The National Curriculum Review Fails to Support LGBTI Students

The Final Report of the Review of the Australian Curriculum, conducted by Ken Wiltshire and Kevin Donnelly, was released on Sunday 12 October 2014, accompanied by the Commonwealth Government’s Response (both documents can be found at the following link: <http://www.studentsfirst.gov.au/review-australian-curriculum ).

Based on initial reporting (including this article by Samantha Maiden in The Sunday Telegraph <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/teenagers-should-be-given-lessons-on-sex-and-drugs-national-curriculum-report-states/story-fni0cx12-1227087475187 ), you could be forgiven for believing that the outcome of the Review was, overall, a positive one for LGBTI students, with a commitment to include content relevant to their needs.

Unfortunately, however, a closer examination of the Final Report, and the Government’s Response, reveals that it is nothing more than another missed opportunity, yet another failure to ensure that the national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum caters to the needs of all students, including those of different sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status.

To understand just how far short of this standard the ‘Wiltshire & Donnelly’ Review falls, we must first look back at the development of the HPE curriculum. Drafted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA) during 2012 and 2013, the HPE curriculum was subject to two rounds of formal public consultation, before the current draft was submitted for the consideration of COAG Education Ministers late last year.

Despite a number of submissions highlighting the HPE curriculum’s failure to genuinely include LGBTI students and content (including two from yours truly: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/04/11/submission-on-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ and <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/30/submission-on-redrafted-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ), and even after some minor tinkering around the edges (with a couple of welcome references to ‘homophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ added), the current draft of the HPE curriculum does not guarantee that all students will learn what they need to know to be comfortable in who they are, and to stay safe.

In particular, as I made clear in my submission to the National Curriculum Review itself, the draft HPE curriculum:

  • Has significant problems in terms of terminology – for example, it does not even use the words ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ once in the entire document.
  • Includes a fine-sounding commitment to student diversity that is almost immediately undermined by allowing “schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people” – and which is especially poor when compared with the first draft that clearly stated that “same-sex attracted and gender diverse students exist in all Australian schools”.
  • Does not ensure students receive comprehensive sexual health education – with no year band descriptions providing a minimum level of information about sexually transmissible infections, and no references to condoms either, and
  • Completely excludes HIV and other BBVs, like hepatitis B and C – despite the fact that, more than 30 years into the HIV epidemic in Australia, the number of transmissions is rising (with one potential cause a lack of comprehensive and inclusive sexual health/BBV education for students).

[NB My full submission to the National Curriculum Review is available here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ].

The choice to appoint noted homophobe Kevin Donnelly (see my letter to Minister Pyne calling for Mr Donnelly to be sacked on that basis: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/01/11/letter-to-minister-pyne-re-health-physical-education-curriculum-and-appointment-of-mr-kevin-donnelly/ ) to review what was already a poor document was obviously a major concern.

And I will be the first to admit that the Final Report of the National Curriculum Review, including its recommendations about the HPE curriculum, is not as bad as was initially anticipated. But just because it did not live down to some exceptionally low expectations, does not mean that the outcome for the HPE curriculum, and its potential impact on LGBTI students, was in any way positive.

The first major failing of the National Curriculum Review’s approach is that it appears to concede, without mustering much opposition, that, far from being a national minimum standard, the HPE curriculum is essentially optional.

For example, it notes that “one jurisdiction said it would refuse to implement the content in sexual orientation” (which appears to be Western Australia), while “a few schools are implacably opposed to the inclusion of such material [sexuality education] and some have refused to teach it”, and “[o]ne organisation claimed they would not teach it as prescribed as it did not fit in with their religious values.”

Presumably, that final organisation was the National Catholic Education Office (NCEC), with the Final Report noting that “the submission by the NCEC signals that Catholic schools reserve the right to implement the Australian Curriculum according to the uniquely faith-based and religious nature of such schools: For example, as usual in all Catholic schools, the new Health and Physical Education Curriculum will need to be taught in the context of a Personal Development program informed by Catholic values on the life and personal issues involved” (emphasis in original).

Which means that Catholic Schools – which now account for more than 1-in-5 students across Australia – (presumably) Western Australian schools, and select other schools, have all refused to implement a document that wasn’t even genuinely LGBTI-inclusive to start.

The second major failing, or in this case potential failing, of the National Curriculum Review’s approach is that it supports “the need to reduce the amount of content overall”, noting that “[s]ubmissions and consultations and the opinion of the subject matter specialist suggest that it is overcrowded and needs some slimming down and some restricting of year-level content. Some of the content could well be addressed more in school-based activity.”

Indeed, one of its key recommendations is that “[t]he core content should be reduced and a significant portion should become part of school-based curriculum…” While this recommendation isn’t explicitly linked to LGBTI-related content, there is now a real risk that, in finalising the HPE Curriculum, either at the COAG Education Ministers meeting in December, or subsequently during 2015, what little LGBTI-inclusive material there is may be on the chopping block. This is something that will need to be monitored closely in coming months.

The third major failing of the National Curriculum Review in this area is that, rather than mandating that every student, in every school, receives a minimum level of LGBTI-related education, it instead supports ever greater levels of ‘flexibility’ in terms of what is delivered in the classroom (noting that that the original HPE curriculum already supported ‘flexibility’ in this area).

For example, in one particularly telling paragraph it notes “[o]ther schools, including Christian schools, have advised us that they are comfortable with the inclusion of such content [sexuality education] in the health and physical education curriculum, provided there is flexibility so that they are able to teach it at the age level they deem appropriate, and by mature teachers rather than younger ones who may feel challenged in this arena. We think this is the way forward.”

Which, upon analysis, is actually a pretty bizarre statement – not just because it shouldn’t matter how old a teacher is, as long as they are appropriately qualified, but also because the National Curriculum Review is essentially agreeing to schools disregarding the evidence of when it is best to provide sexuality/sexual health education to students. Instead, the Review supports allowing schools to teach this content at whatever age they wish, without any justification, and presumably delaying it beyond the age at which it would be most valuable.

The recommendation in this area goes even further: “[t]he two controversial areas of sexuality and drugs education should remain, but schools should be given greater flexibility to determine the level at which these areas are introduced and the modalities in which they will be delivered…” (emphasis added). Which means that even how sexuality education is taught is apparently negotiable.

The net outcome of the National Curriculum Review, at least as it concerns Health & Physical Education, is this: A curriculum that already largely excludes LGBTI students and content, is, in practice, essentially optional, with at least one jurisdiction, one religion-based school system, and other individual schools all opting-out. What LGBTI-related subject matter there is remains under threat as the content is ‘slimmed down’ in coming months, while those religious schools that do teach ‘sexuality education’ will have the ‘flexibility’ to choose when it is taught, how it is taught and even by whom it is taught.

Which, to me at least, sounds like the exact opposite of what a national curriculum should be – and demonstrates just how big a missed opportunity this entire process has been.

A national Health & Physical Education curriculum should be a document that recognises that, no matter what state they reside in, and irrespective of the type of school they attend (government, religious or private), all LGBTI students have the fundamental right to an inclusive education.

The existing HPE curriculum does not even come close to recognising that right, and the Final Report of the Australian Curriculum Review will not deliver it, either. That is why we must give the ‘Wiltshire & Donnelly’ Review a fail – because it fails to support LGBTI students.

Two final points. First, at least one of the explanations for why the National Curriculum Review has ultimately failed LGBTI students lies in the fact that it actively bought into the notion that the area of ‘sexuality education’ is somehow controversial. Well, that is simply not true.

Just because there are people who disagree with something does not make it controversial. Just because some governments, religious organisations, individual schools and even some parents do not think students should be taught material because it is LGBTI-inclusive, does not mean their opinion is valid.

None of their individual or collective prejudices about sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status trump the rights of LGBTI students to hear about themselves in the classroom, and to be taught that who they are is okay. Nor do the so-called interests of these groups override the need to reduce the number of suicides of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, an ongoing tragedy in schools and communities across the country.

Which brings me to my final point. Some people believe that the inclusion of the following paragraph indicates that the Curriculum Review is supportive of LGBTI students:

“Expert medical opinion is clear that, along with the earlier maturation of young people, there is currently a serious crisis – including youth suicides – occurring in Australian society in this domain as a result of a lack of forums and spaces where young people can discuss such issues, including sexuality. The school setting, on the assumption that the curriculum is balanced and objective in dealing with what are sensitive and often controversial issues, offers one of the few neutral places for this to occur.”

Of course, I agree with the majority of this statement (reference to ‘controversial’ aside) – as would many advocates operating in this area. But, if you are to raise the spectre of youth suicide, and LGBTI youth suicide in particular, but then fail to deliver a document that would do anything to tackle this crisis, then, Mr Wiltshire and Mr Donnelly, your words aren’t just hollow and tokenistic, they are offensive.

Ken Wiltshire & Kevin Donnelly's National Curriculum Review has failed LGBTI students around the country.

Ken Wiltshire & Kevin Donnelly’s National Curriculum Review has failed to support LGBTI students around the country.

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