Primary Ethics Programme

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Five hundred primary schools across New South Wales currently offer ethics classes, which are an alternative for those students who choose not to attend weekly special religious education sessions.

Heidi McElnea, Communications Manager and Trainer, Primary Ethics and Denise Palmer, volunteer Regional Coordinator and ethics teacher at Armidale City Public School tell us more about the Primary Ethics Programme and how it works …

Please explain the principles behind the Primary Ethics programme …

The programme provides public primary school students from Kindergarten to Year 6 with a space to discuss ethical issues with their peers, facilitated by a trained volunteer ethics teacher. All classes follow a set curriculum and support children to develop their moral reasoning capabilities. In each class, the focus is on skills development, rather than the promotion of any particular view. 

Children develop the skills to identify ethical issues, a willingness to engage in respectful discussion with their families and friends about a range of complex topics and the ability to think widely and critically in exploring reasons and developing arguments.

A typical class involves children exploring a range of stories and scenarios, discussing what we ought to do, how we ought to live, the kind of society we should have and what kind of person each of us should strive to be. 

Primary Ethics teachers undergo training in behaviour management, and each ethics class adheres to six principles, called “Ethics Class Rules”. In ethics classes, children learn that their opinion is respected, it’s OK to have a different opinion from their classmates, and that it’s also OK to sometimes change your mind. Students learn how to disagree respectfully, to build on each other’s ideas, and to make their own decisions based on ethical reflection, instead of peer pressure or habit.

What schools in the New England currently offer this programme?

The two schools in the region to offer Primary Ethics are Armidale City Public School and Kellys Plains Public School. We would love to have more schools and volunteers involved across the New England region.

In the past, new volunteers have travelled to the Coffs Coast to attend the free, two-day training course. We’re planning to hold the first New England training session in Armidale in February next year, to make it easier for people to become involved as volunteers and for more schools to be able to offer the programme.

Volunteers don’t need a teaching background, as training in classroom management and facilitation skills is provided. Anyone with an interest in lifelong learning and in supporting children to think things through, express their opinions and make well-reasoned decisions will find the experience fascinating. Sometimes it gets you thinking in new ways about your old ideas, too.  

How was a need for this type of programme identified?

Parents, the Federation of P&C Associations of NSW and The Ethics Centre recognised an opportunity to provide philosophical ethics classes to primary school students who have opted out of weekly special religious education classes (SRE) at their primary school. Each week in NSW, over 100,000 students do not attend SRE. In 2010, after eight years of lobbying, Parliament amended the NSW Education Act to allow schools to offer ethics classes as an option. 

The NSW Government then tasked The Ethics Centre to develop and deliver ethics education classes in urban, regional and rural primary schools. A new not-for-profit organisation, Primary Ethics, was established to take on the task. 

There are currently 500 primary schools across NSW offering the programme, with 40,000 children attending ethics classes each week, delivered by 2,500 trained volunteers. Of these, around 1,700 are ethics teachers, with other volunteers supporting the programme in the roles of coordinators, or by offering classroom support to ethics teachers.

All classes are based on the approach where students are encouraged and supported to make their own judgments about whether something is right or wrong, good or bad and to explain why, using evidence and reason. Volunteer teachers do not teach their own personal ethics and values. 

How is this programme implemented?

Apart from a handful of staff in Head Office, Primary Ethics is run completely by trained volunteers who are often parents, grandparents and other community-minded locals who have an hour a week to spare and an interest in helping children to make better decisions.

Ethics teachers use detailed lesson materials to deliver a curriculum of 79 topics. The curriculum has been designed by Dr Sue Knight, a distinguished academic in the field of philosophical education for children, with each topic reviewed by an expert panel, chaired by Dr Simon Longstaff of The Ethics Centre.

Who are some of the friendly volunteer faces implementing this program we may meet at our various schools?

Denise Palmer and Therese Suddaby from Armidale City Public School and Lisa Johnson and Amanda Forrest from Kellys Plains Public School.

Typically, what are some of the topics covered in class?

Infants’ ethics classes are focused on developing core skills such as listening to others, taking turns to speak and giving reasons. Topics have a largely practical focus, such as asking and answering questions, disagreeing, changing your mind, working out what is true, giving and evaluating reasons, as well as giving examples and counter examples.

Classes for children in Years 3 – 6 include stories, contemporary issues and real life scenarios which form the basis of discussions on ethical issues such as selfishness, how we should treat living things, promises, greed, friendship, cheating, voting, punishment, homelessness, teasing and fairness in society. 

What’s been the feedback received from parents/students about the programme?

The programme’s been very well received by both parents and students. Parents have expressed how their children come home with an increased curiosity about the world. 

Students love to talk – recently Stage 2 were discussing how we treat living things. They’re continuously bouncing ideas off one another – our role is to facilitate the discussion and let them develop their listening and reasoning skills.

Where can we find out more info?

The Primary Ethics website (www.primaryethics.com.au) provides a wealth of information about the Primary Ethics programme and details on how to become a volunteer teacher. Due to teachers leaving the area, we’d love to have more people come on board and help out for an hour a week. 

An information session is being held at the Armidale War Memorial Library on Monday 10th December at 5:15pm for people interested in learning more about Primary Ethics classes or becoming a volunteer teacher. For more information about the session, visit primaryethics.com.au/new-england

Thanks Heidi and Denise.

Interview: Jo Robinson.

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