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

No 4 Draft Health & Physical Education Curriculum Fails LGBTI Students

For people who read my blog regularly, you will know that this is something I have written a fair bit about over the past 12 months. For others, you could be forgiven for asking what exactly I am talking about. Which is a fair enough question, given this subject has almost completely evaded media attention, even within the LGBTI community.

In December 2012, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) released a draft national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum for public consultation. Submissions closed in April this year, before a second draft was released for limited public consultation in July 2013.

ACARA then finalised the draft curriculum from August to November, before submitting it for approval at the COAG Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood (SCSEEC) meeting in in Sydney on 29 November.

Through this process, it became clear that the draft HPE curriculum that had been developed would almost completely fail to serve the needs of young LGBTI people right around Australia. Neither the first nor the second draft curriculum even included the words gay, lesbian or bisexual, and, while the second included transgender and intersex, it only did so in the glossary and even then erroneously included them within the same definition.

Nor did the draft HPE curriculum guarantee that all students, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike, would learn the necessary sexual health education to allow them to make informed choices. Almost unbelievably, COAG Education Ministers were asked to approve a Health & Physical Education curriculum that did not even include the term HIV (or other BBVs like viral hepatitis for that matter), just two days before World AIDS Day.

For more information on just how bad the draft HPE curriculums were, here is my submission to the first draft: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/04/11/submission-on-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ and second draft: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/30/submission-on-redrafted-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/

Given the fact the draft HPE curriculums so comprehensively failed to include LGBTI students, let alone content that was relevant to their needs, why didn’t this issue receive more attention, both from the media, and more specifically from LGBTI activists and advocates?

Well, there are lots of reasons – including but not limited to the inability of something as complicated as a school curriculum to compete with the much more emotive, yes/no, good/evil, photogenic juggernaut that is marriage equality.

But simply writing it off in that way is too simple – and lets us off the hook, free from our own responsibility for this failure. Because, if the exclusion of LGBTI students and content from the HPE curriculum was not a public issue, it is because we, as LGBTI activists and advocates, did not make it one.

In which case, I would like to sincerely apologise to future generations of young LGBTI people, who we failed over the past 12 months. If the HPE curriculum that is ultimately adopted resembles anything like its draft form, then we simply did not do enough to ensure that you received the education that you deserve.

Of course, I should not be alone in making such an apology – there are many other people, and organisations, who could and should have done more in this area throughout the course of 2013. Nor should we let off the hook the Education Ministers, both Labor and Liberal, who oversaw the development of the HPE curriculum, including Peter Garrett and Bill Shorten who were Education Minister when the two drafts were released, respectively.

There is however, a small glimmer of hope, and an opportunity to make things better, in the HPE curriculum and therefore for LGBTI students over the next 10 to 15 years. That is because new Commonwealth Education Minister Christopher Pyne has commenced a review of both ACARA, and of the curriculum development process more generally.

While overall that is probably not a positive development, it did mean that the HPE curriculum was not actually agreed at the 29 November meeting, but was instead simply ‘noted’. In short, there is still time to try to convince Minister Pyne, and any or all of this state and territory counterparts (Labor, Liberal and Green), that the draft HPE curriculum is not good enough when it comes to providing essential health education to LGBTI students.

Unfortunately, doing so would require the concerted effort of LGBTI people and organisations from around the country. Based on all the evidence of the past 12 months, I am not especially hopeful. Still, I can hope to be proven wrong.

UPDATE January 11 2014: As of yesterday, the small glimmer of hope that might have existed is no more. The Commonwealth Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has appointed Kevin Donnelly as one of two men to review the curriculum. Unfortunately, Mr Donnelly is on record as making numerous homophobic comments in the past, including advocating for the rights of religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students and staff. If anything, there is now a grave danger that the final Health & Physical Education curriculum will be significantly worse than the already poor versions released publicly in December 2012 and July 2013. How depressing for us – and how dangerous for the health and safety of the next generation of LGBTI students and young people.

The ABCs of Health & Physical Education Must Include LGBTI

Next week, a decision will be made that will have a profound and long-lasting influence on the health and wellbeing of an entire generation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians. And it has nothing (or at most, very little) to do with marriage equality.

On Friday, 29 November, the COAG Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood, which includes Commonwealth, state and territory Education Ministers, will decide whether to approve the national Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum. The HPE curriculum, developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), has largely been ignored, struggling to compete for attention against photogenic images of same-sex couples in wedding attire, and empowered adults advocating for the right to marry the person they love.

While I obviously support that campaign (indeed, I am engaged to be married myself), the national HPE curriculum will arguably have a far greater impact on young LGBTI people, right across the country, than any other possible reform.

We already know that young LGBTI people experience significantly higher rates of mental health issues, and, tragically, suicidality, than other groups. Figures from the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell report reveal that young same-sex attracted people are roughly six times more likely to attempt suicide (20-42% compared to 7-13% of heterosexual young people). While there is less research, similar, if anything even worse, statistics affect young transgender people.

And we already know what causes poorer mental health outcomes for younger LGBTI people – the homophobia, bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex discrimination that still occurs all too frequently. The 2010 Writing Themselves In 3 report found that 61% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young people had experienced verbal abuse because of homophobia, 18% had suffered physical abuse, and 26% reported other forms of homophobia.

Disturbingly, “the most common place of abuse remained school with 80% of those who were abused naming school” (WTI3 pIX). Our young LGBTI people are being abused in one of the places that they should feel safest. And the trend is worsening, with that figure markedly up since 2004 (when 74% reported homophobic abuse at school) and 1998 (69%).

Just as worryingly, young LGBTI are not receiving an inclusive education in terms of content either. While just over a third of young people reported receiving useful information about homophobia and discrimination from school (WTI3, p80), less than one fifth were able to access information about gay or lesbian relationships (p81).

Our schools are also comprehensively failing to provide adequate, and appropriate, sexual health education to young LGBTI people. Writing Themselves In 3 found that less than one in five students were taught relevant information about gay or lesbian safe sex (by comparison, approximately 70% reported receiving information about heterosexual safe sex: p82). Young people themselves are aware of this gross inadequacy – 84% of LGBTI respondents found their Sexuality Education to be either not useful at all (44%) or at best only partly useful (40%) (p84).

I have painted this confronting picture because the development of a national Health and Physical Education curriculum was an ideal chance to rectify some of these deficiencies. An inclusive HPE curriculum, which specifically included LGBTI students and content relevant to their needs, could have gone some way to reducing the disparities in health outcomes experienced by young LGBTI people. But it seems likely the document that will be agreed at the end of next week will fall spectacularly short of this goal.

Two drafts of the HPE curriculum have been released for publication consultation: the first, an 82-page draft in December 2012, the second, a pared-down 50 page revised draft in July 2013. In neither draft are the terms lesbian, gay, homosexual or bisexual even used, let alone defined. The words transgender and intersex do make a solitary appearance in the revised draft: in the glossary, erroneously included together under the heading gender-diverse.

Not only is the national HPE curriculum not going to overcome the silence about LGBTI students and content which exists in many schools across Australia – it is more likely to perpetuate and further entrench it.

To be fair, the curriculum does include a single aspirational – some might say, less kindly, token – paragraph on the subject of ‘same sex attracted and gender diverse students’ (SSAGD) on page 18 of the July 2013 revised draft. But even this includes vague, and seemingly unenforceable, commitments.

It says the curriculum “is designed to allow schools flexibility to meet the needs of these [SSAGD] students, particularly in the health context of relationships and sexuality” (emphasis added). This leaves open the possibility that some schools, including but not limited to religious schools, will exercise that same flexibility to exclude LGBTI content.

The next sentence reads “[a]ll school communities have a responsibility when implementing the HPE curriculum to ensure teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experience of all students” (emphasis added). That could be interpreted, optimistically, to mean all schools must include SSAGD content – or it could be interpreted, by less progressive school bodies (or indeed state and territory governments), to mean HPE education must be inclusive only where they are aware of the presence of LGBTI students.

That might seem, on the face of it, to be an overly-negative reading – except that a statement that “students facing these issues [SSAGD] exist in all schools”, which appeared in the first draft of the curriculum, was axed from the revised draft. It is hard to ignore the possibility that religious and independent schools have ensured the removal of such a clause, thereby allowing them to continue to ignore LGBTI students and content unless those students identify themselves.

These schools know that many young people will not disclose their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status at school (often in – quite legitimate – fear of punishment from that same school), meaning that heterosexual and cisgender-only health education can continue on much as before. Even where LGBTI students do ‘come out’, the onus should never be put on them to do so in order to receive an inclusive education: all students have the fundamental right to be taught LGBTI relevant content, whether they have disclosed their status or not.

That right exists no matter which state or territory they live in, and irrespective of whether they attend a public, religious or other private school. The right to be taught LGBTI-inclusive content also supersedes whatever views the school, or its employees, may hold, based on religion or otherwise. To me, that is the definition of putting children first, something which conservatives and family values campaigners consistently tell us to do.

Any optimistic view of the curriculum, based on the ‘aspirational paragraph’ referred to earlier, is further undermined by the lack of specific content in the individual year band descriptions, which is the practical guide to what students are expected to learn (on pages 25-42). There are no sections that guarantee detailed LGBTI-relevant content will be taught. In fact, a single reference to ‘homophobia’, which was included in the original December 2012 draft, was excised from the revised draft released in July 2013.

Even worse, there does not appear to be any section which mandates that students be taught comprehensive sexual health information (and that absence even includes heterosexual sexual health). There are no references to safe(r) sex education, to condoms, or to sexually transmissible infections (STIs). Above all, there is not a single reference in the entire draft HPE curriculum to HIV.

Imagine that for a second. More than 30 years into the HIV epidemic in Australia, and in the same year that the Annual Surveillance Reports showed a 10% increase in HIV notifications (24% in NSW), our national Health and Physical Education curriculum does not even mention HIV (nor does it include other Blood Borne Viruses (BBVs) like hepatitis B or C, which themselves each affect 1% of the entire Australian population).

The idea that, just two days before World AIDS Day, Commonwealth, state and territory Education Ministers could sit around a table and agree to an HPE curriculum that excludes HIV and other BBVs is simply astounding (and a lot of other words which I am too polite to write here).

Taken together, these omissions – LGBTI students and content, comprehensive sexual health education, and HIV and other BBVs – from the national Health and Physical Education curriculum, mean that the document that has been drafted (or the public versions of it at least) is an abject failure.

And it is a collective failure, too. The original December 2012 draft, and the July 2013 revised draft, were both released under the previous federal Labor Government. Of the state and territory Education Ministers present next Friday, five will be from the Coalition, two from Labor and even one from the Greens, and they will each bear some of the responsibility.

But above all, this is a test for the new Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP. He has come to Government expressing concerns about the ACARA process for developing the national curriculum, and the outcomes it has produced. Here is his opportunity to show that he is genuine, and to help ensure that the national Health and Physical Education Curriculum is genuinely-inclusive.

If he does not, if the document that is approved on 29 November excludes LGBTI students and content, comprehensive sexual health education, and HIV and other BBVs, then Minister Pyne will earn a large red “F” on his first term report card. He can – and must – do better.

Update (3 December): The Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood met last Friday, but did NOT endorse the national Health & Physical Education curriculum. Instead, they have noted its development, while also noting that the Commonwealth is reviewing ACARA and the curriculum development process more broadly. Basically, the curriculum is on hold until that review is finished, meaning it could be adopted at some point in 2014, amended and then adopted in 2014, or could be sent back for complete redraft, either by ACARA or someone else. I will obviously post further updates as I become aware of important developments.

Submission on Redrafted National Health & Physical Education Curriculum

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) released a slightly redrafted version of the national Health & Physical Education curriculum for limited public consultation over the past 2 weeks. While there were some modest improvements from the original draft released in December 2012, there are still significant problems with what is proposed, especially as it fails to ensure that content is relevant for LGBTI students, and that every classroom is genuinely LGBTI inclusive.

This afternoon I provided my personal submission to the process, which included attachments covering my previous petition to the Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Peter Garrett MP, and the comments which people made on that (although not reproduced here because both are too large). Anyway, here is my submission (I understand that a range of groups, including the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby and others, will be making submissions too, so hopefully there is more change before the final document is released later this year):

Submission on Redrafted National Health & Physical Education Curriculum

I am writing to provide a personal submission in response to the redrafted national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum, as published on the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website in July 2013.

I also provided a submission in April 2013 in response to the original draft HPE curriculum as released by ACARA in December 2012. Please find a copy of that submission at Attachment A. In it, I outlined a range of substantive concerns with the draft curriculum, and in particular in relation to how it related to (or, more accurately, ignored) the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

These concerns included that:

  • The draft curriculum did not explicitly include LGBTI students by name, nor did it ensure that every classroom in every school included content that was relevant to LGBTI student needs
  • The draft curriculum also concentrated on ‘reproductive health’ meaning that it effectively excluded the sexual health needs of LGBTI students and
  • The draft curriculum did not even include the term HIV, let alone ensure that groups at higher risk of contracting HIV (including gay and bisexual men) receive appropriate education to help prevent new transmissions.

Following the lodgement of my submission, I also initiated a national petition to the Commonwealth Education Minister at the time, the Hon Peter Garrett MP, and his state and territory counterparts. I have since sent this petition to the new Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, and the NSW Education Minister, the Hon Adrian Piccoli MP.

This petition, which called for the three issues listed above to be remedied as a matter of urgency, received an incredible level of community support, garnering more than 6,000 signatures in less than four weeks.

However, just as important as the number of signatures, the comments which people provided demonstrate the breadth and depth of community concern about the failure of the original HPE curriculum to address the issues of LGBTI inclusion, sexual health education and HIV.

These comments show that this is an issue which matters not just to LGBTI people themselves, but also to their family members and friends, as well as a broad cross-section of the community who understand that everyone has a right to inclusive, appropriate health education, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. I would strongly encourage you to read these comments, as many of them are far more articulate and passionate about why LGBTI students must be included than I could ever hope to be.

Having examined the redrafted HPE curriculum released on the ACARA website earlier this month, I would like to acknowledge that there have been some improvements made from the December 2012 version, including an attempt to include reproductive health and sexual health, rather than just reproductive health.

However, it is also disappointing to note that many of the significant problems which existed in the original draft have not been resolved.  I will use the remainder of this submission to identify those areas which still require amendment in order to meet the needs of LGBTI students, including specific recommendations to make these much needed improvements.

Recommendation 1:  The national HPE curriculum must directly and explicitly include lesbian, gay and bisexual students, and content which is relevant to their needs

As with the original draft submission, I believe that it is irresponsible for a national HPE curriculum not to even include the words lesbian, gay or bisexual. These are the most common forms of sexual orientation for people who are not heterosexual. To deliberately exclude these terms from the curriculum contributes to the marginalisation of students who may grow up to identify with any one of these terms.

By excluding these terms/sexual orientations, I believe that the curriculum would inevitably lead to some schools ignoring the health needs of these students, and ultimately contribute to higher level of mental health issues across the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities, including higher rates of depression and youth suicide.

I must also highlight that including the term same-sex attracted (in the ‘aspirational’ paragraph on page 18 – more on that at recommendation 3, below – and in the Glossary) is insufficient in and of itself to ensure that lesbian, gay and bisexual students are included in both classrooms and content. While I acknowledge that it is an inclusive term, I do not understand how referring to the term ‘same-sex attracted’ twice (and only once in the body of the document, and even then not in the content description for any year), without providing more information, will help ensure that all students learn what being lesbian, gay and bisexual mean, in the same way that they would learn what being heterosexual means.

In fact, I find it impossible to see how excluding the words lesbian, gay and bisexual does anything other than ensure that students who happen to be lesbian, gay or bisexual are denied their right to an equal and fair health education, irrespective of which school they might attend.

Recommendation 2: The national HPE curriculum must directly and explicitly include transgender and intersex students, and content which is relevant to their needs, whilst noting that gender identity and intersex status are different things meaning that education about these issues must make this distinction

I acknowledge that the terms transgender and intersex are at least included in the redrafted national HPE curriculum. However, they are only included in the glossary on page 45, and unfortunately the curriculum incorrectly includes both as part of the definition of gender-diverse. Transgender may fall within this term, but intersex is a distinct characteristic as a biological sex status.

I am not an expert in this field, and expect that submissions from the National LGBTI Health Alliance as well as Organisation Intersex International (OII) Australia will provide recommendations to improve the curriculum in terms of transgender and intersex inclusion. I would encourage you to give full consideration to their suggestions in these areas.

Recommendation 3: The statement about LGBTI inclusion must explicitly refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students, and ensure that all schools are inclusive of these students, irrespective of whether students have publicly identified their orientation, identity or status

I note that the ‘aspirational’ statement of inclusion on page 18 of the redrafted curriculum has been amended from the original December 2012 draft. In particular, I am concerned by the decision to omit the statement that ‘same sex attracted and gender diverse’ students exist in all schools. It is unclear why this statement of fact has been removed, given we know that people who are LGBTI have come from all school communities across the country.

This omission also presents some complications when read together with remainder of the paragraph as redrafted, which talks about “becoming increasingly visible”, “designed to allow flexibility” and “have a responsibility… to ensure teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences or all students”. One reading of this paragraph is that schools now only have a responsibility to be inclusive where they are aware that students are LGBT or I (ie where schools are aware of the lived experience of their students).

If this is the case, it is not acceptable. All students have a right to be included, and to have their health and physical education needs met, and most importantly should not have the onus placed on themselves to disclose their orientation, identity or status in order to receive this education (especially when such disclosure can risk discrimination from other students, teachers and sometimes from the school itself).

I strongly recommend that this paragraph be amended so that it:

  • Explicitly names LGBTI students (for example, same-sex attracted students, including lesbian, gay and bisexual students, and transgender and intersex students) and
  • States that all school communities must provide content and classrooms which are inclusive of LGBTI students, irrespective of whether they disclose their orientation, identity or status.

Recommendation 4: The statement about LGBTI inclusion must be supported by explicit references to LGBTI content in the year descriptions

While an ‘aspirational’ statement on page 18 is welcome, in order to be most effective it should be backed up by explicit references to issues of concern to LGBTI students at relevant points throughout the curriculum.

For example, the terms transgender and intersex should be introduced and explained from Foundation/Years 1-2, given these identities and statuses can be present from early childhood and/or birth.

Ideally, the orientations lesbian, gay and bisexual should be introduced and explained in Years 3-4, so that students who experience same-sex attraction in puberty (which can commence for some in these years) are aware that these attractions are normal. At the latest, all students should be aware of the concepts of heterosexuality, as well as homosexuality and bisexuality, by the end of Year 6.

This would then leave room from comprehensive and inclusive sexual health education (and not just reproductive health) in Years 5-6 (more on this at recommendation 5, below), or Years 7-8 at the absolute latest.

I note with particular concern the sub-strand Being healthy, safe and active, on page 27 of the redrafted curriculum, which includes the following points under Years 7-8:

  • Examining the impact of physical changes on gender, cultural and sexual identities and
  • Exploring sexual identities and investigating how changing feelings and attractions are part of getting older.

This is both far too old (covering students who are turning 13 and 14 across most states, beyond the age which many people have first realised that they are same-sex attracted, including myself) and far too vague, to be genuinely inclusive of LGBTI students and their needs.

LGBTI issues should also be explicitly mentioned in the outline of the Relationships and sexuality learning area on page 9 of the document, which is reproduced in the Glossary on pages 47 and 48. For example, the dot point “changing identities and the factors that influence them” could be redrafted to include “developing sexual orientations, include heterosexual, lesbian, gay and bisexual, and the factors that influence them” while transgender and intersex should be included in in this Area of learning in Foundation to Year 2 (as indicated above).

Recommendation 5: The term sexual health should be preferred to reproductive health throughout

I welcome the amendment from the original draft of the HPE curriculum, with the addition of sexual health to the redrafted curriculum. However, I am confused by the inclusion of both reproductive health and sexual health, and the definitions of both which are provided in the Glossary on pages 48 and 49 respectively.

In particular, the definition of reproductive health seems to try to ‘cover the field’ for the physical aspects of sexual health, even though for many people their sexual anatomy/systems are not primarily related to ‘reproduction’. This is especially apparent when considering the definition of sexual health, which uses the shorter World Health Organisation definition of sexual health, but not the 2006 longer and more inclusive definition which begins:  “…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity” [emphasis added].

This longer definition makes it clear that sexual health includes the physical health aspects of sex education. As a result, I believe that the much more inclusive term sexual health should be used throughout the document, and if explicit references to reproduction are considered necessary, then the term should be ‘sexual health, including reproductive health’. This would help to ensure that the needs of all students are considered and not just those of heterosexual students.

Recommendation 6: The topic of sexual health should include more detailed information on safer sex, including condom usage, and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

While it is welcome that sexual health has been added as a term to the redrafted HPE curriculum, it is unclear where it is intended that detailed sexual health education, including STI information and prevention, is included in the content for specific years.

As indicated above, I believe that comprehensive sexual health education should be included in Years 5-6 (and by 7-8 at the absolutely latest). In order to meet the needs of all students, whether LGBTI or otherwise, it must include specific references to safer sex, and condom usage, as well as ensuring that students learn about STIs and how they can best be prevented (and where relevant treated). I cannot locate this information in the redrafted document.

I believe it would be irresponsible for a HPE curriculum not to ensure that students learn this information prior to the age at which they become sexually active.

Recommendation 7: The national HPE must include Blood Borne Viruses, and in particular HIV

Building on the inclusion of sexual health, and comprehensive sexual health education, including STIs (recommendations 5 and 6 respectively), I believe that it is vital for the national HPE curriculum to explicitly refer to Blood Borne Viruses, including HIV.

As a gay man who has just turned 35, I find it almost incomprehensible that HIV, including information about how it can be prevented, has been omitted from the HPE curriculum, both in the original draft and in the redraft. While HIV is no longer a ‘death sentence’, diagnoses with HIV is still a serious thing, and we should be maintaining our efforts to minimise new transmissions. This is particularly important for younger gay and bisexual men, with male same-sex intercourse remaining the primary means of HIV transmission within Australia.

The importance of this message is reinforced by recent figures which show that the number of HIV notifications in NSW rose by 24% in 2012, including 19% among men who have sex with men. The HIV epidemic is not over, and it is essential that a national Health & Physical Education curriculum provides relevant information for young people to help them avoid future HIV transmissions.

Recommendation 8: The national HPE curriculum should ensure that all students learn about homophobia, bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex prejudice, and the damage caused by each

One of the pleasing aspects of the original HPE curriculum, released in December 2012, was that it explicitly named ‘homophobia’ as something that students should be taught about (and implicit in this, was the assumption that students would learn the damage caused by discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation). In my original submission, I argued that this should be amended to include bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex prejudice as well, as these encompass similarly destructive beliefs and behaviours.

Unfortunately, it appears that the reference to homophobia has now been deleted, and replaced by a much more generic statement on page 34: “examining values and beliefs about cultural and social issues, such as gender, race, sexuality and disability” and “researching how stereotypes and prejudice are challenged in local, national and global contexts.”

To me, these statements do not ensure that students learn that homophobia, bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex prejudice are entirely negative phenomena, which can cause immense hurt amongst members of these groups (indeed, the first statement makes no value judgment at all about different ‘values and beliefs’ in relation to sexuality, and leaves it open to some schools teaching that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status is acceptable behaviour).

I would strongly urge you to reconsider the drafting of these dot points, and to include homophobia, bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex prejudice as subjects about which students should learn, including being taught about the damage caused by these types of discrimination.

Conclusion

Thank you for reading my detailed submission, and attachments. I acknowledge that much of what I have written is strongly worded, but it is only done so out of genuine concern that, if the redrafted national HPE curriculum was implemented without further amendment, it would fail to meet the needs of our LGBTI students, and fail to provide them with the sexual health and HIV prevention education that they have a right to.

Research has shown that younger LGBTI people are amongst the most disadvantaged students across the country, with high rates of bullying and harassment, and consequently of mental health issues including depression and youth suicide.

I believe that the development of a national Health & Physical Education curriculum is an ideal opportunity to remedy some of the active discrimination which exists against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students, through the introduction of LGBTI-inclusive content, and hopefully leading to LGBTI students being genuinely included in classrooms across the country. I hope that the final version of the HPE curriculum will implement as many of the above recommendations as possible, to help make this a reality.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie