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. April Saunders, Ethics Coordinator/Teacher, Laurieton Public School; Shannon Larkin, Ethics Coordinator Tacking Point Public School; and Nicolas Philip, Ethics Teacher, Port Macquarie 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 Port Macquarie region currently offer this programme?

Hastings, Laurieton and Taree West Public Schools were early adopters of the programme in 2013 and 2014, joined soon after by Cundletown, Beechwood and Wauchope Public Schools. 2018 has seen the biggest growth of new programmes, with many volunteers taking advantage of the first ethics teacher training held in Port Macquarie in June this year. Children at Lake Cathie, Tacking Point, Port Macquarie and Hallidays Point are also now attending weekly ethics classes, thanks to those who’ve volunteered to teach and coordinate the classes. 

Shannon Larkin is the ethics coordinator at her children’s school at Tacking Point.

“My work makes it a bit hard to teach at the same time each week, so I jumped into the ethics coordinator role. We’ve got a great team of five other parents who all trained at the Port Macquarie training, and since Term 3 have been running four classes at the school.”

Shannon’s daughter, Isa (5) is delighted about her Kindergarten ethics class.

“In ethics class the kids get to ask all the questions!” Isa said.

Nicolas Philip began teaching ethics this year at Port Macquarie Public School. Nicolas is teaching students in Year 1 and 2, and he hopes that other volunteers will join the programme to enable children to continue their education in ethics as they get into the older primary school years.

“One of the key messages in training is that this is not about sharing your ideas with the children – it’s really a space for them to share theirs,” Nicolas said.

With his son in his class, Nicolas also enjoys the opportunity to be more involved in his education.

“For the first couple of lessons I did have to remind my son not to speak in French, as that is the language we mainly use at home!”   

April Saunders began volunteering at her children’s school in Laurieton in 2014. 

“We have been lucky to have had several teachers at Laurieton continue with us from the very beginning. However, volunteers eventually move on, so for continuity of the programme, it is important to maintain a pipeline of interested people from the community who are willing to join the programme who we can draw on when the need arises.” 

Approximately half of all children enrolled at Laurieton Public School attend ethics classes each week. Vacancies for ethics coordinators include Hastings, Lake Cathie, Wauchope, Cundletown and Port Macquarie Public Schools, and all schools are welcoming new volunteers to teach the classes in 2019. The next ethics teacher training session is planned for April next year.

How was a need for this type of class/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 an 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 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.

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. 

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.  

Thanks everyone. Interview: Jo Robinson.

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