Update 19 December 2020:
The NSW Curriculum Review Final Report was finally released in June 2020.
Unfortunately, instead of recommending any improvements to address the long-standing invisibility of LGBTI students and their needs in the NSW curriculum, the Review will likely further entrench this invisibility for years, or even decades, to come.
There is no mention of LGBTI issues in the NSW Curriculum Review Report’s entire 140 pages. Just as revealing as this exclusion is the fact the section on ‘[t]he changing student population’ on page 5 talks about different school systems (Government, private and religious), different geographic regions (regional, rural, remote, as well as Western Sydney), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and students with disability. But not students with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or sex characteristics.
The key recommendation of the report is to: ‘Design new syllabuses for each subject, including subjects of the senior years, to reduce the volume of mandated content where appropriate and to prioritise the learning of core facts, concepts and principles’.
When our starting position is that the current NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum does not compel teachers to even mention the basic fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people exist, let alone provide LGBTI students with the basic information they need to be safe, it seems inevitable that LGBTI content will remain in the ‘non-core’ basket for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, the NSW Government Response to the Curriculum Review expresses support for this recommendation. And so, with the curriculum for each NSW subject set to be reviewed and redrafted, again, in the next 3-4 years, LGBTI students are set to be left behind once more. A disappointing outcome from a very disappointing review.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission, in response to the NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report (Nurturing Wonder and Igniting Passion: Designs for a future school curriculum), released in October 2019.
I make this submission as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and as someone who has consistently called for an inclusive national, and NSW, Personal Development, Health & Physical Education (PDHPE) syllabus.
In this context, I wish to express my disappointment with the Interim Review, which ignores the needs of LGBTI students, and potentially makes the introduction of a genuinely-inclusive PDHPE syllabus more difficult.
For example, in describing ‘the changing student population’ on page 5, the Review discusses the ‘size and diversity of today’s student population’, including highlighting metro versus regional, rural and remote, public versus religious/independent schools, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students who speak a language other than English at home, and students with disability – but there is no mention of LGBTI students.
This absence continues throughout the rest of the document, including wherever there is a focus on meeting the needs of diverse students (such as the section on ‘an inclusive curriculum’ on pages 65-66: ‘within each school subject, the curriculum should be designed as far as possible to be inclusive of, and accessible to, every student’). In fact, LGBTI students, and related issues, do not appear once in the 116 pages of the Interim Report.
This exclusion is even more concerning in the context of ‘Reform Direction 1: Creating a less crowded curriculum’. While I understand there is some pushback on ‘overcrowded and overly prescriptive syllabuses [that] create pressure on teachers and schools’ (page 6 of the Interim Report Consultation Workbook), I am worried this proposal will in fact make schools less safe for LGBTI students.
For example, one comment highlighted in the Interim Report implies that a range of topics have been unnecessarily added to the curriculum, and should therefore be considered for removal, including ‘anxiety/depression, resiliency training, childhood obesity, road safety, water safety, Asian studies, healthy school canteens, bush fire safety awareness, languages, cyber safety and anti-bullying’ (page 27, emphasis added.)
Surely, anti-bullying, and attempting to create a safe environment for all students in which to learn, is actually a core requirement of each and every school?
But the bigger problem of Reform Direction 1 is that it proposes a ’15 to 20 per cent reduction’ in the content of each and every syllabus – when, as I submitted during its development, the current PDHPE syllabus excludes LGBTI students and content that is relevant to their needs, and consequently needs to have content added.
As I wrote at the beginning of 2019:[i]
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. 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.
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) – 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, 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.
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).
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, 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.
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.’
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.
Hopefully, this summary of the problems of the existing PDHPE syllabus explains why I am so reluctant to embrace any call for curriculum content to be reduced, given LGBTI content is invisible to begin with and instead should be increased.
The final issue I wish to address is ‘Reform Direction 13: Introducing a major project’, and in particular the proposal that this project – which would apparently contribute a significant proportion to a student’s final school results – be undertaken by working in teams.
I believe requiring students to work together in teams in this way is only possible where schools are safe learning environments for everyone – and that NSW schools, both government and non-government, currently are not safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.
This is not just because of the exclusion of LGBTI issues from the PDHPE syllabus (although that is obviously a contributing factor), but also because of high rates of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying – which has been exacerbated by the Government’s decision to axe the Safe Schools program which was specifically designed to address these issues.
LGBTI students in non-government schools are especially vulnerable given the exceptions in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), allowing all private schools and colleges (whether they are religious or not), to discriminate against and expel LGBTI kids.
It is perhaps ironic that the Interim Report states on page 45 that:
studies have highlighted the importance of inclusive, supportive environments in which all learners’ backgrounds, strengths and starting points are recognised and welcomed, strong relationships are built, and collaborative learning (including project-based and problem-based learning) is encouraged.
The reality is that too many LGBTI students, in too many NSW schools, do not enjoy ‘inclusive, supportive environments’ in which they are ‘recognised and welcomed’. Unless and until this is fixed, then any proposal for a team-based major project in the final years of the NSW curriculum should be abandoned.
Thank you for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information.
Every student has the right to be safe, and to learn about themselves, in every school. The NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report could take us further away from that goal than ever.
[i] Invisibility in the Curriculum, 23 January 2019.