Australia Safe Schools review findings: experts respond

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Many claim the Safe Schools program is essential for reducing homophobia and transphobia in school. from www.shutterstock.com

After a three-week debacle, the findings of the review into the opt-in Safe Schools Coalition program are out.

The review has proposed to limit the anti-bullying program to secondary schools only.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham said:

We will be making it clear that the program resources are fit for delivery in secondary school environments only.

It found that a number of the resources had lessons and content not necessarily appropriate for all children and has called for schools to seek parental consent for student participation in program lessons or activities.

Over the past week, Nationals MP George Christensen and other backbenchers have voiced their concerns over how the review was conducted. A petition – which went missing for a period of time – has reportedly been handed to the prime minister and signed by 43 of 81 backbenchers. It calls for Safe Schools funding to be suspended until a “full-blown” parliamentary inquiry is held.

The review’s also caused fractures in the government’s frontbench. While former prime minister Tony Abbott has called for the program to be scrapped, former education minister Christopher Pyne has said it should stay.

Since the announcement of the review, a Guardian investigation found that 32 more schools had signed up to the program, while only one school had withdrawn.

So what do academic experts make of the review? We ask what these findings mean for schools and their students.


Calling sexual and gender diversity ‘contentious’ further marginalises students

Lucy Nicholas, lecturer in sociology, Swinburne University of Technology, says:

While white, cisgender, heterosexual male politicians are quibbling over whether or not we should “expose” young people to the term “pansexual” in a minute optional resource in an opt-in school program, young people have never been queerer. And, in some segments of youth culture, unlike in Australian schools, this has never been less of a problem.

The government will now require “parental consent for student participation in programme lessons or activities”. This will only foster a school culture of silence that perpetuates the implication that these identities (which – did I mention? – exist) are what the review calls “contentious”, maintaining the construction of them as deviant and contributing to an environment where bullying on this basis is normalised.

This framing of the issue will make a culture where it is even less likely for questioning students to go to their “key qualified staff” member who, following the review, the government has insisted will be their only access point to the OMG I’m Queer, OMG My Friend’s Queer andStand Out resources.

The silence, denial and repression approach didn’t work for sex education, and it isn’t going to work for the safety of sexual and gender diverse students in schools either.

The idea that the materials are “a gateway drug for children to experiment with sex” and “prematurely sexualises” them is wildly out of touch with social change.

It just means that we are prolonging the time until sexual and gender diverse young people can find out that their feelings are normal, which they will undoubtedly do on the internet, and if they are lucky find a community in which to come to terms with their identity in safe, supported contexts. It is a shame that can’t be school.

The review lets faith-based schools off the hook

Timothy Jones, senior lecturer in history at La Trobe University, says:

The most critical findings of the Safe Schools Coalition were that some resources “may not be suitable for use in some faith-based schools”.

These resources contain stories about how young people of faith reconciled their own or their friends’ same-sex attraction. They also recommend setting up a “diversity group” within a religious school that “promotes the acceptance of all students (including those who are gender diverse, intersex or same sex attracted)”.

It recognises that for some, “a negative religious belief about homosexuality may never change”, but concludes that “everyone from every religion can agree that we all should have the right to be healthy and happy, so challenging homophobia and transphobia is about achieving that shared aim”.

The review of the official Safe Schools resource also found that exercises designed to help students think about how to be an ally to peers with diverse sexual orientations or gender identities “might be more difficult for students from a family with conservative social or religious views on same-sex attraction”. But it rightly concludes that these exercises are consistent with the Australian Curriculum requirement to affirm diversity and acknowledge the impact of diversity on students’ social words.

As the hysterical tone of the controversy over the past few weeks has shown, the negotiation of religious, sexual, and gender difference is difficult. But rather than letting faith-based schools off the hook, surely we should be working harder to make these spaces safe for all children.

Safe Schools materials shouldn’t be limited to secondary schools

David Rhodes, senior lecturer in the School of Education, at Edith Cowan University, says:

Child and adolescent sexuality, particularly same-sex attraction and gender diversity, are often considered extremely difficult subjects to discuss, especially in classroom contexts. It is considered a taboo by some.

However, a wide range of educators, politicians, and researchersreinforce the importance of incorporating issues related to sexual and gender diversity into schools and the curriculum.

Young people are disclosing their sexuality at increasingly younger ages. Changing conditions in schools, providing support services for students, and the provision of professional development for pre-service and practising teachers which include sexual diversity, are all important factors in recognising the vulnerability of LGBTQI children and providing safe educational environments.

Limiting use of Safe Schools resources and materials to secondary schools, should not include primary school teacher’s professional development. It is essential that teachers have an understanding of issues related to sexual and gender diversity, have an awareness of appropriate language, and feel empowered to challenge homophobic and transphobic bullying.

The epithets of “dyke” and “faggot” are not limited to secondary classrooms. Principals and parent organisations should be able to advocate for the use of Safe Schools Coalition materials to be used in our primary schools if they deem it appropriate to their school context. Sexuality and gender identity do not appear out of the ether in Year 7.

This whole debate suggests there is something deviant about diverse sexual identities

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