As parents, we have to consider which activities will be of the greatest benefit and which activities will provide our child with the most positive outcomes. As mums and dads, we most certainly can all agree, we all want the very best for our children.

With the new school year now well underway, both children and parents can begin to understand and appreciate there are core subjects available, but also a myriad of opt-in subjects such as sports, art and music. Parents have choices and one of the opportunities during school hours is religious education, called many different things in various states and countries, and labelled Special Religious Education (SRE) in New South Wales (NSW).

Recently, in Sydney, a group of more than 400 guests, including government leaders and representatives from many different faith groups and volunteer SRE teachers from across the state, had the honour of sharing an evening at NSW Parliament House with world-renowned scholars, Professor Zehavit Gross and Emeritus Professor Suzanne Rutland.

Professor Zehavit is from the Bar-Ilan University in Israel and is the UNESCO chair in education for human values, tolerance and peace, while Professor Suzanne is from the University of Sydney. In addition to being well-known and respected researchers and authors, they are both mothers and grandmothers.

The parliamentary celebration of SRE in NSW was held to honour the contributions made by volunteers in making SRE, which has been offered since 1880, an important part of school life in the state. Both the NSW minister for education, Rob Stokes, and the shadow education minister, Jihad Dib, were invited to speak at the event.

The event was also the public launch of a groundbreaking independent research report into SRE in NSW schools, authored by the two professors. Their report draws upon research from many sources, including Harvard University.

Their findings include:

  • SRE brings important psychological benefits to students’ mental health and wellbeing and reduces the risk of mental illness. It quoted a recent Harvard University study that found, “results suggest associations of frequent religious participation in adolescence with greater subsequent psychological wellbeing, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness and several health behaviours”.
  • Faith and belief continue to be an integral part of contemporary Australian society and therefore need to be supported in the public arena. SRE creates safe places for students to explore deeper questions of faith and belief.
  • SRE strengthens the multicultural fabric of Australian schools, building an environment of trust and respect.

The authors pointed out that religious education is consistent with the Australian government’s own National Framework for Values Education, which ensures schooling educates the whole child and must necessarily engage a student’s heart, mind and actions.

The report also addressed criticism of SRE but found “much of the strong criticism of SRE lies in the essentialist approach used by many teachers. We recommend SRE teachers employ a more open-ended, constructivist approach in their classes. Research shows that young people respond better to a more interactive and personalised learning approach.”

It also emphasised the need for teaching practices to keep updated with coming generations. “Meaningfully engaging the next generation will require effective teaching and learning strategies. SRE facilitators need to be trained in the best practice approaches to religious education in order to provide a robust curriculum that understands and addresses the challenges facing contemporary society.”

Our world is changing and the way we make sense of our context and what we value is increasingly being shaped by a more global perspective. The key forces that are shaping our future as a society include globalisation, digitisation, materialism, pluralism, individualism, secularisation and fundamentalism. SRE provides key benefits, including an effective values examination that empowers student decision-making, fosters student action and assigns real student responsibility.

Studies link positive health and wellbeing outcomes with:

  • belief in a higher spiritual being, public and private prayer, meditation.
  • concepts of giving and generosity to others.
  • expressing gratitude.
  • values education.

SRE, as a form of religious education, fosters many of these attributes and can therefore strengthen child and adolescent health and wellbeing.

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