Australia’s federal Student Wellbeing Framework, meant to underpin educators’ work across the country, is designed to support understandings of the strong associations between students’ sense of safety, wellbeing and learning.
“Inclusion” is one of the five foundational elements of the framework. Within this element, educators are directed to celebrate diversity and teach about difference as central work towards the creation of a cohesive and culturally safe school.
When it comes to gender and sexuality diversity — inclusive of individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender diverse and other identities under this larger umbrella term — many Australian young people and families attest to the negative impact of a schooling environment that is not inclusive of this area of diversity.
Within the Free2Be… Yet? research in 2021, which surveyed 2,376 gender and sexuality diverse (GSD) high school students aged 13–18, a startling 93 per cent of participants reported hearing homophobic language at school.
Of those who reported hearing this when teachers were present, less than 6 per cent of students said their teachers always intervened.
Similarly low numbers of students reported definitively learning about GSD identities during health and physical education.
Further, this research highlighted the links between schools’ affirmation of students’ personal identity characteristics and their enhanced school wellbeing.
GSD students who described their teachers as speaking positively and inclusively about GSD identities exhibited significantly higher school wellbeing across a range of validated measures.
Additionally, where GSD students attended a school where their teachers were viewed as respecting diversity, they were significantly more likely to plan to go to university.
Affirming classroom diversity benefits all students
Educators’ affirmation of classroom diversity — communicating to students that they should be proud of their diverse identity characteristics and that their school is proud to have them — is a no-brainer for building classroom connection.
Given the known links between this affirmation and students’ sense of connection to school, it is not surprising that educators’ work to create an inclusive school ethos isn’t just beneficial for GSD students.
Large-scale research from the field demonstrates that inclusion of gender and sexuality diversity has positive impacts for the entirety of the student community.
While the Student Wellbeing Framework is clear in purpose and intent with respect to affirming student diversity, Australian teachers are bombarded with mixed messages about what is/is not appropriate in terms of gender and sexuality diversity and GSD-inclusive classroom conversations.
Unsurprisingly, teachers report that they are often silent on these topics for fear of potential parent complaint, with ramifications for student learning.
Many parents want a curriculum inclusive of gender and sexuality diversity
In contrast to prevailing assumptions about parental attitudes, our nationally representative survey of 2,093 Australian parents of government school students found that 82 per cent of parents wanted to see gender and sexuality diversity introduced to students at some stage across K–12 education.
Two-thirds of parents wanted these topics introduced to students by the end of the earliest years of high school (years 7–8).
Parents’ reasons for wanting GSD-inclusive curriculum align with the intention of the Student Wellbeing Framework: to promote students’ sense of belonging and connection to school, and to promote their equitable treatment and safety.
An associated element of this research was to engage deeply with parents of GSD students attending government schools, to gain their perspectives on what schools were doing well and what they could be doing better with regards to inclusion of this area of diversity.
These parents commented on the importance of school leaders’ articulated affirmation of gender and sexuality diversity and associated direction and support provided to their teaching staff.
Parents further highlighted the importance of educators’ maintenance of a discrimination-free environment as a prerequisite for keeping their child safe, connected and attending school.
Professional development of educators is critical
We used findings from this national project to create a resource for educators seeking to increase their understandings of the schooling experiences of GSD students and their families.
A central element of this is a short, professionally acted and produced film (What Parents Want: Talking about Gender and Sexuality Diversity in Schools), written from the verbatim accounts of parents of GSD students living across the country.
The film is designed to be used as part of a package of research-informed professional learning materials for educators’ development in this area, which includes parental suggestions for educators seeking to upskill in this area of classroom diversity. Access to the film and all associated materials can be found on the project website.
The research findings highlighted earlier in this article point to the fact that the professional development of educators in relation to GSD students and their families is critical to enhance the school experiences of these young people.
Greater educator intervention around gender and sexuality diversities — in relation to both addressing discrimination and developing understandings within school communities — will improve the educational experiences of thousands of students who are (or perceived to be by others) gender and sexuality diverse.
Such inclusion is fundamental to student wellbeing and would go a considerable way in supporting these students and their families.
Associate Professors Jacqueline Ullman and Tania Ferfolja teach and research in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. They have, combined, over three decades working with in-service and pre-service teachers to promote classroom diversity and inclusive curriculum. Their research exploring parents’ attitudes towards GSD-inclusive education was funded by the Australian Research Council, and related publications and materials can be accessed via their website.