Did you know that the NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education K-10 Syllabus does not require schools to teach students what lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex mean, or even that they exist?
It is now being progressively rolled out in NSW classrooms, with full implementation by the start of the 2020 school year.
This is despite the fact the new PDHPE curriculum is entirely unfit for the 21st century, contributing to the ongoing invisibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) content, and therefore of LGBTI students.
This can be seen in a number of ways. The first, and perhaps most important, is in its use – or, more accurately, lack of use – of the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex themselves.
In the 138 pages of the syllabus, these words occur three times each.[i] However, two out of these three appearances are found in the document’s glossary – with a definition of each term, and then as part of the broader definition of LGBTI people.
But teachers do not teach the glossary to their students. Instead, they are only required to teach the content for each year stage of the syllabus. And the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex can be found only once in the prescribed content, together on page 96:
‘investigate community health resources to evaluate how accessible they are for marginalised individuals and groups and propose changes to promote greater inclusiveness and accessibility eg people in rural and remote areas, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI), people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, people with disability.’
The problem with this is that LGBTI comes after ‘for example’ and therefore even referring to LGBTI people in this exercise is, on a prima facie reading, optional.
This issue – the status of content that appears after ‘eg’ in the syllabus – was raised, by myself and others, during the consultation process. The answer at the time was that whether this information was taught was at the discretion of the school and/or teacher. This appears to be confirmed in the consultation report, which states on page 18 that:
‘The content defines what students are expected to know and do as they work towards syllabus outcomes. Content examples clarify the intended learning. Teachers will make decisions about content regarding the sequence, emphasis and any adjustments required based on the needs, interests, abilities and prior learning of students.’
In practice, LGBTI people appear just once in the entire NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus, as part of an exercise about marginalised groups and inclusiveness, but schools and/or teachers can choose to remove even this most cursory of references.[ii]
This marginalisation, and exclusion, of LGBTI content and students is simply not good enough.
Another cause of the curriculum’s problems can be found if we return to the glossary, and inspect the definition of sexuality:
‘A central aspect of being human throughout life. It is influenced by an interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors. It is experienced and expressed in thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships.’
On a philosophical level, this is actually quite an inclusive and even progressive view of the complexity of human sexuality. But on a practical level, the absence of specificity in this definition undermines any obligation for schools and/or teachers to teach about real-world diversity of sexual orientation.
This lack of prescription means that, on page 96 – which is the only place in the general syllabus where ‘sexuality’ appears not following an ‘eg’ (and therefore is the only reference that isn’t optional)[iii] – content to ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’ does not necessarily include lesbian, gay or bisexual sexualities.
It is a similar story in terms of gender,[iv] with the glossary definition (‘Refers to the concepts of male and female as well as the socially constructed expectations about what is acceptable for males and females’) not particularly useful in ensuring students learn about the diversity of gender identities. There also do not appear to be any references to non-binary or gender diverse identities.[v]
These definitions of sexuality and gender, and how they are employed throughout the syllabus, could be interpreted by some supportive schools and teachers to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender subject matter. But there is absolutely nothing that ensures schools and/or teachers must teach this content.
This erasure, or invisibilisation, of LGBTI people in the NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is nothing short of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic.
Which makes it somewhat ironic then that there are more references to homophobia and transphobia in its content than there are to LGBTI people.
On page 77: ‘describe forms of bullying, harassment, abuse, neglect, discrimination and violence and the impact they have on health, safety and wellbeing, eg family and domestic violence, homophobic and transphobic bullying, racism, cyberbullying, discrimination against people with disability.’
And on page 88: ‘propose protective strategies for a range of neglect and abuse situations, eg family and domestic violence, bullying, harassment, homophobia, transphobia and vilification.’
Although note of course that both times homophobia and transphobia appear after an ‘eg’, meaning whether they are taught in these contexts remains optional (and obviously neither of these sections explicitly refers to biphobia or intersexphobia either).[vi]
Another major problem with the new NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is its approach to sexual health.
There are only two compulsory references to sexual health in the content of the syllabus, one of which we have already seen (on page 96: ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’).
The other reference, on page 95, describes ‘identify methods of contraception and evaluate the extent to which safe sexual health practices allow people to take responsibility for managing their own sexual health.’
There are two problems with this statement. First, it puts the emphasis on ‘contraception’ when sexual health, and LGBTI sexual health especially, is a much broader concept. Second, it does not specifically mandate that schools and teachers instruct students about sexually transmissible infections (STIs).
In fact, quite astoundingly, the only reference to STIs in the general syllabus,[vii] on page 84 (‘identify and plan preventive health practices and behaviours that assist in protection against disease, eg blood-borne viruses, sexually transmissible infections’) makes teaching about them optional. The only time the term HIV even appears in the entire document is in the glossary.[viii]
In terms of STI-prevention, it seems the NSW PDHPE syllabus has actually gone backwards from the previous 2003 document, which at least prescribed that students learn about:
-acknowledging and understanding sexual feelings
-expectations of males and females
-rights and responsibilities in sexual relationships
-sexually transmitted infections, blood-borne viruses and HIV/AIDS’ as well as to
‘identify behaviours that assist in preventing STIs, BBVs and HIV/AIDS and explore the interrelationship with drug use.’[ix]
The aim of the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is explained on page 12 of the document:
‘The study of PDHPE in K-10 aims to enable students to develop the knowledge, understanding, skills, values and attitudes required to lead and promote healthy, safe and active lives.’
Unfortunately, the more than 100 pages of the new syllabus which follow that statement make clear that it does not, and cannot, promote healthy, safe and active lives for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. After all, it is impossible for students to learn everything they need to be safe when they cannot see themselves in the curriculum.
This document represents a complete derogation of duty by the NSW Education Standards Authority, and Education Minister Rob Stokes and the Berejiklian Liberal-National that have overseen them.
They have also failed in their duty to keep all students safe, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike, given the paucity of sexual health information, and specific content around sexually transmissible infections, in the syllabus.
To some extent it is perhaps a little unfair to single out NSW for these failures, because they are not alone in responsibility for them.
As this author has previously written, the national Health and Physical Education curriculum (which provides the framework for the NSW syllabus) developed earlier this decade by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), also abjectly fails to take the needs of LGBTI students seriously.
Despite repeated calls for him to intervene, then-Commonwealth Education Minister Christopher Pyne refused to take action to make LGBTI-inclusive content a priority either.
Ensuring that all teachers, in all schools, provide health and physical education content that is inclusive of all students and their needs has been placed in the ‘too hard basket’ by educational authorities, and Ministers, at multiple levels of government over multiple years.
It seems they would prefer to pretend LGBTI students do not exist rather than to take on the influence of religious schools and others who see anything that promotes the view that LGBTI people are part of the natural, beautiful diversity of humanity as some sort of ‘radical agenda’.
In this respect, the exclusion of LGBTI content from the NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus shares a lot in common with the current debate about the exceptions to anti-discrimination law that allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, something the NSW Government has also ruled out fixing.
As with that issue, the losers out of the new PDHPE curriculum are the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex kids who have the right to learn about themselves, and to receive the information they need to keep themselves safe, but who are instead being made to feel invisible.
[i] The term bisexual actually appears four times, with an additional appearance in the glossary in the definition of ‘same-sex attracted’, alongside ‘homosexual’ in its only appearance.
[ii] This interpretation – that teaching the examples which are included in the content is optional – is supported by page 24 of the consultation report, which states: ‘The content is presented to be inclusive and provide the flexibility for delivery based on the context and the ethos of schools. Schools will make decisions about the scope and range of examples to illustrate the diversity of groups in Australian society.’
[iii] There is a separate reference to ‘sexuality’ that is not optional on page 119 in the Life Skills section, for students with special needs, although it does not specifically refer to diversity of sexual orientations.
[iv] The definition of sex on page 135, described as ‘The biological characteristics that define humans as female or male. While these sets of biological characteristics are not mutually exclusive, as there are individuals who possess both, they tend to differentiate humans as males and females’, also does not ensure students learn about variations of sex characteristics.
[v] The definition of transgender or trans on page 137 states ‘A general term for a person whose gender is different to their sex at birth’.
[vi] As an aside, it must surely be difficult to teach students about homophobia and transphobia when the syllabus doesn’t require instruction about the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex in the first place.
[vii] At a minimum the Life Skills content for students with special needs makes teaching about sexually transmissible infections mandatory (on page 119: ‘recognise issues of safety in relation to sexual relationships, including contraception, sexually transmissible infections’).
[viii] In the glossary definition of sexually transmissible infections: ‘Any infection that can be passed from one person to another during sexual activity. Sexually transmissible infections include chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, scabies, pubic lice, hepatitis and HIV.’