Interview with Tom Tilley – Hack, Triple J

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training

Topics: LGBTI school, national curriculum




TOM TILLEY: In the studio today with us we have the Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Senator Scott Ryan. Hello Scott Ryan.




TILLEY: Great to have you on the show.


RYAN: Thanks for having me.


TILLEY: My pleasure. We also have Tim Christodoulou from the Minus18 Foundation who works with young people to reduce homophobia. Tim, thank you for joining us.




TILLEY:Tim, what do you think is good about this idea of specialist gay schools?


CHRISTODOULOU:I think the proposal is really interesting. I can see it being very appealing to a lot of same sex attracted and gender diverse young people across Australia. Right now too many LGBT students are being shut out of a normal education because of the bullying and the abuse they experience at school.



TILLEY: So they are dropping out of school completely?


CHRISTODOULOU: That can be the experience for some people. My experience in high school was that I actually left the first school I went to because I didn’t feel comfortable coming out there or being myself there. I had to find a second school where I thought that I would be able to come out and actually accept myself for who I was. My story is a relatively positive one, there are some many people across Australia who have moved schools three, four, five times and just have lost faith in normal schools I guess, to provide them with a safe and inclusive environment.


TILLEY:Ok. So take yourself back to that moment where you were leaving that first school and working out what to do. If a gay school was an option, do you think you would have gone down that path?


CHRISTODOULOU: Look, I think I would have been a little bit hesitant. I think one of the problems with the proposal from the Manchester group is that to be able to go to that school you need to be pretty confident about who you are and how you are identifying. When you are dealing with homophobia and transphobia it is a little bit different to when minorities in school communities might experience racism, where they can go home and most of the time they’ll have parents who have experienced the same thing and can sort of relate to what they are going through. Whereas if you’re a gay student or transgender person you can’t really go home and relate with your parents because 99% of the time they are going to have no idea what it is like to be questioning your sexuality, or even trying to figure out your gender identity. So I think it can be really difficult, but I think for those people who feel like they can’t go to mainstream schools, who feel like there is not that support there for them that it would be a good option for them. I think instead of just shutting the idea down completely I think that you have to look at the results, and look at what progress has been made in New York with the school that is already open and maybe see what happens in Atlanta as well.


TILLEY: Scott Ryan you are in government, if you wanted to you could potentially help make this happen. Is it sounding like a good idea to you?

RYAN: Well Tom, this is my personal opinion because the important thing to remember here is that the federal government does not build or run a school, we don’t employ teachers. We do spend a lot of money on education but that does remain the domain of independent schools, Catholic schools, and the state governments.


I am not inclined to think that this is a great idea for various reasons, a couple of which have been touched on by your callers, and messages that you read out earlier.


What we need to do in our schools – and I think they have come a long way over the last 30 years since I was in high school let alone over the last 50 or 60 years – is actually make all schools a place where people and young people feel safe to express themselves, where they feel safe to express the diversity of a modern Australia. We don’t solve the problem, I think, by segmenting or taking a group out of schools.


There are also some practical problems here. It would be very, very difficult in a country as large as Australia for any school to significantly address the challenges that any group faces. In this case, even if we put one in one of our largest cities it wouldn’t serve many, many people across what are very large cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, let alone regional areas.


TILLEY: Ok, you put the focus there on making all schools safe, but that is going to take a really, really long time. If you think about the progress that has been made in the last few decades, how long it has taken to change people’s attitudes. Why not do a bit of both? Why not continue investing in things like your safe schools programme which try and change the culture of schools, but also for the kids at the really extreme end of this homophobic abuse, why not look after them as well?


RYAN: I think we look after people not by saying there is a problem with the victim of bullying, but actually realising that there is a perpetrator as well. There is behaviour that is unacceptable at our schools.


I will be honest, I was at a boys’ only school for most of my schooling in the 80s, and things that the teachers would stand by and watch are now quite rightly considered profoundly unacceptable.


We have come a long way, we are never going to make every school perfect, and I think we have got to accept that we are not going to create perfection, but we do need to focus on the sources of what causes problems for young people. In this case lesbian and gay or coming out students, in other cases there are parts of Melbourne and Sydney where race can be a significant problem. I am not keen to prioritise any one of those causes or sources of problems over another, what I do want to say is that in all cases there are students, sometimes, bullying other students, we need to make the behaviour unacceptable. We need to make it unacceptable everywhere.


TILLEY: I think everyone supports the idea of reducing the amount of bullying, even though that is really hard. In the case specifically of LBGTI students – imagine a student who is at the point of either dropping out of school or suicide because they are copping so much abuse – why not create a safe place of education where that person can feel safe to get on with their education?


RYAN: So again, this is a real practical barrier, people talk about a single site. If for example someone said ‘let’s create a school like this in my home town of Melbourne or in the city of Sydney’, that is not going to help any student where they are not nearby.

TILLEY: Ok so we can’t help anyone, why not help some if we can?


RYAN: This is my point. I actually think that is a huge practical barrier. If a student is on the edge of thoughts of self-harm, or undertaking suicidal thoughts or activities, that is actually a health issue as well.


The Commonwealth has invested over the last decade significant resources; there are now nearly 100 headspace centres. We are aware of mental health issues amongst young people and right across the community to a degree that I think was unimaginable only 20 years ago. The circumstances you describe there aren’t just a schooling issue, they are now a health issue, and I think we have to be careful to not say that everything is something that can be fixed in schools. We sometimes ask our teachers to solve problems that they are not qualified or trained for.


TILLEY: Absolutely, it is a huge problem that everyone has to work together to try and reduce.


(callers and report by Alice Workman)



TOM TILLEY: In the studio with us we have the Parliamentary Secretary for Education Senator Scott Ryan, and we also have Tim Christodoulou from Minus18, who work with young people to reduce homophobia.


Scott, we heard there in that last story that basically there needs to be more done in the curriculum.


Now, your Government has worked on a national curriculum, which includes physical health and education. Is there more inclusive language – is there more information about LBGT people in that curriculum?


RYAN: Well the health and physical education curriculum, again, like all the other aspects is a product of the Commonwealth working with all the states. It’s sort of an iterative and cooperative arrangement. It has been officially noted; there was a review of the whole national curriculum last year, which meant that it didn’t formally get endorsed but it’s up on the website and it’s available for states and school systems to use, so it’s really a technicality that it hasn’t been endorsed.


And look, this space, and your last story there talked about sex education – I mean, that is a rapidly evolving space. It’s changed a lot – I’m 41 – it’s changed a lot in the 30 years since I was in high school and it’s going to change a lot more. It’s also an area of some sensitivity and we do need to bring the community and parents along with us because – I’ve only got a very young child – but my friends who have older children say it’s still one of the most confronting things about parenthood, which is having the sex-ed discussion with your children. So we do need to make sure we do it in a way that brings the community along with us, that reflects the fact that different families choose different schools – I myself am a product of the Catholic school system that has a different sex-ed model than some of our public schools reflecting the teachings of the Catholic Church, effectively.

That’s the choice that my parents made for me and I do think we need to make sure that we respect that diversity when we go into this area.


TILLEY: What are you really saying there? That for some people, they’re not going to want their kids to hear about lesbian or transgender issues in the classroom?


RYAN: No, just to use a practical example when I was at school and I think this is still the case, Catholic schools in their sex-ed programmes reflect Catholic teachings around contraception. And so I don’t know how it applies today in some of the areas like homosexuality, coming out, transgender – that’s an area that simply wasn’t even in our schools 20 years ago, let alone 30 years ago when I was there. The only point I make is that I think we do need to reflect that some families and some parents do make choices around education …


TOM TILLEY: Interrupts


But it’s about the kids and not the parents, isn’t it? I mean, they’re the people we’re trying to protect from bullying. Tim, what do you think of this discussion?


CHRISTODOULOU: Yeah, look, I think sex-ed is one of the biggest issues that we hear about, particularly at Minus18, from the young people we support. Overwhelmingly, I think the feedback is that sex-ed just isn’t adequate enough to be teaching same-sex attracted and gender diverse students what they need to know to be able to be having sex safely and to know what they need to be knowing. You know, I think it’s a little bit frightening actually that some key pieces of health information are being withheld because of ideological reasons. I think when it comes to students who might be questioning their sexuality, they need to know everything they should be knowing about how to have sex safely, about how to deal with those issues when the time does arrive, and you know it might be a little bit awkward to have that conversation with your parents but I think it’s so crucial for so many young people to have that especially when recently we’re especially seeing a lot more STI rates increasing among young people. I think there definitely needs to be some improvement there.


RYAN: Tom, if I could add, I think one of the big changes over the last 20 years, and this is one of the reasons we have the Safe Schools Hub, is there’s a much wider availability of information. When I was at school there wasn’t an internet. If it wasn’t in the school library or the state library, or mum or dad didn’t know it, it might as well have not existed. Whereas, there is much wider access to information today, and I think when I talk to parents of younger children, in fact it’s too much information on the internet about this area and about sex in particular…


TILLEY: Interrupts


Well, and some of it is not trustworthy, as well. That’s why it’s so important to get it right in the classroom from a trusted source.


RYAN: That’s true. But I think we’ve also got to be careful that, as a general assumption I make – and I know it doesn’t apply everywhere because we don’t live in a perfect world – is that the best judge of a child’s welfare is a child’s parent. In most cases, that is a safe assumption, and that is the assumption upon which we let parents choose schools and which our families are based. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make that assumption, at the same time ensuring that there is a safety net and that there are alternatives for where that’s not a safe assumption.


TILLEY: Well, yeah and we’ve been talking about alternatives today and it’s been a very interesting discussion. We are out of time for this topic. Thank you both so much for joining us.




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