Almost 50 per cent of students at NSW public schools do not declare a religion on their enrolment form, sparking new calls for religious education classes to be banned.
According to figures released by the NSW Department of Education, 45% of students in 2018 either nominated 'No Religion', intentionally did not state a religion, or did not provide a response on the form, up from 43% in 2017 and 41% in 2016.
Darrin Morgan from secular parent lobby group Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) said: "We believe that the data is demonstrating that people don't want special religious education [SRE]."
"It's a program that isn't justified, it's inappropriate in our modern, secular, multicultural, multi-belief schooling system," Dr Morgan said.
NSW Teachers Federation president Maurie Mulheron said: "This data shows why providing for the option of ethics classes in every school is essential."
Among those children that do declare a religion, the number of Anglicans, Catholics and Buddhists has fallen, while the number of Muslims and Hindus is on the rise.
Despite this, Murray Norman from the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools (ICCOREIS) defended SRE.
"In our society, values are just as important as they have ever been, and… society sees Christianity… as one of the places where those values come from," Mr Norman said.
Mr Norman pointed to research commissioned by ICCOREIS, which showed that only 16% of parents are opposed to faith-based values education in schools, while 84% believe Christian heritage is influential.
Children who do not attend SRE can attend ethics classes instead, but these are not available at all schools.
Heidi McElnea from Primary Ethics, the organisation which delivers the ethics curriculum in NSW, said that while there has been a growth in demand for ethics classes, with 40,000 students enrolled statewide, "there's still lots of places in NSW where there is no demand yet because there's no awareness, so part of our work is to create that awareness."
In the meantime, Darrin Morgan is concerned that, with no government oversight of the content or teachers of SRE classes, they are a "black hole" in the education system.
"We fundamentally believe that the time should be given back to professional educators," Dr Morgan said.
The enrolment data also reveals the geographical spread of the religious and non-religious.
The districts with the highest percentage of students choosing 'No Religion' were the regional areas of Lismore (52.7%), Tweed, Far South Coast, Richmond Valley and Coffs Harbour.
In comparison, the five most religious districts were all in Sydney’s south-west: Holroyd (10.7%), Canterbury, Bankstown, Liverpool and Fairfield.