get together socially three or four times a year.
KL: I’m an ethics teacher at my daughter’s school. Each week I run an ethics class; it takes about an hour. We guide students through the lesson plan and encourage them to participate. It’s a great way to have a real input into your child’s school, and it’s fascinating to see how kids think about the big issues.
What sort of things are taught in ethics classes, and what is an example of the type of scenarios you might discuss with the kids?
KL: Some of the topics are Empathy, Stereotyping, Being similar and being different, Bragging, Being greedy, Getting even, A fair society and Voting.
JG: For Voting, for example, children discuss a scenario where students are running for student council. Children question whether we should vote for someone just because they are our friend, or do we have an obligation to understand what their policies are? Does it matter if policies benefit everyone at the school equally? Children often have quite different opinions, and they can explore the thinking behind them.
What do you think the students get out of the program?
KL: Kids seem to really enjoy the class and are eager to engage, as it’s not the ethics teacher giving kids the answer, it’s about them discussing ideas and reasons together. They learn to make well-thought-out decisions.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching ethics?
KL: Those little gem moments when you see a child has really been listening to another’s point of view. They may then reflect on their initial response and add something deeper, or even change their opinion to point out something significant.
How many schools are involved in the program here on the Coffs Coast?
JG: The seven schools in the Coffs Harbour Bellingen area involved in Primary Ethics are Sandy Beach, Kororo, Narranga, Sawtell, Repton, Bellingen and our newest, Nana Glen, which began ethics classes in 2018.
Ethics classes are taught in schools by volunteers; how many volunteers do you have in schools here on the Coffs Coast?
JG: Currently we have 25 volunteers. This is the time of the year when we are eager to find new recruits, so more students can be part of the program next year.
How do people that are interested in becoming a volunteer get involved?
JG: Read up on the program and apply at primaryethics.com.au – we’ll hold a free weekend training session for new ethics teachers in term one next year.
How would someone go about getting their local school started with Primary Ethics classes?
JG: The Primary Ethics website has good advice, and as the local regional manager I can work with parents to raise awareness by giving a talk to the P&C or providing information flyers.
Without trained and approved volunteers, ethics can’t be established. Often these volunteers are parents who are keen to see the program in place for their own children; sometimes it will be grandparents, retirees or others keen to give an hour a week back to their community.
Please get in touch if you’d like ethics classes at your child’s school: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks John and Kim.