The inner-city high school where ethics classes are run at an after-school club

Kevin Farmer is a veteran primary school ethics teacher who for years held weekly classes at Crown Street Public. But when the chance to run an after-school ethics club at Inner Sydney High appeared,he leapt at it.

“In high school classes the philosophical questions and conversations are much deeper,we talk about human rights,marriage equality,peer pressure and friendship,” said Farmer,who is one of about 2000 volunteer ethics teachers in NSW. “I get fewer numbers in the high school,but they are there because they want to be. They are so engaged.”

Ethics teacher Kevin Farmer runs an after-school ethics club at Inner Sydney High and teaches ethics at Crown Street Public School.

Ethics teacher Kevin Farmer runs an after-school ethics club at Inner Sydney High and teaches ethics at Crown Street Public School.Janie Barrett

Primary Ethics,the not-for-profit group that has run classes for the past decade,says almost 43,000 primary students are enrolled in ethics at 483 – or just under a quarter – of the state’s public schools.

A pilot program by the organisation to extend classes to secondary schools is still in its infancy:just a handful of schools,including Inner Sydney,Fort Street High,James Ruse Agricultural High and Katoomba High have taken part in a trial run by the organisation.

Primary Ethics chief executive Evan Hannah says while primary school ethics enrolments are up 20 per cent on five years ago,the program is dealing with major hurdles recruiting volunteer teachers,particularly in rural and regional areas.

“Our biggest growth in the past few years has been at primary schools in Parramatta,Canterbury-Bankstown and Georges River,where more schools in those areas are signing up,” he said.

“We are moving beyond the inner west and lower north shore,but there are serious challenges after COVID-19 caused so much disruption. We rely solely on volunteers,75 per cent[of whom are] parents,and without them the schools can’t run classes.”

Data shows fewer schools have ethics classes in areas of Sydney where both parents are more likely to work,where they work further from home,and where English is more likely to be a second language,he said.

In NSW,parents can enrol their children in ethics as an alternative to special religious education. Those that don’t take either are not allowed to continue with curriculum work,but instead participate in “meaningful activities” like time in the library.

Figures from Primary Ethics show areas including the Inner West,Randwick,Waverley and Ku-ring-gai have the highest proportion of schools offering ethics. Maitland,Wagga Wagga and Penrith have some of the lowest numbers of schools signed up.

Farmer,with students Arran Keith,Carmen Lim and Chelsea Cannes at Inner Sydney High School.

Farmer,with students Arran Keith,Carmen Lim and Chelsea Cannes at Inner Sydney High School.Janie Barratt

Kevin Farmer is one of just 15 teachers in NSW who runs both primary and high school classes after a trial program in secondary schools for year 7 and 8 students began last year.

“Even though it’s been going for 10 years there is still little awareness about ethics classes,” said Farmer,who has taught primary ethics at Crown Street Public for five years and started the after-school Inner Sydney High program this year.

Farmer,who used to work at Goldman Sachs,said teachers don’t give their opinions on topics,rather they “just facilitate discussion between the children”.

But NSW Primary Principals’ Association vice-president Michael Trist says there are long-running concerns that holding ethics classes during school hours in primary schools is adding more content to a crowded curriculum.

A survey of 94 principals run by the association last year found 46 per cent of students attended special religious education,14 per cent attended ethics and the remainder took part in other activities.

“We want to see religion and ethics moved outside school hours,” Trist said. “That’s not because we are against ethics or scripture,but we have a major problem with an overcrowded curriculum,and ethics should be treated in a similar way to other extracurricular activities and moved after school.”

The NSW Department of Education does not keep central data on the number of students participating in religious education or ethics,but previous data sought under freedom of information lawsshowed fewer than one-third of the schools had more than 33 per cent of eligible students enrolled in scripture.

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Lucy Carroll is education editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a health reporter.

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