Marchers at a Safe Schools rally in Sydney ask the government to leave the program intact

Why Safe Schools matters

Research shows homophobia is an obstacle to learning potential

Mel Smith
Trade Union Training Officer

Teachers fulfil a number of educational roles in school: not only do we we teach explicit curriculum to develop knowledge and skills in formal learning areas, we also teach core values, appropriate behaviour and help strengthen students’ wellbeing, which includes physical, emotional and social development.

The Department, in its Wellbeing Framework, states that there is a strong link between wellbeing and learning. Indeed it says that, “Wellbeing, or the lack of it, can affect a student’s engagement and success in learning.”

This concept has been the focus of a recent study by Dr Jacqueline Ullman from the Western Sydney University, titled Free2Be?: Exploring the schooling experiences of Australia’s sexuality and gender diverse secondary school students.

The report investigated students’ reports of school climate on student wellbeing and academic outcomes and the relationship between these areas.

Results indicate most students attend school in an environment that is, by and large, a marginalising one for individuals with diverse sexuality and/or gender identities. School environments are reported to be rife with discriminatory language, contain limited representations of sexuality and gender-diverse individuals and lack formal recognition of sexuality and gender diversity within school policy documents.

Consequently, the research shows, outcomes for individuals with diverse sexuality and/or gender identities are lower levels of school morale and safety, higher distress and a lowered sense of connection to their peers, their teachers and school more generally.

The report recommended a variety of actions including:

  • training for school staff that addresses expectations for inclusivity of sexuality and gender diversity
  • the drafting, communication and implementation of student wellbeing policies that explicitly name sexuality and gender-diverse individuals
  • clear and unequivocal guidelines for the consistent implementation of a whole school approach to preventing and addressing bias.

Research by beyondblue in the report From Blues to Rainbows revealed that gender-diverse young people who did not feel supported by their teachers were more than four times more likely to leave school if they experienced discrimination than those with teacher support.

This report suggested inclusive schools were those where leadership and teachers tried to address students with their preferred pronouns, were flexible about uniform and toilet arrangements, took a stand against bullying and aimed to be accommodating to individual needs.

Schools that have actively engaged with the Safe Schools Coalition program have acted on these recommendations.

The Safe Schools program was developed in Victoria after research by LaTrobe University (Writing Themselves in 3, 2010) revealed an increasing trend of young people experiencing homophobia. The report said that due to homophobia 61 per cent of young respondents reported verbal abuse, 18 per cent physical abuse and 26 per cent “other” forms of homophobia. The most common place of abuse was at school (80 per cent).

More recent research indicates homophobic and transphobic abuse and harassment is continuing while last year the Sydney Morning Herald reported NSW high school teachers felt ill-equipped to meet the needs of gay and lesbian students and wanted more guidance on how to tackle homophobia.

This is exactly the type of training and resources that the Safe Schools Coalition provides to schools. The program has a range of official resources, ranging from posters to learning resources, that schools can choose to use in their community.

The program was designed to deliver on the vision of the federal government’s Safe Schools Framework, which aims to build safe school communities where diversity is valued, the risk of harm minimised and all members of the school community feel respected, included and, importantly, supported.

Risk of harm is an important factor to consider when statistics inform us that about 10 per cent of all young people have diverse sexuality and/or gender identities and have a suicide rate six times above that of their peers. Suicide attempts and self-harm have resulted from homophobic and transphobic bullying and harassment, Writing Themselves in 3 and other research has shown.

Federation and the Federal AEU are proud supporters of the Safe Schools Coalition and its goal of inclusive and safe schools for every student. Given that the Abbott government launched the Safe Schools Coalition, which was an initiative conceived under the previous Labor government to stop the bullying of LGBTIQ students, bipartisan support has been forthcoming for the program and Federation hopes this will continue despite the government’s regrettable decision to limit some valuable resources.

In undertaking the review of the Safe Schools Coalition program, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put the views of conservative members in his party ahead of the interests of vulnerable young people in schools.

Expressing concern about the the review decision, Federation President Maurie Mulheron said: “Schools need to ensure that they are safe places for the whole of the school community, which include same sex-attracted and gender-diverse students, teachers and parents,

“Safe Schools Coalition assists schools to do this by providing training and resources teachers can use to address homophobia, educate on the topics of same sex attraction and gender diversity, and be more inclusive of LGBTIQ community members in their policies and practices.”

The recent AEU Federal Conference congratulated the Safe Schools Coalition for its ground-breaking work in helping students, school staff and their school communities understand gender and sexual diversity. The conference condemned the Turnbull Government for undertaking the review, saying this decision was a direct capitulation to those in parliament and the broader community who seek to demonise of the work of the Safe Schools Coalition and of young LGBTIQ people.

Support for the program has been broad, ranging from an AEU petition that can be signed here to rallies on March 12 and 23 in Sydney organised by Community Action Against Homophobia and media coverage exposing the misinformation spread by the program’s detractors.

Schools regularly use a range of programs, both government supported and/or privately developed, to assist schools and teachers in providing the best opportunity to both thrive and succeed at school. The use of the Safe Schools program, as with others, should occur in line with Departmental policy and procedure and relate to learning outcomes for students.

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Mardi Gras gallery