Education academics, women’s rights campaigners and many in between have criticised some of the material in the government’s new respectful relationships resource for schools.
Particularly controversial in the Good Society resource is a video of a girl asking a boy to try her milkshake. When he says he’s happy with his own, she smears her milkshake all over his face.
While well-intentioned, the video is simplistic and likely to be viewed by secondary students as condescending. The video is designed to be a lesson in decision-making when someone crosses the line in relationships that may be abusive.
I reviewed the entire Good Society resource from a gender-justice perspective and found problems beyond those in the milkshake video. These include that gender-based violence isn’t addressed in the materials for the primary school years, and harmful gender norms are perpetuated in some of the materials around consent. The resource also overwhelmingly focuses on heterosexual relationships.
What is this resource?
The Good Society resource is part of the Australian government’s Respect Matters program, which aims “to support respectful relationships education in all Australian schools” and to “change the attitudes of young people towards violence, including domestic, family and sexual violence”. The Respect Matters program itself is part of the government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children .
The resource includes more than 350 videos, podcasts and activities for children in the foundation year of school, up to year 12.
It’s divided into year levels (foundation–year 6, 7-9 and 10-12) with a series of activities for students to explore topics, including:
positive relationships, inclusion and exclusion, friendships and identity (foundation-year 6)
peer influence, social power and gender (years 7-9)
sexual consent and sexting (years 11-12).
There are positive aspects to this resource including teacher guides for each topic with clearly stated learning objectives. All content is linked directly to the Australian Curriculum and there are links in the resource to extensive professional learning support for teachers.
The resource draws on some powerful video material that foregrounds the voices of young people to stimulate students’ interest in, and discussion about, each of the topics. Some topics, like sexting, are addressed comprehensively.
But there are several serious issues.
Nothing on gender-based violence for young children
The government launched The Good Society after Chanel Contos’ viral petition for sexual consent to be taught earlier in schools. But the resource does not mention issues of sexual consent until years 11 and 12.
Children live in a very gender inequitable world and absorb its messages. And the unfortunate reality is young children experience unwanted sexual contact. They need the language and strategies to challenge these experiences and protect themselves.
There is strong evidence attesting to the significance of supporting young children in the early childhood and primary years to critically analyse harmful gender identities.
Read more: Parents, your kids are watching you. Sex education begins at home
And we know young children are capable of understanding gender-based violence. In a recent study, my colleague and I observed a teacher in a year 1 to 2 class eliciting comments from students who defined different forms of gender-based violence including “when someone says girls can’t play soccer” and as “when boys are teased when they cry”.
This teacher was drawing on the teaching materials in the Victorian Respectful Relationships Education curriculum. These materials focus on defining gender-based violence and examining its effects through age-appropriate playground and school scenarios.
But such defining and analysis are absent in The Good Society materials from the first year to year 6. Gender identity features in some of the cartoon stories and there are some gestures to what gender respect might look like. But the materials are quite childish and condescending.
Of concern, some of the the stories reinforce gendered messages. One features a soccer game, where the male character outperforms the girls who “struggle to get the ball”. The girls are angry about the unfairness of the game and force him to pass the ball to them. Without proper critique, this story leaves gender binaries (boys as physically strong and in control and girls as less powerful) intact.
Young women presented as sexual gatekeepers
For years 11-12, The Good Society’s materials explore issues of sexual consent under the headings of influences (like social forces and technology) and situations (such as alcohol and drugs, and parties). These are important focus areas and there are some powerful videos in this section that could open up transformative conversations about gender justice.
Read more: Not as simple as 'no means no': what young people need to know about consent
But several of the videos about sexual consent reinforce the notion of females as sexual gatekeepers and males as sexual initiators.
One year 11-12 resource video called “Kiss” involves two teenagers engaged in a passionate kissing session that, for the young woman, is getting out of hand. She halts the process and is relieved when her male partner agrees to “keep it above the clothes”.
The teacher guidance associated with this video recognises tensions of ambivalence around sexual consent. But the decision-making centres on the sexual objectification of the woman. For instance, there are questions about whether the young woman should allow the young man to “squeeze her butt” or “squeeze her boobs”.
There is no real critical engagement with the gendered dimensions of sexual consent, such as the hetero-sexist presumptions that position boys with the power to sexualise and dehumanise girls, and girls with the responsibility to police boys’ excessive sexual appetites.
There’s a good resource available
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has said the resource was developed in consultation with experts, such as the eSafety Commissioner, Foundation for Young Australians, and parent, teacher and community groups.
I am surprised this consultation did not draw on the Victorian Respectful Relationships model currently being taken up in more than 1,850 Victorian government, Catholic and independent schools.
Read more: Let's make it mandatory to teach respectful relationships in every Australian school
This program’s curriculum resources draw on an extensive evidence base. And it situates teaching and learning within a whole school approach, where gender respect and equality are examined and monitored in relation to staffing, school culture, professional learning, support for staff and students and community connections.
A version of this article was also published at EduResearch Matters.