Supporting ethics in all time slots

Ian Bryce

There has been vigorous discussion between State Humanist societies about whether ethics should be taught by volunteers, and in the Religious Instruction timeslot, if that is the only option.

Aligned with Humanism

Firstly, I will argue that the content of the various ethics classes is closely aligned with Humanist values. Human Rights feature very strongly in Humanist objectives. Ethics curricula lead the students to work out that human rights stem from human needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, housing, and physical freedoms. At a higher level is freedom of thought, speech, association etc.

All sentient creatures share, to varying extents, common capacities for suffering and well-being. Thus animals also deserve fair treatment, in some cases a subset of human rights. These themes are closely paralleled in Humanist thought.

An element of many ethics classes is to show the students that, while principles are often useful to make good decisions, sometimes two principles can come into conflict, for example, telling the truth yet not hurting a friend’s feelings. Then a deeper analysis is needed, which looks at the circumstances and consequences.

Another theme of ethics lessons is obedience to authority, which firstly asks, what makes a good authority. Then we ask, under what circumstances is it okay to question authority. This underpins many Humanist themes such as child protection, personal responsibility, civil obedience, and democracy.

I will draw from the “Amsterdam Declaration of 2002” which lists the fundamentals of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and its affiliations, for some specific comparisons.

IHEU Article 2 declares: “Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare.” This is well covered by topics such as “Why should we trust science?” This invites students to investigate the processes of scientific justification, through facilitated enquiry.

IHEU Article 3 is titled “Humanism supports democracy and human rights.” This is reflected in the NSW Ethics program topic, “Voting - an ethical issue?” which explores the importance of democracy, and how to vote in a responsible manner (all with age-appropriate scenarios).

IHEU Article 4 includes: “[Humanism] is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.” That is the essence of school philosophy and ethics classes: pupils learn to think for themselves. The proposed Victorian Ethics program uses the “community of inquiry” method for the same reason.

Thus ethics lessons and Humanist values run closely parallel.

Improved Student behaviour

There have been several formal studies into the outcomes of philosophy and ethics lessons. The earliest is from Clackmannanshire in Scotland. The report says it “took place in mainstream classes of 30 pupils, with teachers with little previous experience of leading whole-class enquiries. However, developing open ‘communities of enquiry’ is likely to require a shift in pedagogy for many teachers. The role of the teacher in supporting whole class enquiry emphasises the role of the teacher as ‘curious facilitator’ rather than ‘expert instructor’.”

The conclusions state: “The Clackmannanshire study provided robust evidence that one hour of classroom philosophical enquiry each week in primary schools can be highly cost-effective in promoting:

“1. Developments in cognitive ability.

“2. Developments in critical reasoning skills and dialogue in the classroom.

“3. Emotional and social developments (including reduced bullying).”

Secondly, there was a trial of philosophy lessons for all schools by normal teachers at Buranda primary state school in Brisbane. In a report in 2007, the Principal, Lynne Hinton, says the program was introduced to improve thinking skills and confidence, with the hope these would lead to improved academic outcomes in literacy and numeracy. “These expectations were certainly achieved as well as some very exciting, unexpected results,” she says. “The most significant of these was an improvement in social skills, leading to the current situation where bullying is simply not an issue at our school. We have also had an extraordinary improvement in student engagement.”

In 2010, a trial of ethics classes was held in New South Wales. This resulted in a report, which said that with some improvements (subsequently made), benefit to students would flow.

In 2011, Fred Nile, MLC, demanded a parliamentary review of the ethics classes. The Humanist Society of NSW made a positive submission, which is a good reference. In 2012, this review published its Report5, which concluded: “We are of the view that SRE (religion) and SEE (ethics) can operate alongside each other in NSW government schools to the benefit of all students who are the key stakeholders in this debate.”

I organised a Panel on “Ethics education initiatives around Australia” in Sydney in May 2013.6 This has helped to spread it around Australia.

So a range of studies have systematically found that ethics classes (whether by volunteers or regular teachers) are of academic and social benefit to tudents. In addition, there is a constant stream of feedback from regular teachers observing ethics classes about how engaged the students are, and from parents about children raising important issues at home.


There have been objections to using volunteers instead of the normal teachers. But in all such classes I have studied, the teaching modality was whole-class enquiry, or “community of enquiry”. The teacher acts as a moderator or facilitator, a very different mode from the usual instruction. Thus volunteer teachers are probably just as capable in this mode as the regular teachers. The measured positive results flow in either case. In my experience, the only issue that has arisen with Ethics volunteers is student behaviour. In that event, there are effective remedies available.

In any case, most of the volunteer teachers have teaching experience (I have high school, university and business).

And of course they are trained and audited to the required level. To use only normal teachers would mean some other part of the curriculum would need to be dropped, or additional staff employed.

The ethics curriculum material itself as well as the delivery method has been examined, adjusted where necessary, and approved, by the relevant education authority in all cases. Volunteers have long been involved in providing additional teaching at state schools. The students clearly enjoy a new mode, new material, and a new face.

In the RI time-slot?

There has been criticism that teaching ethics under the arrangements set up for religious instruction (RI, or various names in other states) only cements the RI in place, whereas Humanists are meanwhile pushing for abolition of RI altogether.

Yes, we all would like religion to be abolished from our supposedly secular education system. However, this is not possible in the foreseeable future in many states. The options available to students can be:

* RI or non-scripture (idle time);

* RI, Ethics or non-scripture.

Due to having this choice, around 20,000 children in New South Wales (and soon more in Victoria) have received and benefited from ethics education. To deny this for the sake of a principle would be a great step backwards. It is a case of the Nirvana fallacy, where a good choice is rejected because it is not perfect. For these reasons, at the Council of Australian Humanist Societies AGM in May 2014, the delegates voted to approve the motion “That CAHS supports ethics education in schools both in the RI timeslot and in the core curriculum”.


1. Promoting Social and Cognitive Development through Collaborative Enquiry: An evaluation of the ‘Thinking Through Philosophy’ programme, Clackmannanshire Council 2005.

2. Queensland Education Department article on ethics education at Buranda Public School (primary):

3. NSW Ethics Course Trial ? Final Report, Dr Sue Knight, October 2010.

4. Inquiry into Education Amendment (Ethics Classes Repeal) Bill 2011: Submissions from Humanist Society of NSW, 2012.

5. Education Amendment (Ethics Classes Repeal) Bill: Final Report, May 2012.

6. Ethics Education Panel, A.H. No. 112.