Release type: Transcript

Date:

Press Conference on Safe Schools resources

Ministers:

Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham
Minister for Education and Training

Simon Birmingham: Students have every right to feel safe in our schools in their most important learning environments. They have every right to be safe from bullying, from homophobia, they have every right to feel included in every activity in that school environment. They also have every right to be safe from inappropriate material, material that could be inappropriate because of their age or from material that could expose them to things that parents and community rightly think young children should not be exposed to.

It's because of the need to balance all of those rights and all of those important areas of safety for our children that the Government has had a review undertaken by Professor Bill Louden, Emeritus Professor of Education from the University of WA, into the Safe Schools Coalition program.

This program has two very worthy objectives - the first objective is to prevent home phobia and transphobia in schools, to stop bullying, to ensure the school environment is indeed an inclusive environment. And the second objective in supporting inclusivity in our schools is to of course support individual students in terms of any issues they face in dealing with their sexuality or gender identity. Now it's really critical in analysing this program, as Professor Louden does, that we consider the resources in the program are designed for school children, that means they must be age had appropriate, which is exactly what we asked Professor Louden to look at, in addition to whether they were in alignment with the national curriculum, whether they were educationally sound.

What Professor Louden found was that a number of the resources do have some lessons and some content in lessons that is not necessarily appropriate for all children. We've also of course heard extensive criticisms and concerns about some of the linkages from this program into different websites and the content of those different websites. Digital safety, e-safety is a critical component that this Government has championed through the creation of an E-safety Commissioner for children and of course we want to make sure that our children are as safe as possible in the online environment and protected in terms of the types of resources that they can be directed to.

As a result of the types of concerns that have been expressed and the findings of Professor Louden’s review, there are a number of actions that the Government will be requiring be taken by those operating the Safe Schools Coalition program. Firstly, we will be requiring the lesson areas in which Professor Louden found there was content that was not suitable for all children, to have that content removed. That includes in particular some of the role playing activities that there's been much public criticism about.

We will be making it clear that the program resources are fit for delivery in secondary school environments only. We will also be requiring that, in relation to all official resources, branding of other organisations, links to other websites, references to other organisations be removed unless those organisations are a Commonwealth, State or Territory-funded mental health or counselling service so that we can remove all doubt about the circumstances of children being referred in any way to an environment in which they actually might be exposed to inappropriate material because of this program.

To further ensure the safety of the official resources generated by the program and also to ensure that it is really mainstreamed alongside of other student wellbeing and anti-bullying programs, we'll be undertaking actions that will see the official resources of the program moved from the Safe Schools Coalition website to the Safe Schools Sub. The Safe Schools Hub is a website supported by Education Departments all around Australia. It is a government supported website and on that website are resources for teachers and schools that deal in areas of racism, of domestic violence, of all manner of issues that relate to inclusion and student wellbeing and it is only appropriate that resources that equally support students in terms of dealing with their sexuality and promoting an inclusive environment for all students regardless of their sexuality should equally be included as part of the Safe Schools Hub and in fact the original program objectives suggested this is where those resources should sit.

This will give people confidence that those resources will be housed in a safe environment where no other additional resources or material that is not part of the official content of the program can be accessed. In doing so, we will expect that the Safe Schools Coalition website will remove all such resources from its website and purely be a website that schools can access to find out how to register to participate in the program and who to contact in their relevant State or Territory. It will be a contact point only. We will further expect that parents will be engaged at every step of this process, that parent bodies will be responsible for determining if the program occurs in their school community and, if so, in what way it occurs and if - it occurs and if any changes are necessary to the school policies, that those parents are involved in that say. We will expect that a standard resource, a fact sheet if you like, will be developed for parents so they can understand what is actually in the Safe Schools program and that they can make an informed decision about whether or not their child participates in the program.

These all very important changes. There are also some particular resources that have been developed which Professor Louden found were not suitable for use in a classroom context that could be appropriate resources for school counsellors or qualified individuals to use in one-on-one sessions with children who may have issues that they're grappling with. To support that, we also will make sure there is an additional resource developed for the parents of children in those circumstances. Overall, I think this is strong but measured response to the types of concerns we've heard. It supports the finalisation of this program over the contract that was set in place by the previous government and it will ensure that the resources that are left for the program are directed to fixing some of the problems that Professor Louden has found and that others in the community have identified so that in the end teachers and our schools will be in a position to exercise their professional judgment about how they use these resources in conjunction with informed, guided parents making wise decisions to ensure that in future as many students as possible are free of a bullying environment, are respected in terms of the choice of their sexuality and ultimately of course are in a position where they can learn successfully in a school because that is the final point we should not miss out of all of this. It is about creating school environments that are fit for students to succeed and learn in in the future.

Unidentified speaker: So Minister, no parliamentary inquiry and no suspension of the funding. Will George Brandis and his allies let you get away with this?

Simon Birmingham: I think you might not be referring to George Brandis there, Paul -

Unidentified speaker: No I’m sorry, I was referring to – I should have been referring to George Christenson.

Simon Birmingham: However I had an idea of who you were talking about. They're rather different characters, I find, but I love them both dearly. I have spoken with a number of colleagues over recent days, including people who signed the letter that went to the Prime Minister to talk them through the proposed actions. I have also spoken with colleagues who strongly believe a program like this is essential to support students in an inclusive learning environment and I believe there is broad support for the actions that we are taking and that that broad support will come from colleagues across the spectrum.

Unidentified speaker: Would the program be funded beyond the current contract period?

Simon Birmingham: There was never an intention the program be funded beyond the current contract period. What the intention was what the program has done and is doing, developing resources for schools to use, for teachers to use in accordance with their policies and following consultation with their parents and those resources will of course live on, on the Safe School hub website, the education portal for such resources, long after funding may have finished.

Unidentified speaker: You're stuck between a rock and a hard place in this. What do you say to those people who may not be appeased by these measures and want more from you?

Simon Birmingham: There's a couple of things I'd say. As I said I have spoken very widely and consulted very widely with colleagues and others outside of this building in terms of how to appropriately respond to this and that is that we need to first and foremost remember this is about the wellbeing of our children. Christopher Pyne made some very valid points yesterday when he highlighted the fact that these are resources and teaching tools developed for, of course, children, secondary school-aged children. People who are a lot younger than Christopher and even younger than me. And in the end they have to of course be resources age-appropriate for them but also that communicate in the language of those  children. I would say also - I want to make the point there will no doubt be people who are dissatisfied with this response from both sides of the argument and unfortunately I don't think so so much inside this building but when I look at some of the advocacy and commentary that occurs outside of this building from other organisations, I think there are people who want to use this as a proxy for other debates like the same-sex marriage debate. What I'd say to those people is they are being grossly irresponsible. This in the end is about what is best for children and children in the school environment to be able to be included, to feel safe, to be protected from bullying, but also of course to be protected from any inappropriate content material in programs and I am very confident that if these reforms are all applied and they will have to be applied for funding to be seen out for the Safe Schools Coalition, then I expect we will have a program that's right gets that balance right.

Unidentified speaker: That advocacy you’re referring to, does that extend to the reports we're seeing out of Adelaide that Cory Bernardi's offices have been trashed by people opposed to his opposition of the Safe Schools program?

Simon Birmingham: I think these are deplorable acts. I have seen some of the pictures from Adelaide and for people who say they are standing up for tolerance and for understanding to then think that destruction of public property, that violence of that manner is appropriate, is deplorable, is hypocritical and I would have hoped that we would see much better, indeed from all sides - and as the Prime Minister rightly said in Question Time yesterday, everybody in this debate should remember we're talking about children, they should exercise caution in the language they're applying because we do know that same-sex-attracted children and young people face far higher incidences not just of bullying but of course ultimately of self-harm and suicide but we need to actually all not just talk the talk but walk the walk too when it comes to tolerance and understanding and what happened in Cory's electorate office today certainly does not do that.

Unidentified speaker: Do you think the way some of your colleagues talked about this issue during the week exercised that necessary caution in terms of the language they use? And what kind of precedent does it set for the marriage equality debate?

Simon Birmingham:  I hope that everybody learns from this debate and goes into the future debate when we have it around marriage equality being very mindful of making their cases but making them in a respectful way.

Unidentified speaker: Your colleague, sorry? The question about your colleagues?

Simon Birmingham: I think the message the Prime Minister gave yesterday was one rightly applied very broadly, certainly not exclusively into this building.

Unidentified speaker: When this issue first arose in the Party Room most recently, you said words to the effect that the program had become something that it wasn't originally intended to do. As a parent yourself, what did you personally find concerning about the program as it stood? Is it correct, for example, the example that was given that children were being directed to websites selling pornography and sex toys and things like that? Is that accurate? And how was that able to occur?

Simon Birmingham: Sam, I've always been very cautious in my comments to distinguish between the objectives of the program and the content of the program and I have resolutely defended the objectives because they are critically important but I've kept an open mind in relation to the content and as we've seen from the review of Professor Louden, there are areas where the content could be improved and we will make sure it is improved. There have been other concerns, as you identify about some of the e-safety issues. Those issues are important, that is why we established the E-safety Commissioner and why we think it's critically important you do have strong boundaries especially in schools and in dealing with young people about how people pass through from one website to another website.

I can understand some of the concerns and criticisms that parents and others have expressed and that's why we're requiring changes to the program.

Unidentified speaker: Minister what's going to happen to that Minus 18 program? Is that going to be stripped of funding? That's the website that had a link to a sex shop allegedly.

Simon Birmingham: Minus 18 is not and has never been funded by the Federal Government, I think it may receive some Victorian Government funding and that's a matter for the Victorian Government. I should stress, of course, that, as I said, all references to external organisations like Minus 18 will be expected to be removed from the material unless they are specifically referenced for the provision of mental health or counselling services.
Unidentified speaker: [Inaudible] under Tony Abbott, why is it an issue now?

Simon Birmingham:  I'm still a relatively new Education Minister and I have taken what I think is appropriate action.

Unidentified speaker: Did you ever consider as part of the Budget process extending the funding? Have you made a decision today essentially to say, "No more money?" Or was that always the status quo?

Simon Birmingham: That is the status quo. There was never an intention nor expectation the program would be funded beyond its life. It was expected that it might basically morph in part into supports in different States and Territories as part of their own programs as well as of course having the resources as I said before, live on as all such resources do for teachers to use in years to come.

Unidentified speaker: Are you concerned this is part of a proxy war between the Conservative and Moderate wing of the party and as one MP said to me yesterday, "There's never been a more exciting time to be a Conservative backbencher."?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughter] No.

Unidentified speaker: Are you concerned one of the criticisms of the program was the course material was highly ideological and the people constructing the material were engaged in ideological activity, Marxism and queer theory and all the rest of it. Do you think those criticisms are sustained that it has basically become an ideological-

Simon Birmingham: Sam, I'm focused very much on the resources that are produced as part of the program that end up potentially in schools and in front of students and we should distinguish between those resources and what else might be produced by some of these organisations or what else might be said by some of those activists, however, we are making clear - and it's a point I haven't made to date - that advocacy and activism is not part of this program. Just as proselytising is not part of the school chaplaincy program, advocacy must not be part of the Safe Schools program. This is here to help children in their wellbeing in schools and people who might have engaged in the past as presenting themselves as representatives of the program and in doing so speaking about political matters and advocating in those political matters, have frankly done themselves and the program an enormous disservice and would be well advised to keep their mouths shut on such matters in future.

Unidentified speaker: Why are you still providing funding to the Coalition with all the resources that are going to be used?

Simon Birmingham: A couple of points there because, firstly, I've just outlined a whole range of ways in which we expect the resources to be changed and fixed and so as the program goes to the end of its contract life, we will expect the resources to be applied to fix the issues and the problems that have been identified so that they can then live on as safe and reliable resources in future but, secondly, that there is a role there in terms of ensuring that schools, if they initially are wanting to access these resources, also understand where they can get some help, training or otherwise for teachers.

Unidentified speaker: Are you saying there was activism or advocacy in the classroom as mart of this or that that was being done by people associated with the program or elsewhere?

Simon Birmingham: There's no evidence to suggest there was advocacy in the classroom and it is really important to point out that there's also no evidence to suggest, if you like at the All of Us resource, the most comprehensive resource here, that it has been used or that anybody was planning to use it in its entirety. These types of resources which Professor Louden was at pains to stress to me and to others who he's briefed on his report, are generated across a whole range of different platforms. Schools and teachers then pick out elements of them that best suit what they are teaching in their schools against the national and local curriculum.

So it's really a case of course that in the school environment it comes down to the judgment of the teachers and we had to make sure those teachers have the best possible resources available to make well informed judgments. In terms of where people may have engaged in political advocacy or activism, that appears to me to be people who have done so outside of the resources of the program but possibly, foolishly, allowing the name of the program to be used or their position within the program to be used and, as I said before, they have done themselves and in particular the program a great disservice in doing so and for people who think this is an important thing going forward, I would urge them to make sure that they respect the fact that it should be exclusively about the wellbeing of children in schools.

Unidentified speaker: Minister, what if the measure requires parental consent for participation in the program, what about those parents who don't approve of their children being gay and lesbian?

Simon Birmingham: These are issues of course for parents to work through with schools, with their children. It's not unusual in relation to things like religious education or historically areas of sex education for parents to have those types of rights. This has really been quite consistent with those types of practices - but importantly, because Professor Louden did find a gap in the types of resources produced was a type of one-to-one resource for parents who may have a child struggling with their sexuality and so on that very positive front we are equally saying that that type of gap should also be filled so that a school who may have had a child come to them and seek counselling support, not only has resources for that child but has acceptable and appropriate resources to engage with the parents as well.

Unidentified speaker: (Inaudible) approved these resources last year, what's changed since December last year? Why were they appropriate then and not now?

Simon Birmingham: These resources were of course developed, as they have been, by an external body is how the previous Government set up this contract. Now I've, in response to the concerns of many, brought in an esteemed national academic of great repute in terms of his involvement in education. He's undertaken a thorough assessment of them there are a range of other public concerns that have been expressed about the broader operation of the program as against the specific content of the resources and the actions we're taking, I think, are strong but measured to ensure we get the welfare of students right. Thank you.