Primary Ethics, the sole approved provider of ethics classes to NSW public schools, will hold its first New England / North West volunteer teacher training session this week.
Secular ethics classes, organiser Heidi McElnea believes, prepare children for a complex 21st century world, developing important skills like critical thinking, reasoning, and decision-making.
Ms McElnea, a Uralla resident, will run the sessions in Armidale on Sunday, March 10 and 17. She would also like to run sessions in the Tamworth / Gunnedah area.
"This makes it more accessible for people interested in volunteering," she said. "I hope to see new schools coming onboard."
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Nearly 1700 volunteers in more than 500 schools across the state teach Primary Ethics' K-6 program - but few schools in this region participate, despite parent interest in both Armidale and Tamworth. The nearest training centre is in Coffs Harbour, making it difficult to train volunteers.
Nine locals, from Armidale and Uralla, have already enrolled. There is room for a couple more if they sign up this week. For more information, contact Ms McElnea on 0420 514 653, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The training sessions introduce volunteers to the Primary Ethics curriculum; teach storytelling, facilitation, and behavioural management techniques; and discuss the philosophic framework.
"I hope this training session will be part of a big uptake in the region," Ms McElnea said. "It's been fantastic to see the amount of people who've been interested in the program, whether it's parents, school teachers, people who've stood up to volunteer. We're keen to give as many children the opportunity to do the classes as we can, right across the region."
Most volunteers are parents, but grandparents, retirees, and other community-minded locals were also interested in becoming ethics teachers, Ms McElnea said.
Parent volunteer Therese Suddaby, now at Armidale City Public School, has already taught the ethics classes here for three years.
"Teaching ethics has taught me not to underestimate children; their sense of fairness, insightfulness, opinions, and how they develop an understanding of the world and the people in it," she said.
The ethics classes are also taught at Kellys Plains Public Schools, while Drummond Memorial, Rocky River, and Ben Venue Public Schools may start them, too. The classes, Ms McElnea said, are available to any school; interested parents should contact her to set up a programme.
"Volunteering is very rewarding," Denise Palmer, who teaches the kindergarten and years 1 and 2 classes at Armidale City Public School, said. "You see children learn to appreciate differing opinions, and develop reasons to support their discussion."
The Special Education in Ethics (SEE) classes are held in the half-hour per week allotted to Special Religious Education (SRE).
Ethics classes were introduced to NSW in 2010, as an alternative to SRE, despite the opposition of conservative religious bodies like the Sydney Anglican diocese and Fred Nile's Christian Democratic Party.
This is the first year both religious and secular classes must be an option on school enrolment forms. From 2015, ethics classes were not advertised, and families had to opt their children out twice from SRE before even told they could take SEE classes. Then-premier Mike Baird denied in 2015 he made a deal with Fred Nile to remove the classes in exchange for supporting power privatisation.
If the school isn't running SRE, ethics classes can still be run when convenient.
Primary Ethics' curriculum has 79 age-appropriate topics, taught through scenarios and stories. Year 5 and 6 students, for instance, examine the ethics of voting in the lead-up to the state and federal elections. Younger children explore Questions and the importance of curiosity; discover Empathy; and the dangers of Being Greedy. (Many politicians might need a refresher course.)
"We discuss some really interesting topics in ethics classes," 11-year-old Armidale City Public School student Ty Wood said.
The 245 lessons are written by Dr Sue Knight, of the University of South Australia's School of Education; reviewed by a panel including philosopher Kelby Mason and the Ethics Centre's Dr Simon Longstaff; and approved by the Department of Education for suitability for the target age group.
"Ethics is about helping us live the best lives we can," Ms McElnea said. "It's an opportunity for children to ask questions, be curious, and look at grey areas."
It differs from moral instruction, she explained, in that teachers don't simply tell children stealing or lying is always wrong (a moral absolute). Rather, teachers help students to understand complex issues. What actually is stealing? Is it, for instance, stealing if you use somebody's WiFi without their permission?
"We help unpack these concepts so children are better prepared to tackle these grey areas as they move through life," Ms McElnea said. It's hard to apply a set of principles or morals to such thorny issues as artificial intelligence or genetic engineering, for instance. "They really have to break it down, and work it through for themselves."