Letter to Minister Piccoli re Proud Schools

UPDATE (Saturday 8 February): Yesterday, I received a response from the NSW Government to my letter about Proud Schools (below). It was not from the Minister, but rather from the Executive Director, Learning and Engagement, in the Department of Education and Communities.

In short, it appears that the NSW Government has completed its review of Proud Schools and on that basis has decided to abandon the Proud Schools pilot/model. Unfortunately, it does not appear as if the review of the Proud Schools pilot is going to be released.

Equally concerning, while the response talks about a “Wellbeing Framework for Education”, there appears to be very little detail about what this might entail. Given the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination which continues to affect LGBTI students (a fact reinforced by the Growing Up Queer report, released yesterday), there will need to be a lot more information provided about this framework before it could be supported.

As an aside, I find it curious that in a letter about Proud Schools, and replying to a letter about Proud Schools/the needs of LGBTI students, the response does not refer to LGBTI students specifically, instead making generic statements about ‘all students’. Hmmm…

The full text of the letter:

Dear Mr Lawrie

I write in response to your email of 12 January 2014 to the Hon Adrian Piccoli MP, Minister for Education regarding the Proud Schools pilot. The Minister has asked me to respond on his behalf.

The Department of Education and Communities is committed to providing safe and supportive learning environments that respect and value diversity and that are free from all forms of violence, bullying, discrimination, harassment and vilification.

We know that learning outcomes are better where students are happy, safe and supported at school. We also know that when school communities work together real improvements in promoting understanding and reducing discrimination can be made.

From the Proud Schools pilot it has emerged that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not be appropriate for a systemic school system.

Significant work is currently underway on developing a Wellbeing Framework for Education. This framework will provide schools with guidance and evidence informed practice to support all students within the context of their school and in consultation with their school communities. The subsequent development of any wellbeing materials will need to carefully balance the wellbeing of all young people.

Thank you for your email.

Yours sincerely

[NAME WITHHELD]

Executive Director, Learning and Engagement

5 February 2014

ORIGINAL POST Today (Tuesday 28 January) is the first official day of the school year for teachers across NSW. Tomorrow, students return to school for the first time in 2014. And yet, with teachers and students coming back, it is still unclear whether something else is returning to NSW schools this year – the Proud Schools program.

A three-year pilot of Proud Schools – which is designed to help schools include LGBTI students, and protect them from bullying – was due to be completed at the end of 2013. The pilot project was also subject to a formal review last year, to help determine whether it should be expanded, and if so in what form.

But, as far as I can tell, this review has not yet been released, and no announcement appears to have been made about the future of the Proud Schools program. Is the Proud Schools pilot being extended? Is the program being rolled out beyond the initial very small number of schools in which is began? Has Proud Schools been axed? If so, has it been replaced with another program aimed at serving the needs of LGBTI students in NSW?

Concerned about the lack of information, I wrote to the NSW Minister for Education, the Hon Adrian Piccoli, about this subject two weeks ago. Below is my letter to him (dated 12 January). I have yet to receive a response to this, but will update this post if I do.

Dear Minister

PROUD SCHOOLS/PROGRAMS FOR LGBTI STUDENTS

I am writing regarding the Proud Schools program, which has been piloted across a small number of NSW schools over the past three years (2011-2013).

I understand that the Proud Schools pilot was the subject of a review by the NSW Government during 2013, and that, following this review, the NSW Government was to make a decision about the long-term future of Proud Schools.

Has this review been finalised? If so, has a decision been taken by the NSW Government concerning the future of the Proud Schools program? If so, when will this decision, and the review upon which it was based, be made public?

I write because there are only two weeks left until the 2014 school year commences, and believe that it is important for schools, teachers and LGBTI students to have some certainty about the future of this program.

Even if the NSW Government decides not to continue with the specific Proud Schools initiative, it is vital that a program which supports the needs of LGBTI students is rolled out across NSW schools, not just in the small number that were involved in Proud Schools, but across the entire state.

This is because LGBTI students are subject to increased levels of bullying and harassment based on homophobia, bi-phobia, trans*-phobia and anti-intersex prejudice, experience higher rates of mental illness as a result of this discrimination, and are at risk of not receiving education that is inclusive of their needs.

I seek your assurance that you are giving this issue priority, and will have a program in place in NSW schools from the beginning of the 2014 school year.

I look forward to your response to this letter.

Yours sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Letter to Ministers re National Health & Physical Education Curriculum

So, you may recall that I lodged a submission with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) regarding the draft national Health and Physical Education (HPE) Curriculum which they released for public comment in December 2012 (see my post in April 2013 for a copy of my submission).

Well, the draft HPE curriculum is now being considered in detail between different state and territory Governments, and the Commonwealth Government, before its expected agreement in the second half of this year.

It is unclear what, if any, changes have been made to the curriculum as a result of the consultation process. Given the importance of the issue, today I wrote to the Commonwealth Minister for School Education, the Hon Peter Garrett MP, and his NSW counterpart, the Hon Adrian Piccoli, expressing my concerns about the draft. And, because of the potential impact on LGBTI health, I copied in the Commonwealth Health Minister, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, and the NSW Health Minister, the Hon Jillian Skinner, to these letters.

It is still my hope that someone, somewhere, will finally realise that it is completely inappropriate and detrimental to adopt a Health and Physical Education Curriculum that does not specifically mention lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people, and does not even explicitly include HIV.

Anyway, here is a copy of my letter to Minister Garrett:

Dear Minister Garrett

NATIONAL HEALTH AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION CURRICULUM

I am writing to you to express my significant concerns about the draft national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum.

The draft curriculum that was released for public consultation by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in December 2012 fails to appropriately include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, and does not guarantee that content relevant to their needs is provided in every classroom.

I have already lodged a submission to ACARA through their public consultation process. However, I would like to bring these issues directly to your attention because the consequences of excluding these students, and ignoring their educational requirements, are so severe.

I have also copied the Health Minister, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, into this correspondence, because many of these consequences will impact on the health of the LGBTI community. These impacts could include increased transmission of HIV and other STIs, as well as the continuing high, and disproportionate, rate of youth suicide among LGBTI people.

As you can see from my submission to ACARA, I have a range of criticisms of the draft curriculum. However, the three major issues which I would like to see addressed are:

1.       The national HPE curriculum must explicitly include LGBTI students and their concerns.

The draft HPE curriculum released by ACARA does not include any references to sexual orientation, homosexuality, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex. This is a gross oversight, and has the potential effect of making these students, and their needs, invisible.

There is a token effort to address this issue on page 18 of the draft, where it acknowledges that same sex attracted and gender diverse students exist in all schools. However, it does not back this acknowledgement up with any concrete action – instead, the draft curriculum notes that “it is expected that opportunities will be taken when implementing the [curriculum] to ensure teaching is inclusive and relevant to their lived experiences.”

This “expectation” does not actually guarantee anything. There are no explicit references to LGBT or I students in any of the band descriptions for years which follow from page 26. It is also difficult to see how any teaching can be “inclusive and relevant” when the curriculum does not even use the terms which most people from the LGBTI community use to describe themselves.

Unfortunately, adopting a national HPE curriculum which does not explicitly refer to LGBTI students or address their particular needs will only compound the feelings of isolation, and the discrimination, which many of these students experience, rather than cater to the health and physical education needs of all students, not just cisgender heterosexual ones.

2.       The national HPE curriculum must provide inclusive sexual health education.

Another key failing of the draft national HPE curriculum is that the ‘sex ed’ which it includes is both narrow in scope and limited in detail.

The primary reference to this essential area of health and physical education is on page 59 where it states students will be taught “investigating practices that support reproductive health and wellbeing”. And that is the extent of the content.

There are two major problems with this approach. First, “reproductive health and wellbeing” is an exclusionary terms, that primarily focuses on sexual health practices and issues for cisgender heterosexual students. It implicitly excludes same-sex sexual activity and other practices which do not relate to reproduction (and in fact omits many opposite-sex sexual activities). It would be far preferable to use the term “sexual health” which would include a much wider range of sexual activities and issues.

The second major problem is that one sentence is insufficient to cover the range of issues which need to be taught as part of sexual health. There should be significantly more detail in this area, including a guarantee that all students learn ‘safe sex’ messages, learn about condoms, basically that all students learn about ways to reduce STI transmission.

3.       The national HPE curriculum must include explicit reference to HIV.

On the subject of STIs, I find it astonishing that the draft national HPE curriculum does not include even a single reference to HIV.

As a gay man who came of age in the 1990s, I think that this is irresponsible, and fails to undertake the most basic requirement of a ‘health and physical education’ curriculum – namely, to provide education on how students can stay safe and protect their own personal health.

Yes, the consequences of a diagnosis have (thankfully) reduced because of improvements of treatment over the past 20 years. Yes, for many people HIV is now a chronic manageable condition rather than a ‘death sentence’.

However, many people, including young people, are still contracting HIV. And some people are still dying with HIV/AIDS at least a contributing factor.

Surely, in a document of more than 80 pages, there is room to incorporate basic information regarding HIV, and the main ways to prevent its transmission?

The NSW PDHPE curriculum finds room to reference HIV in both the K-6 syllabus, and the 7-10 syllabus. I expect that other states and territories would have similar components. At the very least, any national HPE curriculum must do the same.

As I indicated before, I think that the draft of the HPE curriculum released by ACARA in December 2012 fails in its important duty to provide education for the benefit of all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

I hope that you and the Federal Government share these concerns and can help address the issues raised in this letter during the inter-governmental consultation on the final version of the HPE curriculum.

Should you have any questions about this letter, or my attached submission, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you in advance for considering this correspondence.