Submission on National Health & Physical Education Curriculum

Below is the text of my submission to ACARA about the draft national Health & Physcial Education curriculum (due tomorrow 12 April). I think that my concern with the consultation draft, as released, shows through. I find it particularly worrying that the curriculum does not use the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.

But it is even more worrying that it omits the terms or phrases condoms, safe sex and HIV/AIDS – that, to me, is negligently putting the lives of young people, and young gay and bisexual men in particular, at risk. Here’s hoping that ACARA listens to this submission, and to others from people writing about this issue.

Curriculum Photo

Submission on Draft National Health and Physical Education Curriculum: Foundation to Year 10

Thursday 11 April 2013

I am writing this submission as an ordinary member of the community. But I am also writing this submission as a gay man, and someone who was profoundly let down by my school education with respect to both inclusivity, and sexual health education.

In my opinion, both of these things – being genuinely inclusive of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and of intersex people, and providing comprehensive and detailed sexual health education, including HIV prevention – are absolutely essential in any Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum.

Inclusivity is necessary because all students, whether they be heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI), or a combination of these, have the right to an inclusive education, to learn about who they are, to develop their identity in a safe place, and to be provided with all of the information which they need as they grow up.

These rights are particularly important for LGBTI students because they will be entering a world in which homophobia, bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex prejudice remain a sad and unarguable fact. The consequences of not providing an inclusive education can be severe – LGBTI students can be the victims of harassment and bullying on account of their sexual orientations, gender identity or intersex status. LGBTI students, and later adults, also have higher rates of mental health issues, including rates of suicide, as a result of the discrimination which they experience. Any HPE curriculum which is adopted should be furthering the health of LGBTI people – and should not instead perpetuate their exclusion.

Sexual health education is necessary for all students, again, irrespective of whether they are gay or straight and no matter their gender identity or intersex status. However, unless they are specifically mentioned, the needs of LGBTI people can easily be overlooked with teachers and schools sometimes providing for the needs of the majority of their students, while ignoring the fact that every student should receive all the information they need to stay safe.

This is especially important for same-sex attracted boys, given that men who have sex with men remain a high-priority population in terms of HIV prevention. This means that sexual health education cannot be limited to ‘reproductive health’ or simply outline the risks of heterosexual intercourse, but must be comprehensive and teach all students about the risks involved in different types of intercourse, and above all the measures, such as condoms, which reduce those risks.

Of course, there is an additional reason why a HPE curriculum must be inclusive of LGBTI students, and must provide inclusive sexual health education – and that is because in many cases teachers and schools will be unaware which of their students are LGBT or I. Some students do ‘come out’ while at school, and obviously I believe that all schools should provide encouraging and nurturing environments to allow those students to do so. But many students do not come out while at school.

And I do not believe that they should be compelled to do so in order to receive an education which teaches them what they need to know about their identity, and the sexual health education which they need to stay safe.

As I mentioned before, my school education failed, and failed miserably, on both of these grounds. My school did not mention homosexuality, unless it was from a negative perspective. And throughout my education, at both primary and secondary schools, I not once was taught about safe sex in a same-sex attracted (or ‘non-reproductive’) context. Sadly, while many schools have become better at both inclusivity and sexual health education since that time (the early to mid-1990s), many have not.

The development of a national Health and Physical Education curriculum presents an ideal opportunity to address these issues. It is a chance to ensure that HPE, taught in any class room in any school across the country, is inclusive of LGBTI students, and provides sexual health education that is appropriate for all students, not just those who are heterosexual.

Unfortunately, the draft national HPE curriculum released by ACARA in December 2012 does not seize this historic opportunity. In my opinion, it falls far short in terms of its inclusivity (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of LGBTI students. For example, it does not even mention the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI), and therefore contributes to what can feel like an all-pervasive silence about these issues. I do not understand how any document can aspire to being inclusive of the full diversity of students when it deliberately omits the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex.

The draft national HPE curriculum also falls short in terms of the sexual health education which it provides. As well as beginning too late (in year 7 rather than year 5), the sexual health education which is included appears to focus on ‘reproductive health’ rather than genuinely inclusive sexual health. It should, but does not, cover everything necessary for same-sex attracted students and for HIV prevention.

The remainder of this submission will focus on some of the specific parts of the draft HPE curriculum which I believe should be amended, focusing on the many opportunities for improvement. I hope that these recommendations or suggestions are taken up, so that all students, including LGBTI students, get the education which they deserve.

1. On pages 3 and 4 of the draft HPE curriculum, the ‘key idea’ of being ‘healthy, safe and active’ could be amended to read: ‘confident, healthy, safe and active’. This would reflect the need for students to be confident in their personal identity (which is discussed briefly on page 4, but should be elevated in importance). Personal identity is fundamental to a student’s sense of wellbeing, and just as important as being ‘healthy’ or ‘safe’. It should also be noted that personal identity is not limited to LGBTI students, but would include a wide range of diverse backgrounds and therefore benefit students from across the spectrum.

2. On page 6, under the heading ‘relationships and sexuality’, the dot point which currently reads ‘exploring sexual and gender identities’ could be amended to be more explicit. A possible replacement could read ‘exploring different sexual orientations, gender identities and sex and intersex status’.

3. On page 15, I disagree with the choice to delay relationships and sexuality education until years 5-6 onwards. Instead, I believe it should commence in years 3-4, in the same way that alcohol and other drugs education does. This would ensure that students are aware of the full range of identities as they enter puberty, and do not need to ‘suffer in silence’ because they might be attracted to someone of the same sex. This outcome could be achieved by introducing the ‘themes’ or general concepts of relationships and sexuality in years 3-4 (including the identities of lesbian, gay and bisexual), and then providing more detailed sexual health education in years 5 and 6. As it currently stands, students would not receive detailed sexual health education until year 7 at the earliest, when students are generally turning 13. Given what we know about the sexual activity of young people, and the fact that puberty is starting earlier and earlier, this is too late for effective sexual health education to begin.

4. Onto a more specific issue – I think that more consideration could be given to introducing the particular topics relating to transgender and intersex from Foundation onwards, rather than waiting for 3-4 when lesbian, gay and bisexual issues are introduced. This is because gender identity and intersex are not related to sexual attraction, but instead may well be known before or at the commencement of schooling. Obviously I am not an expert on these issues, and would defer to the input of transgender organisations and groups like OII Australia. I am merely raising this issue because it would not appear logical to delay teaching these particular matters until closer to puberty (unlike arguably the same-sex attracted issues referred to above).

5. I welcome the inclusion of a statement about same-sex attracted (SSA) and gender diverse students on page 18 of the draft HPE curriculum – at the very least the curriculum acknowledges that these students exist and have specific needs. However, I reject the idea that the curriculum should provide schools with the ‘flexibility’ to include these students, with a vague and non-committal ‘expectation’ that schools will take opportunities to be inclusive. This seems fundamentally inconsistent with a sentence in the same paragraph which correctly notes that ‘students facing these issues exist in all school communities’.

If that statement is correct, then ALL schools across the country MUST be inclusive. The best way to achieve this is to provide specific and detailed requirements for the inclusion of LGBTI-related content throughout the text of the curriculum, rather than through a non-binding ‘aspirational’ statement at the beginning of the document which will likely only be referred to and applied by those schools and teachers which are already supportive of LGBTI students.

6. As a broader point, while I understand that the terms same-sex attracted (SSA) and gender diverse are included on page 18 because they are considered more inclusive of the diverse range of possible identities, I disagree that these should be the only terms used in the document to describe these groups. The vast majority of students who grow up who are SSA or gender diverse, will over time identify with one or more of the following identities: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.

For this reason, I believe that these specific identities/descriptors should be included in the curriculum as well. These students deserve to have their identities spoken about in the classroom – and other students should also learn about the diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex people, rather than just the catch-all phrases SSA and gender diverse. After all, these are the terms which all students are likely to be exposed to after they depart the school environment. If any students leave school without understanding these terms then I think we are doing them a great disservice.

7. On page 49, at heading 4.2, I welcome the introduction of discrimination on the basis of sexuality as one of the particular examples of negative forms of discrimination which may be discussed in the classroom. However, I would like to see this broadened to look at discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status (rather than the more generic term ‘sexuality’), and I would also like teachers to be required to use all of these examples (including race, gender, disability etc), rather than simply choosing one or two from the list and potentially ignoring or omitting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex.

8. In the discussion of years 7-8, from page 58 onwards, the curriculum finally looks at sexual health education in detail. As discussed above, I believe this is far too late (and should instead be taught from year 5 onwards). However, turning to the substance of what is proposed, I also believe that it is too narrowly defined and limited in content.

For example, on page 59 the draft curriculum only refers to ‘reproductive health and wellbeing’. This is a very exclusionary term, traditionally focusing on sexual practices which are related to reproduction. This does NOT include other forms of sexual intercourse, including the behaviours of people who are same-sex attracted (as well as a range of other behaviours of heterosexual students which are also unrelated to reproduction). It is for this reason that the term sexual health should be used instead (or at least sexual and reproductive health), as it captures all of the behaviours which should be discussed.

9. The discussion of sexual health also needs to be made significantly longer, with more detail provided about what exactly has to be taught. This should include explicit reference to condoms, safe sex and the need for the prevention of HIV and other STIs. As a gay man who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, I believe that it is negligent to draft a curriculum for primary and secondary students that does not include the words condom, safe sex or even HIV. Any comprehensive guide for the ‘health and physical education’ of young people must include these terms, especially when considering the health and wellbeing of young gay men, bisexual men and men who have sex with men generally. I would hope that organisations from the HIV/AIDS sector will be making similar points on this particular issue.

10. Finally, in years 9-10, on page 70, in addition to the reference to homophobia, there should also be references to bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex discrimination. Students should be aware of the existence of, and unacceptability of, each of these types of prejudice. Of course, logically these types of discrimination cannot be discussed without an understanding of the identities lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, further underscoring the need for these issues to be taught from earlier in the curriculum.

As discussed earlier, I believe that significant amendments and improvements should be made to the draft national HPE curriculum to ensure that it is genuinely inclusive of, and provides appropriate sexual health education for, LGBTI students. I hope that ACARA takes these suggestions or recommendations for improvement into consideration as it revises the HPE curriculum before it is submitted to the Commonwealth and State and Territory education ministers for approval later this year.

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