Next week, a decision will be made that will have a profound and long-lasting influence on the health and wellbeing of an entire generation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians. And it has nothing (or at most, very little) to do with marriage equality.
On Friday, 29 November, the COAG Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood, which includes Commonwealth, state and territory Education Ministers, will decide whether to approve the national Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum. The HPE curriculum, developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), has largely been ignored, struggling to compete for attention against photogenic images of same-sex couples in wedding attire, and empowered adults advocating for the right to marry the person they love.
While I obviously support that campaign (indeed, I am engaged to be married myself), the national HPE curriculum will arguably have a far greater impact on young LGBTI people, right across the country, than any other possible reform.
We already know that young LGBTI people experience significantly higher rates of mental health issues, and, tragically, suicidality, than other groups. Figures from the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell report reveal that young same-sex attracted people are roughly six times more likely to attempt suicide (20-42% compared to 7-13% of heterosexual young people). While there is less research, similar, if anything even worse, statistics affect young transgender people.
And we already know what causes poorer mental health outcomes for younger LGBTI people – the homophobia, bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex discrimination that still occurs all too frequently. The 2010 Writing Themselves In 3 report found that 61% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young people had experienced verbal abuse because of homophobia, 18% had suffered physical abuse, and 26% reported other forms of homophobia.
Disturbingly, “the most common place of abuse remained school with 80% of those who were abused naming school” (WTI3 pIX). Our young LGBTI people are being abused in one of the places that they should feel safest. And the trend is worsening, with that figure markedly up since 2004 (when 74% reported homophobic abuse at school) and 1998 (69%).
Just as worryingly, young LGBTI are not receiving an inclusive education in terms of content either. While just over a third of young people reported receiving useful information about homophobia and discrimination from school (WTI3, p80), less than one fifth were able to access information about gay or lesbian relationships (p81).
Our schools are also comprehensively failing to provide adequate, and appropriate, sexual health education to young LGBTI people. Writing Themselves In 3 found that less than one in five students were taught relevant information about gay or lesbian safe sex (by comparison, approximately 70% reported receiving information about heterosexual safe sex: p82). Young people themselves are aware of this gross inadequacy – 84% of LGBTI respondents found their Sexuality Education to be either not useful at all (44%) or at best only partly useful (40%) (p84).
I have painted this confronting picture because the development of a national Health and Physical Education curriculum was an ideal chance to rectify some of these deficiencies. An inclusive HPE curriculum, which specifically included LGBTI students and content relevant to their needs, could have gone some way to reducing the disparities in health outcomes experienced by young LGBTI people. But it seems likely the document that will be agreed at the end of next week will fall spectacularly short of this goal.
Two drafts of the HPE curriculum have been released for publication consultation: the first, an 82-page draft in December 2012, the second, a pared-down 50 page revised draft in July 2013. In neither draft are the terms lesbian, gay, homosexual or bisexual even used, let alone defined. The words transgender and intersex do make a solitary appearance in the revised draft: in the glossary, erroneously included together under the heading gender-diverse.
Not only is the national HPE curriculum not going to overcome the silence about LGBTI students and content which exists in many schools across Australia – it is more likely to perpetuate and further entrench it.
To be fair, the curriculum does include a single aspirational – some might say, less kindly, token – paragraph on the subject of ‘same sex attracted and gender diverse students’ (SSAGD) on page 18 of the July 2013 revised draft. But even this includes vague, and seemingly unenforceable, commitments.
It says the curriculum “is designed to allow schools flexibility to meet the needs of these [SSAGD] students, particularly in the health context of relationships and sexuality” (emphasis added). This leaves open the possibility that some schools, including but not limited to religious schools, will exercise that same flexibility to exclude LGBTI content.
The next sentence reads “[a]ll school communities have a responsibility when implementing the HPE curriculum to ensure teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experience of all students” (emphasis added). That could be interpreted, optimistically, to mean all schools must include SSAGD content – or it could be interpreted, by less progressive school bodies (or indeed state and territory governments), to mean HPE education must be inclusive only where they are aware of the presence of LGBTI students.
That might seem, on the face of it, to be an overly-negative reading – except that a statement that “students facing these issues [SSAGD] exist in all schools”, which appeared in the first draft of the curriculum, was axed from the revised draft. It is hard to ignore the possibility that religious and independent schools have ensured the removal of such a clause, thereby allowing them to continue to ignore LGBTI students and content unless those students identify themselves.
These schools know that many young people will not disclose their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status at school (often in – quite legitimate – fear of punishment from that same school), meaning that heterosexual and cisgender-only health education can continue on much as before. Even where LGBTI students do ‘come out’, the onus should never be put on them to do so in order to receive an inclusive education: all students have the fundamental right to be taught LGBTI relevant content, whether they have disclosed their status or not.
That right exists no matter which state or territory they live in, and irrespective of whether they attend a public, religious or other private school. The right to be taught LGBTI-inclusive content also supersedes whatever views the school, or its employees, may hold, based on religion or otherwise. To me, that is the definition of putting children first, something which conservatives and family values campaigners consistently tell us to do.
Any optimistic view of the curriculum, based on the ‘aspirational paragraph’ referred to earlier, is further undermined by the lack of specific content in the individual year band descriptions, which is the practical guide to what students are expected to learn (on pages 25-42). There are no sections that guarantee detailed LGBTI-relevant content will be taught. In fact, a single reference to ‘homophobia’, which was included in the original December 2012 draft, was excised from the revised draft released in July 2013.
Even worse, there does not appear to be any section which mandates that students be taught comprehensive sexual health information (and that absence even includes heterosexual sexual health). There are no references to safe(r) sex education, to condoms, or to sexually transmissible infections (STIs). Above all, there is not a single reference in the entire draft HPE curriculum to HIV.
Imagine that for a second. More than 30 years into the HIV epidemic in Australia, and in the same year that the Annual Surveillance Reports showed a 10% increase in HIV notifications (24% in NSW), our national Health and Physical Education curriculum does not even mention HIV (nor does it include other Blood Borne Viruses (BBVs) like hepatitis B or C, which themselves each affect 1% of the entire Australian population).
The idea that, just two days before World AIDS Day, Commonwealth, state and territory Education Ministers could sit around a table and agree to an HPE curriculum that excludes HIV and other BBVs is simply astounding (and a lot of other words which I am too polite to write here).
Taken together, these omissions – LGBTI students and content, comprehensive sexual health education, and HIV and other BBVs – from the national Health and Physical Education curriculum, mean that the document that has been drafted (or the public versions of it at least) is an abject failure.
And it is a collective failure, too. The original December 2012 draft, and the July 2013 revised draft, were both released under the previous federal Labor Government. Of the state and territory Education Ministers present next Friday, five will be from the Coalition, two from Labor and even one from the Greens, and they will each bear some of the responsibility.
But above all, this is a test for the new Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP. He has come to Government expressing concerns about the ACARA process for developing the national curriculum, and the outcomes it has produced. Here is his opportunity to show that he is genuine, and to help ensure that the national Health and Physical Education Curriculum is genuinely-inclusive.
If he does not, if the document that is approved on 29 November excludes LGBTI students and content, comprehensive sexual health education, and HIV and other BBVs, then Minister Pyne will earn a large red “F” on his first term report card. He can – and must – do better.
Update (3 December): The Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood met last Friday, but did NOT endorse the national Health & Physical Education curriculum. Instead, they have noted its development, while also noting that the Commonwealth is reviewing ACARA and the curriculum development process more broadly. Basically, the curriculum is on hold until that review is finished, meaning it could be adopted at some point in 2014, amended and then adopted in 2014, or could be sent back for complete redraft, either by ACARA or someone else. I will obviously post further updates as I become aware of important developments.