Listen: Stephen O’Doherty on his concerns about the foundations of the Safe Schools program
Part 2 of the 5-part Safe Schools Series
It’s had months of media coverage and political debate, but Australian school communities are still confused and divided over the Safe Schools Coalition and its gender-and-sexuality education program, ‘All Of Us‘.
Some faith-based groups fear it will undermine their values and harm their children, while supporters can’t understand who would oppose a program designed make LGBTI teens feel safe and accepted.
Stephen O’Doherty, the head of Christian Schools Australia overseeing 135 schools nationwide, believes that fundamentally different worldviews are at the heart of the debate.
- All About Safe Schools: Questions & Answers
- How Should I Respond To Safe Schools? Advice For Parents
We All Need To Fight Against Homophobia
Mr O’Doherty, who is also a former NSW Shadow Education Minister, told Hope 103.2 that it was crucial to fight homophobia in all schools.
“Everybody wants schools to be safe places for every student,” he said, “It’s not only students who are LGBTI who are bullied, but they are bullied in a particular way which is particularly distressing.”
But he and other Christian leaders disagree with the worldview the program is built upon, which views gender as ‘fluid’ and ‘non-binary’, and sexuality as a smorgasbord of options.
“One of the things that really worries us is that the material assumes a worldview where sexuality becomes the most important thing about a person,” he said. “At a very early age, even before many kids are thinking about these issues, they want to almost encourage kids to think of themselves as identifying as one particular gender and one particular sexuality, and to lock that identity in.
“Students need to develop their own identity, not just in sexuality, but in a whole range of areas, in community and in conjunction with their families. The problem with the program is that it tends to overlay one particular view of human wellbeing and elevates that about every other view—including the view that we are spiritual beings, that we have a relationship with God.”
Elevating Sexuality Above Other Aspects of Life
Many of the lessons in the Safe Schools program encourage students to empathise with same-sex-attracted people. Mr O’Doherty agrees empathy is important but believes these exercises go a step too far.
“That’s different from saying to children, ‘Imagine you’re gay. We want you to identify today as being gay.’
“Empathy is a very, very important aspect of human society,” he said. “It was empathy that Christ showed to the people around him that really defined him from everybody else… That’s different, however, from saying to children, “Imagine you’re gay. We want you to identify today as being gay.”
“For that child, they may never have had that thought before. They may have never even imagined themselves as sexual beings. If they are starting to develop a sense of their own sexuality, then that’s something that they’re going to be working through in conjunction with their family, and their teachers, and their peers.”
What’s In The Course?
The All Of Us classroom program consists of eight lessons, designed for Year 7 and 8 students (as young as 11 years old), exploring the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people through videos and classroom discussions.
It presents concepts such as a gender ‘spectrum’, and challenges the idea of ‘heteronormativity’ by suggesting that phrases like ‘boys and girls’ are outdated and insensitive. It also teaches that expressions like ‘that’s so gay’ are hurtful to same-sex-attracted students, and suggests ways students can be a good friend or ‘ally’ to students with diverse gender or sexuality.
Education professor Bill Louden, who conducted an independent review of the program, deemed some classroom activities to be too confronting for more conservative students. These include writing a pledge – in which students promise to take steps to be a good ally to LGBTI students – and a scenario exercise in which students are required to imagine that they are same-sex-attracted.
The Federal Government has ordered these be removed, but the Victoria’s education department under Premier Daniel Andrews has vowed to keep them.
Education That Carries a Social Agenda
Conservative Liberal MPs such as Cory Bernadi and Eric Abetz, as well as Dr Kevin Donnelly, a senior researcher at the Australian Catholic University, consider the All Of Us program to be social engineering – a label echoed by Tony Abbott.
But when challenged with the view that Christian education carries its own social agenda, Stephen O’Doherty was unapologetic.
“All educators have a social agenda, of course,” he said. “It’s about creating healthy societies made up of strong individuals who understand who they are, and who contribute to their own family and to others. That’s what education is about. But that agenda is informed by a worldview.
“In their worldview, sexuality does not relate to our biology, but…to the way we feel.”
“For Christian schools, the worldview is of a God…who has certain characteristics, and who has particular things to say about what it is to be human. One of those things relates to sexuality, being best expressed -for our wellbeing – between a man and a woman in a marriage relationship, committed to each other under God for life.
The Safe Schools program has a different worldview. In their worldview, there’s no God, or, at least, it doesn’t assume a God. In their worldview, sexuality does not relate to our biology, but…to the way we feel. And a lot of their exercises are to do with promoting this idea of fluid gender.”
Stephen O’Doherty is all for breaking down stereotypes. In 1994, he led a government inquiry aimed at breaking down antiquated gender expectations. But it’s when sexual diversity and experimentation are celebrated before children as young as 11, that he has a problem.
“If we condemn or judge people based on their behaviors, we have completely lost sight of the Gospel message, which is, ‘God made everybody in His image. Everybody is worthy. Everybody is to be respected’,” he said.
“But the problem with the program is that its worldview seems to be saying, ‘You can choose your gender. You can choose your sexuality. And you are the king of the universe. You don’t have to account to anybody else – including, especially, God’.”
Parents Voicing Their Opposition
One group of parents voicing their opposition to the All Of Us program, is the website ‘You’re Teaching Our Children What?’ – established by a group of concerned parents.
In their analysis of the program they say it encourages reverse discrimination, silences disagreement, divorces gender from biology, and forces young people who are confused about sexuality or gender to “commit to ‘coming out’ too early”.
They’re also opposed to the ‘pledge’ element of the program (which still appears in the Victorian curriculum), saying “children should not be forced to sign anything or be put in a position that they feel embarrassed not to. This is LGBT activism.”
Why Imposing State Ideology on Schools is Dangerous
Stephen O’Doherty said schools should be very wary of any government-imposed ideology.
“I can remember, a few years ago, schools were – rightly – up in arms about Brendan Nelson, the then-Liberal Education Minister, insisting that as a condition of funding, they had to have an Anzac poster on the wall that had a set of Australian values and a picture of Simpson and his donkey,” he said.
“Throughout the history of Australia, governments have tended to leave curriculum and ideology to the educators.”
“You might say, ‘Well, what was wrong with that?’ But the idea that, later on, a government would come and use that as a precedent to put another set of values on the wall that promoted an ideology that most Australians did not accept, that idea is a dangerous idea.
“So, for that reason, throughout the history of Australia, governments have tended to leave curriculum and ideology to the educators.”
Safe Schools Coalition Overriding Teachers and Parents
The Victorian Government’s plan to make Safe Schools Coalition membership compulsory, and to use the original All Of Us program with the more controversial exercises, is an abuse of political power in Mr O’Doherty’s view.
“The Andrews government in Victoria is using its political power to enforce an ideology on schools that surpasses the teacher in the classroom – and very importantly, the parent at home,” he said.
“Australia’s education system, under the Melbourne Declaration, says that education is a partnership between governments and the whole community, including parents, and churches…and that an outcome of education is the spiritual and emotional development of kids. If the Andrews government insists on one version only of a sexuality agenda, then it’s completely cut this partnership approach out of the picture. The idea that a government will mandate something in this area is a very dangerous idea.”
- Safe Schools & LGBTI Students: What Would Jesus Do?
- The Hope Media Safe Schools Interview Series
- Are Christian Schools ‘Safe Schools’ Already?
- How Should I Respond to ‘Safe Schools’? Advice for Parents
- The Problem With the Safe Schools Program, ‘All Of Us’
- The Basic Facts About The Safe Schools Program, ‘All Of Us’
Watch: The Full Stephen O’Doherty Interview