Dr Kevin Donnelly

Late last year and earlier this year public controversy erupted around the Safe Schools program with critics arguing that instead of being an anti-bullying program it was more about indoctrinating students with a radical view of gender and sexuality.

More recently, as a result of the Andrews’ Government calling for tenders for a Respectful Relationships early childhood initiative directed at kindergarten children, the issue of gender and sexuality has once again received widespread media coverage.

While justified as an anti-bullying program, the reality is that Safe Schools presents a biased, misleading and one-sided view of gender and sexuality. Roz Ward, from La Trobe University and one of the program designers, admits as much when she states that it is “not about stopping bullying”.

At a Marxism conference in Sydney, Ward goes on to say “LGBTI oppression and heteronormativity are woven into the fabric of capitalism” and “it will only be through a revitalised class struggle and revolutionary change that we can hope for the liberation of LGBTI people”.

While 98 per cent of Australians identify as male or female and sexuality and gender are primarily determined by one’s genetic makeup, Safe Schools argues that 15.7 per cent of students are same sex attracted, transgender or intersex.

In addition to arguing that gender and sexuality are social constructs and are fluid and limitless, the program also argues that boys who self-identify as girls should be allowed to use girls’ toilets, changing rooms and showers.

The Respectful Relationships program aimed at children as young as 4 and 5 also adopts a radical view of gender and sexuality.  Instead of letting children enjoy being boys and girls, the tender document for the program argues kindergarten children “enact sexist values, beliefs and attitudes that may contribute to disrespect and gender inequality”.

The document requires the successful tenderer “to develop and deliver a two-day professional learning on Respectful Relationships to 4000 early childhood educators working in funded kindergarten programs across Victoria”.

Professional development materials must “challenge gender stereotypes” with the implication that what are described as “gendered norms” (boys being boys and girls being girls) always lead to sexism, misogyny, homophobia and violence against women.

The kindergarten program is part of the wider Respectful Relationships initiative funded to the value of $21.8 million announced by Victoria’s education minister James Merlino in October 2016 as mandatory for all government primary and secondary schools.

Apart from being developmentally inappropriate, the material associated with Respectful Relationships ignores the fact that, according to the Victorian commission into family violence, 25% of the victims of domestic violence are men.

Also ignored is that while the program argues that schools and teachers must deconstruct and critique “traditional gender norms”, many parents most likely are CIS-gendered – meaning they are happy for their children to embrace the gender assigned to them at birth.

Such were the concerns about the Safe Schools program the Commonwealth Government commissioned a review that concluded aspects of the program were unsuitable and developmentally inappropriate.

As a result the Government decided to cease funding Safe Schools, recommended that the program should only be available for secondary schools and that the official site no longer have hyperlinks to related gender and sexuality sites deemed unsuitable for students.

In addition to offering the uncensored version of Safe Schools and guaranteeing continuing funding the Andrews Government has also decided to make the program compulsory for all state schools.  This is unlike other jurisdictions like NSW, where Safe Schools is voluntary and parents have the right to opt in rather than their children being automatically enrolled.

 

Response

AsPr Debbie Ollis 

Kevin Donnelly’s opinion piece includes a number of inaccuracies and misconceptions that fuel unnecessary moral panic, and harm the children and young people the education is designed to support. The Safe Schools Program was developed on evidence from three national and highly cited surveys (Hillier et al 1998, 2015, 2010), that clearly showed gender and sexually diverse students experience high rates of bullying, substance misuse and self-harm related to violence that overwhelmingly occurs at school. The Safe Schools Program was designed to increase a sense of inclusion, educate all young people and enable schools to be safe and supportive environments. The education that Donnelly refers to as ‘indoctrinating students’ has been embedded in government funded school based sexuality education for more than 17 years (Talking Sexual Health, 2000). 

The Respectful Relationships initiative is a separate program to the Safe Schools Program, and although an outcome of RRE is likely to address all gender based violence, including against LGBTIQ students, its intention is to address the drivers of violence against women. These include the condoning of violence against women; men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public life and relationships; rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity and male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women (Our Watch et al. 2015). Moreover, this education is not new. A similar educational resource to address gender based violence in primary and secondary schools was funded and distributed to all state and territories under the Howard government more than 25 years ago (No Fear 1993).

RRE is not about sexuality, it is about building respectful relationships and gender equity in the hope that children and adolescents will understand and engage in patterns of equality that make the whole idea of men’s violence against women intolerable and unacceptable. This education is about building resilience and responsibility. It is about exploring the meaning of respect, the implications of disrepect and building help seeking behaviours. Children understand inequality but often not its causes or the strategies to overcome the implications of it.  RRE is about recognising that in certain areas of life, women and men are not treated equally and that life chances hinge on the unequal distribution of power and privilege accorded to people by their sex and gender. RRE education aims to teach children analytical skills, such as media and health literacy, and build a strong foundation to be active, respectful citizens. What parent wouldn’t want their children to develop these understandings, attributes and skills?

Rather than seeing early childhood settings as ‘developmentally inappropriate’ to begin to build respectful relationships, we need to applaud the opportunity to take a proactive and comprehensive educational approach. It gives us some hope that in 20 years time the statistics will be very different to what they are today, with one in five young Australians believing there are circumstances in which women bear part of the responsibility for sexual assault and nearly half (46%) agree that tracking a partner by electronic means without consent is acceptable (Victorian Health Promotion Foundation 2015).

We may also be able to make a difference to the current statistics that show almost one third of women globally have experienced physical and or sexual intimate partner violence and seven percent have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner (García-Moreno et al 2013). In Australia, we may see an end to the current situation where nearly one in three women over the age of 15 years report being subjected to violence at some time and one in five have experienced sexual violence from a male partner or stranger (National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2009).

The Andrew’s Government should be congratulated rather than criticised. RRE is part of a whole of government approach to stop violence against women. It has been developed over seven years from a strong evidence base (VicHealth 2009; Our Watch 2015; 2016) that clearly links gender inequality with violence against women. It is surely only in a world of “alternative facts” and “false news” that anyone would want to deny children and young people an education that has the potential to makes the lives of all people so much safer than it is today.