THOUSANDS of Hunter students must wait once a week while a minority - as low as 2 per cent at some schools - attend scripture under a "dysfunctional and ad hoc" system that lacks transparency and places children at risk, say complaints to NSW authorities after audits of Hunter and Central Coast schools.
A majority of primary and high schools are failing to meet even minimum Department of Education guidelines on information to parents about scripture enrolment, approved scripture providers and material taught, the audits have found.
An unapproved religious provider gained access to three state schools, and advice by schools to parents routinely fails to correctly identify religious groups approved for access to children, said parent group Fairness in Religions in School in audits forwarded to the Office of the Children's Guardian.
Only 4 of 258 primary schools in the department's regional north area, covering the Hunter and Central Coast, have required website links to specific information taught to children during scripture, and only 1 of 43 high school websites.
In the past week the Department of Education has directed three Hunter high schools to adhere to guidelines or change information provided to parents after Newcastle Herald questions, including a school requiring all year 7 and 8 students to attend "introductory" Christian scripture sessions in clear breach of department guidelines.
The audits were released six months after the NSW Teachers Federation said it would campaign to remove scripture from NSW public schools.
An unknown number of Hunter primary and high school children are attending scripture without parents' consent, contrary to department guidelines, under a system leaving too much responsibility with principals, said FIRIS spokesperson Darrin Morgan, who conducted the audits before forwarding them to the department and office of Children's Guardian.
These include schools still requiring parents to "opt out" their children from scripture, more than 18 months after the department shifted to an "opt in" model in response to a review that recommended scrapping scripture from NSW high schools.
The recommendation was rejected by the NSW Government despite strong Secondary Principals Council support for scrapping scripture, which was described by council president Chris Presland as "one of those things that's in there chewing up time".
An unknown number of Hunter high school students are forced to spend class time doing alternatives to the school curriculum because of legislation allowing religious groups access to schools, and preventing non-scripture students from doing curriculum work.
One of a handful of NSW high schools to put scripture attendance figures on its website, Whitebridge High, said only 2 per cent of year 7 students opted into scripture, while 98 per cent read or did private study during scripture time.
Mr Morgan said the audit bore out one of his group's biggest concerns about the opaque nature of the approvals process for religious providers, and legislation that leaves principals forced to rely on annual assurances from religious groups that all scripture volunteers had current working with children checks.
The audit showed of 43 northern region high schools offering scripture, 29 featured "combined arrangements" where a number of religious groups have access to children under an approved provider. Only one of the 29 complied with department guidelines to name all "combined arrangements" religious groups on school websites.
"The Department of Education has repeatedly stated that principals are responsible for implementing policies and procedures at the school level, yet FIRIS believes the department does not provide principals with adequate support, direction and guidance to do so," Mr Morgan said in his complaint to the Office of the Children's Guardian.
"The lack of guidance has created a state of confusion, as demonstrated by FIRIS' audits, that lends itself to exploitation by religious organisations."
Legislation that left the department relying on "annual assurances" from scripture providers about complying with child protection laws was "an inadequate, inappropriate and ineffective risk management strategy" that exposes children to risk, Mr Morgan said in his complaint.
The lack of transparency and legislative restrictions were even more concerning after religious lobby group Christian SRE announced it was working with the Department of Education to develop an electronic scripture enrolment process.
In a recent statement Christian SRE also urged schools to comply with new enrolment procedures and accused some schools of denying parents the right to choose scripture for their children "by stealth".
Jack Galvin-Waight, the NSW Teachers Federation's special religious education and special ethics education delegate, said teachers had been "constantly raising similar concerns" as FIRIS and getting little response from the Department of Education about those concerns.
Schools were not making changes called for by the department and the department was failing to "take a more overarching responsibility and role", he said.
"There seems to be a lot of pressure by the special religious lobby groups. Our concern is that parents don't realise that under the legislation the department doesn't have control over the scripture curriculums being used by different groups, and scripture is being taught by people who aren't qualified teachers," Mr Galvin-Waight said.
"No child should be in special religious education without the specific consent of their parents but it is clear that children are. The legislation needs to change and that's what we're campaigning for.
"The legislation means groups providing special religious education in schools are self-regulating, and there's a history of these groups not doing self-regulation well."
A 2015 review of special religious education and special ethics education said scripture providers had rights to "access schools, determine teachers and curriculum", and had a "responsibility for transparency to parents, the department, school communities and the wider public".
A Department of Education spokesperson said from 2019 parents are provided with a participation letter on enrolment which outlines options available at the school, including scripture.
"A parent/caregiver may at any time notify the school in writing that they do not wish their child to attend SRE or to change their SRE nomination. The Department's SRE policy and procedures outline the responsibility of schools and approved providers. All schools are supported by a Director, Educational Leadership, and participate in audits undertaken by the Department," the spokesperson said.
Education Minister Sarah Mitchell told NSW Parliament in May that it was the responsibility of religious providers to verify working with children checks of scripture volunteers and paid teachers, and complete annual assurances sent to providers in term 4 for the following year.
Approved religious providers had to provide principals with a written list of names of scripture volunteers, with contact details, to check against the department's "not to be employed" database.