Education is a consensus. It’s a social contract, a four-way consensus between parent, student, society at large and educational institutions. Right throughout the history of education, the best education occurs when there is consensus between those four stakeholders.
What we see in the Safe Schools Coalition materials is a significant disconnection of a large section of parents in the community, and that is those with conservative approaches to sexuality. They’re not being enfranchised in that material. And there is a larger argument to say that that society at large is not part of the consensus either. These issues are not settled in society – they are still contentious within society. For it to be assumed that this material and these particular approaches are appropriate in schools, makes an assumption about society at large which is, I think, incorrect.
What you have in that material is a breakdown of the four-part consensus that keeps our schools operating at the centre of the social contract.
We see this in a variety of ways over the history of education, particularly when it comes to censorship. Usually when censorship issues blow up in schools it has to do with one of those four parties getting annoyed, and the question to settle for educators in those situations is whether the parent is speaking on behalf of most parents or if they’re just an egregious voice. In this case, the Safe Schools Coalition materials haven’t sought a consensus of society at large. It has been forced upon the schools with a view of supporting what students have been told is their interest. So in a lot of ways, only one part of that four-part consensus is being considered in that action.
Now, this isn’t the only way to do education. What I’m talking about here is a classical liberal approach to education, which is about a consensus. There are other views of how education might work.
Another view of education is about liberation rather than consensus, which is I think where these SSC materials are coming from. It’s a liberation education paradigm, and it comes out of what you would call a neo-Marxist, libertarian approach to education that permits teachers to contradict the wishes of parents and society at large because an ideological agenda must take precedence. In fact, right through the ‘70s that was a strong part of education training faculties. But it’s gone off the boil a bit of late, because a lot of parents got fed up with it and put their children into private schools.
In a lot of ways the migration of children from state schools to independent schools has been because of a desire by parents to reestablish that four-way consensus, and to feel more empowered.
Teachers have been for trying to deal with bullying for a long time. I think the problem with putting a minority perspective on sexuality at the centre of the discourse about bullying actually creates a reverse problem, in that the students who come from families where in fact there is a difference of opinion about this will feel isolated and alienated. That was a big problem with the screening of the Gayby Baby documentary at Burwood Girls High, because it was compulsory attendance, and there was a simultaneous competition to wear purple in support. If a girl turned up without wearing purple, there were very automatically negative social implications around conformity and non-conformity, and the visually symbolic implication of homophobia.
We must never ignore the bullying of people who are different: all schools should be safe. But the space around sexual orientation in schools, and how we deal with it, should be a negotiated space, because it’s about competing interests between students, parents, institutions and society at large.
It’s a bit early in the sexual formation of Year 7 and 8 children to be telling them that they have to align with a this or that sexual orientation. What is sexuality when you’re 15 years old? There’s a determinism in saying to children at the age of 13 that you’re gay, or you’re heterosexual, or you’re anything. It’s an over-sexualisation of children to actually start talking about this so early.