National Safe Schools Symposium

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

Many thanks for the invitation to join you today.

I am pleased to represent the Australian Government at the launch of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia.

Given the presence of Senator Wong, it is only fair that I acknowledge that this was a commitment of the previous Government.

One learns quickly in Government that Finance Ministers are in a unique position when it comes to new programs. So without asking her to divulge any secrets, I suggest we simply assume that she had significant influence in this decision!

While a safe and supportive school environment leads to many positive impacts for students, including improved academic outcomes, increased confidence and improved attendance that is not the only reason we strive for this.

It is simply the right thing to do.

Every student has a right to feel safe at school.

At the launch of this programme, I think we can pause to reflect on how far we have come in a relatively short period of time.

Bullying and the consequent victimization and isolation of children and young people have a much higher place in the public mind than they have held  previously, in regard to the workplace as well as our schools.

What was not only tolerated but in a de facto sense almost encouraged at some schools only two decades ago is now universally frowned upon.

No longer do we turn a blind eye to or dismiss what was previously viewed as a group of kids having a bit of fun picking on another.

Issues once ignored, dismissed or simply never even noticed now form a much more significant part of our agenda in education.

And bullying today has some unique aspects.

Issues that were once suppressed, such as sexuality, pose challenges that were rarely contemplated until recently.

I think the most insidious element, however, has been introduced by technology. This can now impact everyone, regardless of any alleged motivation.

In past years, if bullying occurred at school, at least the home was usually a place of safety. Now we know some of the worst bullying occurs when at home, via social media.

Home is not the sanctuary it once was.

The launch of this specific programme gave me pause to think about my own experiences at school.

While there are specific challenges and lessons to learn about the gender and sexuality issues you are focusing on today, I think we all benefit from reflecting on our own experience and behaviour.

I am sure we can all recall times when we have been on the receiving end, but also occasions that we look back upon and regret, when we either did not stand up for the vulnerable or thought it was fun to make someone feel smaller than us.

It is this reflection upon our own behaviour that we have developed as adults and that we seek to inculcate in our children. It is a lesson that cannot be taught or learnt too early.

And I think this provides the insight into what we seek to impart in our schools.

None of us are perfect, but if we seek to put ourselves in the place of the other person, if we strive to walk in their shoes, then we will all be better people.

And then we usually make the right decisions about our own conduct.

Today we launch a programme focused on issues of gender and sexuality.

While I do not intend at all to dismiss the unique challenges in this area, it provoked me to consider the role of programmes directed at specific motivations for bullying as opposed to more general lessons and principles.

While individuals all face different challenges, and social attitudes evolve at different paces, I cannot help but think that the path to ending this type of behaviour is through simply recognising the dignity of each person as an individual and the validity of their choices.

History has taught us that it is when we forget this, and we think of another person as primarily identified by some trait or label, that they are depersonalised. It is then that their feelings are more easily dismissed, or their dignity and individuality disregarded.

Whether it is the kid with the funny lunch or the accent, the fat kid, the nerd, the sporty kid who has trouble keeping up in class or the kid who is hopeless at sport - it is the bullying behaviour rather than a specific insult that is the problem. What we seek to teach is empathy, to better understand the perspective and experience of another.

I'll be honest and say I am not primarily motivated by any alleged reason that bullying occurs: I see our challenge to stop the behaviour where it is destructive in our schools.

We will all likely be on the receiving end of such behaviour at some point in our lives, and the truth is that we have probably also been on the other side as well.

Hopefully we have all grown up enough to know when it stops being fun for both sides in a light hearted conversation, or when a vigorous argument crosses the line into personal abuse.

Keeping this in mind, and asking ourselves and each other, 'How would you feel?' is as powerful tool as any. And in essence it is what we seek to teach our children as well.

I will conclude on another, related issue that is relevant to this issue and broader debates about behaviour.

I think it is particularly important where there are emotional reactions to issues, or long-assumed attitudes.

We can't legislate thought, we can't force or regulate true acceptance - but we can proscribe behaviour. And it is behaviour that we are seeking to change, where it is destructive.

We can and should provide a safe environment that makes tolerance of diversity non-negotiable.

In my experience, this generally leads to a more open and eventually an accepting environment that encourages each person to express themselves in their own unique way.

I know some see tolerance as being of a lower value than acceptance. I don't agree.

Regardless, the alternative, attempting to legislate for more than just behaviour, to regulate attitudes, or to quote Elizabeth I regarding the limits of law during the 16th Century battles over conscience,  'to seek windows into men's souls', will both fail and potentially provide fuel for a backlash.

When we reflect on how far social attitudes have evolved in a few short decades, I think that gives us a sense of optimism that expectations around appropriate behaviour will indeed lead to different attitudes over time.

Our aim is to end bullying and victimisation, to protect young people so that they enjoy their years at school and achieve their personal goals.

Through programmes like this, and the resources available through initiatives such as the Safe Schools Hub, I am pleased that there are so many avenues available to support school communities.

I urge the students and educators here today to find out more about these resources and choose those that you think will improve your own school community.

Finally, I would like to congratulate the Foundation for Young Australians. Since taking responsibility for the youth portfolio I have found Jan and her team frank, forthright and highly productive to work with. The Foundation undertakes and organises a wide array of events and programmes that make a real difference to the lives of young people across Australia.


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