Submission to National Curriculum Review re Health & Physical Education Curriculum

The following is my submission to the review of the national curriculum, initiated by the Commonwealth Minister for Education, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP at the end of 2013. Given the appointment of Mr Kevin Donnelly to co-chair this review, I am not confident that all, or indeed, any of the concerns below will be listened to. But the inclusion of LGBTI students and content in our schools system is so important that I believe it is still worth a shot.

National Curriculum Review Submission

Thursday 13 March 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on the development of the national school curriculum.

In this submission I will limit my comments to the development of the national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum. In particular, I will be commenting on whether the HPE curriculum as drafted addresses the needs of, and genuinely includes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students.

I have previously made submissions on the initial public consultation draft of the HPE curriculum, released in December 2012 (a copy of my submission is provided at <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/04/11/submission-on-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ), and on the revised draft released for limited public consultation in June and July 2013 (see <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/30/submission-on-redrafted-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ).

In both of those submissions I was strongly critical of the fact that the draft HPE curriculums did not genuinely attempt to include LGBTI students (including omission of the words lesbian, gay or bisexual), did not provide adequate sexual health education, and did not provide adequate information regarding HIV and other Blood Borne Viruses (BBVs), including viral hepatitis.

A second revised draft of the curriculum was prepared by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) ahead of the meeting of Commonwealth, State and Territory Education Ministers in November 2013. It has been reported that Education Ministers did not agree to the second revised draft, but instead simply noted its development in anticipation of this review.

Nevertheless, the second revised draft HPE curriculum was published in February 2014 on the Australian Curriculum website (www.australiancurriculum.edu.au).

I have analysed the second revised draft, and sincerely hope that my comments below convey the seriousness of my concerns about the ongoing exclusion of LGBTI students and content, and the potential negative health impacts that this exclusion will have over the short, medium and long-term.

The current version of the national Health & Physical Education curriculum does nothing to put all ‘Students First’, which I understand to be the guiding principle of this review. In fact, by continuing to exclude some students, and marginalising content which is relevant to their needs, the draft HPE curriculum places lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students last.

If the HPE curriculum were to be implemented as it currently stands, it would actively contribute to, and reinforce, the disproportionate rates of mental health problems, depression and, most tragically, suicide, which continue to affect young LGBTI people.

By failing to include detailed BBV and sexual health education, the HPE curriculum would also leave young people, and gay and bisexual men and trans* people specifically, exposed to unnecessary risk of transmission of HIV and other infections.

And by not ensuring that all students are provided with information that is relevant to their own needs and personal circumstances, the HPE curriculum will undermine the fundamental human right to health of the next generation of young LGBTI people. This right must be respected, and not denied to people merely on the basis of other peoples’ attitudes towards their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

This review is an(other) opportunity to address some of the serious shortcomings of the draft HPE curriculum. Please seize this opportunity and recommend that the curriculum be amended to ensure LGBTI students are included, with content that is relevant and targeted to meet their needs, including around sexual health and BBV education.

The remainder of this submission will look at five key areas of the draft HPE curriculum. They are:

  • Terminology
  • Student Diversity
  • Bullying & Discrimination
  • Sexual Health, and
  • HIV and other BBVs.

Terminology

One significant problem that has consistently appeared through the initial draft, revised draft and now second revised draft of the Health & Physical Education curriculum is that of terminology. Specifically, the HPE curriculum has either completely excluded terms that are essential for young people to learn, or included terms or definitions that are not appropriate in the circumstances.

The biggest problem in terminology, featured in all three drafts, has been the failure to even include the words lesbian, gay or bisexual. Despite these being the most common forms of identification for people whose sexual orientation is ‘not heterosexual’, these terms have never appeared in any version of this document.

In fact, the ongoing refusal to name lesbians, gay men and bisexuals – despite the fact that students will have heard these terms regularly amongst their families and friends, in culture and in broader society, and that an increasing number of young people, including students, will be using these terms to describe themselves – is almost bizarre in its stubbornness to deny reality.

Even if there may be a reason for sometimes using the umbrella term same-sex attracted, to ensure that people who may be sexually attracted to people of their own sex but who do not use the terms lesbian, gay or bisexual to identify themselves are included, there is absolutely no justification for not naming lesbian, gay and bisexual identities within the HPE curriculum (for example, by using the description “same-sex attracted, including lesbian, gay and bisexual people”). The failure to do so contributes to the marginalisation of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people.

On a related issue, the HPE curriculum as drafted appears to use the incredibly broad, and arguably poorly-defined, term ‘sexuality’ at multiple points in the document when ‘sexual orientation’ would be more appropriate.

For example, the Glossary defines ‘sexuality’ as “[a] central aspect of being human throughout life. Sexuality encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction and is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors”. The breadth of this definition makes some of the references to sexuality in the curriculum either too vague to be practicable, or even unintelligible.

The more widely-accepted term ‘sexual orientation’, which the curriculum does not define, and only appears to use once (in the definition of ‘sexuality’, reproduced above), would be more constructive, especially when references are made to differences or diversity in ‘sexuality’. Using the term sexual orientation would also more clearly include different orientations (including lesbian, gay and bisexual) than using the term sexuality alone.

On a positive note, there have been some improvements in references to, and definitions for, diversity in gender identity, including transgender people (which at least is included as part of the Glossary definition of ‘gender diverse’).

There have also been improvements in terms of the recognition of intersex people, who are now at least referenced in the statement on student diversity, and provided with a separate definition in the Glossary (where previously it had been erroneously included within the definition of gender diverse).

Nevertheless, defining a term in the Glossary and then using it once in the main text of the curriculum itself (and even then only as part of an ‘aspirational statement’ at the beginning of the document) is not sufficient to guarantee that the needs of transgender and intersex students are met.

In summary, the HPE curriculum needs to be significantly amended, such that it actually includes the terms lesbian, gay and bisexual, and that it adequately includes information about these sexual orientations, as well as transgender and intersex people, throughout the document.

Student Diversity

As discussed above, the HPE curriculum includes a statement on ‘Student Diversity’ at the beginning of the document, and this includes two paragraphs on ‘Same-sex attracted and gender-diverse students’.

I welcome some of the changes that have been made to this section between the revised draft and the second revised draft. In particular, these paragraphs now make a variety of positive statements (including that “it is crucial to acknowledge and affirm diversity in relation to sexuality and gender’” – noting my view, expressed earlier, that the use of ‘sexual orientation’ would be preferable here – while talking about “inclusive… programs” and the needs of “all students”).

Indeed, the last sentence of the section is particularly encouraging where it notes that being inclusive and relevant is “particularly important when teaching about reproduction and sexual health, to ensure that the needs of all students are met, including students who may be same-sex attracted, gender diverse or intersex”.

However, these positive developments continue to be undermined by the preceding statements that the HPE curriculum “is designed to allow schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people, particularly in the health focus area of relationships and sexuality” (emphasis added) and that “[a]ll schools communities have a responsibility when implementing the HPE curriculum to ensure that teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences of all students” (emphasis added).

Both of these statements appear to leave the decision whether, and in what way, schools will include LGBTI students and content up to the schools themselves. In the first instance, whether LGBTI students and content are included at all is too important to be left to the ‘flexibility’ of the school itself.

Second, and far more importantly, the reference to ‘lived experiences’ could be argued to leave a loophole for schools to assert that, unless students first identify themselves or disclose their status as LGBTI, they do not exist in the eyes of the school and therefore the school does not have a responsibility to include them or content relevant to their needs.

This approach – apparently leaving it up to students to ‘come out’ before they are entitled to receive vital health information, despite the fact that doing so can, in many Australian jurisdictions, lead to the potential expulsion of that student, let alone other personal consequences for the student with their family or friends – fundamentally undermines the concept of health, and health education, as a universal human right.

And, while this appears to be a somewhat negative and narrow interpretation of these paragraphs, it is a realistic one given that a statement which appeared in the initial consultation draft, which stated that “same-sex attracted and gender diverse students exist in all Australian schools” was abandoned in the revised draft, and, despite arguments put forward for its re-inclusion was not included in the second revised draft.

In my view, whether to include LGBTI students and content should not be an issue of ‘flexibility’ between different schools. Instead, there should be a minimum level of LGBTI education provided to every student in every school – and, after all, isn’t a national minimum standard what the curriculum should be aiming to achieve?

This would be further supported by the re-inclusion of a statement which notes that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students exists across all Australian schools, and all schools must provide LGBTI-specific content to each and every student”.

Bullying & Discrimination

One area where there has been significant improvement from the initial draft and revised draft to the second revised draft has been an increase in content that attempts to redress anti-LGBTI bullying and discrimination.

In particular, I welcome the commitment in the Glossary definition of ‘discrimination’ that “[t]he types of discrimination that students must learn about include racial, sex and gender discrimination, homophobia and transphobia” (emphasis added).

I also welcome the increased content in year band descriptions that explicitly includes learning about homophobia, in years 7/8 and 9/10.

However, there are still a range of improvements that could be made to ensure that the curriculum adequately informs students about the need to stamp out discrimination and bullying of LGBTI students.

First, it is important to note that ‘homophobia’ does not necessarily include all forms of discrimination or prejudice against LGBTI people. The inclusion of transphobia in the Glossary is valuable, however, it should also be included in the year band descriptions to ensure that it is not overlooked. Both the Glossary and year band descriptions should also include biphobia and anti-intersex discrimination, which should not automatically be subsumed within a catch-all category of ‘homophobia’.

Second, discussion of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination should not be left until years 7/8 to be introduced into the HPE curriculum, but should be commenced in years 5/6 alongside education about racism.

This is vital not only because anti-LGBTI bullying and discrimination can occur from a young age (including all-too-common insults like “that’s so gay”), but also because some young lesbian, gay and bisexual students are coming out earlier and earlier (and deserve to be protected), while some trans* and intersex youth may have disclosed their status earlier still.

Third, in the year band description for years 9/10, heading “[c]ritique behaviours and contextual factors that influence health and wellbeing of their communities” instead of using the term “such as… homophobia” (emphasis added) the curriculum should say “including homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice” to ensure that schools cannot opt out of providing this content.

Fourth, I would highlight the inconsistency in providing information about homophobia and transphobia to students, which as I have indicated above is a positive development, with the ongoing exclusion of the words lesbian, gay and bisexual from the document in its entirety, and the exclusion of the words transgender and intersex from the year band descriptions (which provide the main content of the curriculum).

It would seem nigh on impossible to appropriately teach students about the negatives of homophobia and transphobia (together with biphobia and anti-intersex discrimination, which should be added) at the same time that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students are either not explicitly mentioned in the year band descriptions, or not even mentioned at all in the entire curriculum.

Sexual health

One of the key aspects of any Health & Physical Education curriculum must be the provision of comprehensive, inclusive and up-to-date education around sexual health.

Unfortunately, none of the three drafts of the HPE curriculum released to date have provided even a bare minimum of information about the best practices to support sexual health, not just for LGBTI people, but also for cisgender heterosexual students.

While the Glossary does at least provide a definition of ‘sexual health’ (“[a] state of physical, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence”), there is either limited or no support to implement this in practice in the year band descriptions.

In the year bands 5/6 and 7/8, which represent key ages for sexual health education, there is some discussion of physical changes surrounding puberty, and even changing feelings and attractions, but there does not appear to be any unit or module where students are taught the ‘nitty-gritty’ of sexual health, including discussion of different sexual practices, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the best ways to reduce the risks of STI transmission (including but not limited to condom usage).

I continue to find it extraordinary that the national minimum standard for Health & Physical Education to students does not even refer to STIs or condoms.

One of the arguments that has been mounted in defence of this omission is that this level of detail is not necessary in the curriculum, and that it will be covered as different jurisdictions and school systems implement their own syllabus.

I completely disagree. Given how fundamental sexual health is to the health and wellbeing of young people, surely the national HPE curriculum is the perfect place to guarantee that all students, rights across the country and irrespective of whether they attend government or non-government schools, receive the best possible information.

In addition, the reticence to provide any real detail around sexual health in the curriculum, on the basis that ‘specifics’ are not required, looks more like evasion when compared with some of the other sections of the curriculum which are, in fact, quite detailed (for example, in the year 5/6 band description it suggests “experimenting with different music genres such as Indian Bhangra music when performing creative dances”).

If something as specific as Indian Bhangra music can be named in the HPE document, then there must also be space for detailed discussion of the importance of sexual health, different sexual practices, STIs and condoms.

HIV and other BBVs

My fifth and final concern is related to the fourth, and that is the complete exclusion of HIV, and other BBVs like viral hepatitis, from the curriculum.

As I have written previously, I simply cannot understand that a national Health & Physical Education curriculum, developed and written in the years 2012 and 2013, does not even refer to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, which together directly affect almost half a million Australians.

It is vital that students learn about these BBVs, and most importantly how to reduce the risks of their transmission (for example, condom usage, hepatitis B vaccination, not sharing injecting equipment and safe tattooing and body art practices). If we do not provide this information, at the age that young people need it most, then we are failing in our duty of care towards the next generation.

The ongoing exclusion of HIV in particular looks odd (or, to be less charitable, short-sighted and ill-conceived). More than 30 years into the HIV epidemic in Australia, and with Melbourne hosting the 20th International AIDS Conference in July 2014, the proposed national minimum standard for Health & Physical Education curriculum does not even bother to mention it.

This is far from the ‘best practice’ approach that Australia adopted to the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. A best practice approach to the HPE curriculum now would, as a minimum, ensure that all students learn about HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, and the best ways to reduce the risks of transmission.

 

Conclusion

 

As I have outlined above, I have serious concerns about the second revised draft Health & Physical Education curriculum, including its continued exclusion of LGBTI students and content relevant to their needs, as well as minimal or non-existent education regarding sexual health and HIV and other BBVs.

As reviewers of the national curriculum, I believe it is your responsibility to remedy these significant shortcomings, and ensure that the final HPE curriculum adopted is one that provides for the best possible health education and outcomes for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

That is my definition of Students First.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

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