Schools, same sex politics and religion in NSW

The Minister for Education has asked that a controversial documentary, “Gayby Baby”, be shown outside school hours, rather than as part of the school day, at Burwood Girls High School, in Sydney’s inner West. As the ABC correctly reports:

Burwood Girls High School sent parents a flyer last week informing them that all students would attend a screening of the film Gayby Baby during class hours on Friday, as part of Wear It Purple Day — an initiative designed to promote acceptance and tolerance of diversity.

The PG-rated film follows the lives of four children — Gus, Ebony, Matt and Graham —growing up with gay parents.

No-one can deny that the film deals with an important issue being debated in Australian society today. Indeed, the trailer shows at one point some of the participants watching a television show where the merits of same-sex marriage are being debated. As pointed out in one media comment:

A review highlighted on the Gayby Baby website describes it as an “intrinsically political” documentary and says children of “queer” parents are being used to counter opponents of so-called marriage equality.

So there is no doubt the film is “political”, as dealing with a matter of highly charged debate in the Federal Parliament and in the public sphere. Yet the school was proposing to cancel classes and direct all students to attend, while also encouraging (if not directing) all of them to wear the colour purple as a mark of support for homosexuality. The original notice from the school to parents was very clear: “All students will attend a special screening….followed by purple cupcakes and fashion parade at lunchtime under the rainbow flag. Please wear purple.” A letter from the Principal enthused: “I look forward to seeing a sea of purple.” There seems to have even been a suggestion of a prize for the “most purple” outfit.

The Department of Education and Communities policy on “Controversial Issues in Schools” provides that:
1.1  Schools are neutral grounds for rational discourse and objective study. They are not arenas for opposing political views or ideologies…
3.1 Schools are places where students are preparing for informed and reasoned involvement in community life, including its politics, by calm and co-operative study of social issues. Schools are not places for recruiting into partisan groups…
4.1 The Principal is responsible for ensuring a balanced and reasonable consideration of various viewpoints is contained within curriculum content delivered by teachers, within presentations to students at schools by visiting speakers and while undertaking school excursions…
4.8 It is the responsibility of the Principal to ensure that staff are familiar with the substance of this policy, that parents are made aware of its implications and, where appropriate, are consulted with regard to the participation of their children in programs dealing with controversial issues. (emphasis added)
In light of these policies it seems fairly clear that this documentary would either be unsuitable for showing during class time, or parents ought to have been consulted as to whether they wished their children to attend. At the very least parents should have been provided with an opportunity to view the material beforehand, and to make their own judgment about its balance, and whether it presents a reasoned perspective on the issues. Yet the initial contact with parents made no such offer.
Subsequently, after it became apparent that a number of parents were concerned, and a local Presbyterian minister had made representations on their behalf, a belated letter from the school offered an option for children to be withdrawn from the activity and offered other activities in the library. (The letter appears in this press comment.)
By this time, however, the Minister for Education had become involved.

Education Minister Adrian Piccoli confirmed he had intervened.

“I have directed the Department of Education to ensure the film is not shown during school hours,” he said.

(The NSW Premier) Mr Baird said he supported schools screening the film, but not during class.

“I understand the intent of that is to provide an example of tolerance and that’s something I absolutely support,” he said.

“Should it be in class time? No, I don’t think so. Should it be optional? Yes, I do think so.”

Naturally there has now been strong criticism of the decision of the Minister not to allow the movie to be shown as part of formal school teaching time.
Some might suggest a similarity between this incident and a previous episode where the Department had attempted to exclude certain books from being used in Special Religious Education classes in high school, in part because those books taught the Biblical view that sex is only intended for the context of marriage between a man and a woman. I commented on that episode previously here and here. The Department’s decision was subsequently reversed.
But drawing those connections would, in my view, be wrong. SRE is provided in NSW Schools as an openly “confessional” program, teaching the beliefs of a particular religion from that religion’s perspective. It is explicitly authorised by legislation, and all parents have the right to withdraw their children from the classes at any time. By contrast, the mainstream teaching time in State schools is intended, as the Department’s legally binding policy quoted above makes clear, not to push a specific “political” agenda. And here, the school as it originally communicated to parents did not suggest that it was giving parents an option to withdraw their children from a film which would clearly, from viewing the trailer, be presenting a clear view in favour of homosexuality. Parents who hold a view that, in accordance with their religious commitments, such behaviour is wrong, should be entitled to not have that view undermined by powerful propaganda to the contrary, when that material is not part of the school curriculum.
It is obviously a good idea that a calm and reasoned debate be allowed to happen on same sex marriage and other issues to do with same sex attraction. There is no doubt that children of same sex parents have particular issues that they wrestle with, and that their situation needs to be understood. However, evenhanded discussion of these important issues cannot happen where there is an “official” assumption that anyone who holds to a traditional religious view on the morality of homosexuality is a “bigot” whose views can be ignored or marginalised in public life. The school’s apparently automatic assumption that a particular view on these matters could be presented in school hours alongside maths and chemistry, as a matter of established consensus, sends that signal.
The Departmental policy noted above seems a sensible one- where matters of this highly controversial nature are involved, they should and will be discussed within families and in other venues. They can be discussed in contexts that are set aside for presentation of religious perspectives, such as SRE classes, or among students themselves. But it does seem inappropriate that a school officially present one side of the debate as if all the issues were settled, without regard to deeply held views of parents and children.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I have a relative attending the school in question. But all that means is that I saw some of the correspondence before it came into the public domain. I would be equally concerned about this sequence of events at any public school.)
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