Complaint demonstrates overall success of ethics program

September 2019: It takes a village to raise a child – and many of those who enrich our children’s lives do so as volunteers.

P&C committees, canteen, reading groups, garden club, uniform shop, sport coaches, Scouts, Guides, playgroups – volunteers make a huge contribution to children’s lives and are being celebrated in Volunteer of the Year Award ceremonies held this month around the state.

“Yes we are volunteers, but we take this role very seriously,” said Suzan Fayle, who has facilitated ethics classes for the past six years at Orange Grove Public School.

Ms Fayle is one of 2800 Primary Ethics volunteers who help 45,000 students each week to think for themselves and develop the skills to disagree respectfully with others. Lessons based on philosophical ethics give children skills in critical thinking and ethical reasoning.

The children who complained about the teacher at Dulwich Hill Public School (“Ethics teacher stood down for saying Stolen Generations due to bad parents”, Sydney Morning Herald, September 9) used just those skills and should be commended.

“I’ve taught all levels and cannot recall a time where the script has allowed me to voice my own opinion. Our training is very strong on the point that the lessons are written by highly experienced educators and the lesson works without any extraneous input – or leaving anything out – by teachers,” said Ms Fayle.

Primary Ethics emphasises in all aspects of our training for volunteers that their role is to facilitate discussion using the approved curriculum without omission or addition. Our shorthand for this is ‘follow the script’.

Two weeks ago we immediately stood down the ethics teacher at the centre of the complaint when we were notified he had breached our policy that ethics teachers must not introduce their own opinion into discussions in ethics classes.

The requirement for volunteers to not voice their own opinion is clearly and consistently communicated in:

  • candidate interviews
  • initial online training
  • two-day face-to-face training.
  • signing the terms of engagement and agreeing to the volunteer code of conduct
  • continuing professional development
  • supportive resources such as the Ethics Teacher Handbook and Guidelines for Volunteers
  • our classroom support team services which routinely observe ethics classes and provide mentoring.

Many of our volunteers are retired Department of Education teachers or those in part time positions (full time employees are not permitted by the DoE to volunteer) or have experience in early childhood, tertiary or workplace education. But as the role is to facilitate discussion among the students, it differs from that of a traditional teacher who is seen by students as the main source of knowledge in the classroom. Objectivity is a key criteria when determining suitability of candidates for the ethics teacher role and volunteers from a range of backgrounds are a good fit.

This incident is a rare occurrence among the 8,300 volunteers who have been trained by Primary Ethics since the program’s inception in 2011 and Primary Ethics has acted quickly and in accordance with our publicly available complaints policy.

The benefit of ethics classes, and the efforts of our many terrific volunteers, should not be reduced to this flawed example by those who see ethics classes as an inconvenience to their efforts to remove Special Religious Education from schools.

The fact that these students were able to identify and challenge the comment of their ethics teacher is a sign that the program is working.