Nile isolated as Anglicans back ethics classes

Sydney, Australia - THE leading opponent to the introduction of ethics classes in NSW schools, the Anglican Church, has reversed its position and says they should be retained, while the Catholic Church now argues they should not be removed as they have ''little impact'' on the teaching of scripture.

The reversals come amid a stand-off over the classes between the O'Farrell government and the Christian Democratic Party MP, Fred Nile, who has threatened to block key legislation in the upper house if it does not consider removing them from schools.

The comments will be welcomed by the government, which yesterday rejected Mr Nile's proposal that the classes be moved from being in competition with special religious education (SRE), or scripture, lessons.

The acting Premier, Andrew Stoner, said the proposal was ''problematic and very unlikely to find support'' from the government.

Bryan Cowling from the Anglican Education Commission, the church's peak education body in the Sydney diocese, told the Herald the church had consulted with the O'Farrell government. ''Once the thing had gone through we saw that as the reality and we need to make sure we work within it,'' he said.

''I'm comfortable with the current arrangements and so is the Anglican Church.''

Dr Cowling said there had been a fear among religious providers before the classes were introduced that they might be a vehicle of getting rid of special religious education altogether.

''I've seen the curriculum, which none of the churches had seen before the legislation went through and, having seen the curriculum, it's nothing to be frightened of,'' he said. ''It's good educational stuff.

''We've got no evidence that introducing the ethics classes has done anything to reduce the number of SRE classes.''

But Dr Cowling said removing the classes would be ''undemocratic'' and Mr Nile's proposal risked throwing the whole area into turmoil, so ''ultimately [that] could mean SRE could disappear altogether,'' he said. ''I don't think his position can be defended on the basis of fairness.''

Jude Hennessy, the spokesman for the Catholic Conference of Religious Education in State Schools, said the church had also dropped its opposition to the classes. Mr Hennessy said while Mr Nile's move to have the classes removed from schools was ''no doubt an expression of his strong support'' for scripture, ''the implementation of ethics classes has progressed too far to warrant this action''.

He said the debate had prompted an increase in the number of volunteer scripture teachers, while there had been limited take-up of ethics classes, which are running in 128 primary schools with 180 teachers: ''The implementation of ethics classes in a limited number of school communities has had little impact on the teaching of SRE.''

Last night Mr Nile expressed surprise and disagreed with the view that ethics classes had not affected scripture lessons. ''I've been getting information from the grassroots in schools saying [ethics] is having an effect.''

He told the Herald he understood that Mr Stoner did not want to announce changes to government policy while the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, was in China and looked forward to his meeting with him next week.

When ethics classes were introduced at Hilltop Road Public School in Merrylands last term, its Catholic scripture alternative lost one student. But Charlie Gregory, 10, who said the classes were more fun than scripture, also had some other reasons.

''My dad's the teacher,'' he said.