Late last week, following leaks to the media from the government commissioned Ruddock Report on religious freedoms in the post-gay marriage era, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to legislate to prevent schools expelling a gay or trans student.
“We do not think that children should be discriminated against,” Mr Morrison told Sky News. “I don't think if someone's at a school they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group.”
But Mr Morrison in his new position seems a bit too keen to show his tolerance credentials. It is doubtful that any school, religious or otherwise, would want to expel a student simply because it transpired that they thought they were gay or trans; what happened next would depend on many factors. The Ruddock Report appears to recommend against allowing schools to “kick out” any existing student or teacher.
In fact, the report implies that religious schools be allowed to “discriminate in relation to students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status” only at the point of enrolment or hiring. And this is already allowed Under section 38 of the federal Sex Discrimination Act.
But the hue and cry over “discrimination” that has followed the leaks has come when the Prime Minister is under pressure to win a by-election in Wentworth, an electorate with many gay voters. Reassuring them has led him to pre-empt the government’s official response to the report and to reinforce the impression that LGBT students could be simply expelled. In so doing he seems to have put himself under pressure also to removing an very important enrolment exemption to faith based schools, already enshrined in the anti discrimination legislation.
In any case Mr Morrison’s focus is all wrong. He seems not to have grasped that the primary duty of government in all matters educational is to parents, not to students. Schools exist to offer expert assistance to parents. It is parents who have the primary right and duty of educating their children as they see fit. The duty of teachers, schools and politicians is to help them in this.
Nobody but a child’s parents have the right to set the moral agenda for that child’s education, excepting cases of manifest incompetence. For this reason, schools have no right to advance social agendas that are not in keeping with a family’s values. All the more, when parents have chosen an independent school for their children because, presumably, they see a good fit for their own family within the ethos of that school, and the moral and religious education provided there.
Furthermore, children learn by osmosis. So much of the moral education children receive is a result of the culture of the family, along with the influences from school, peer groups, and the media that parents allow into their lives. Safe Schools sex classes may be compulsory in government schools but many independent school parents and teachers are unhappy with this overreach by educational authorities.
Peer group pressure is influential. Psychologist Judith Rich Harris even argued in her influential book The Nurture Assumption that parents hardly matter because children are mainly socialised by their peers.
When parents choose an independent school they are choosing a peer group which supports their values. Often it is the major reason that they choose the school – even if it is cloaked as academic prestige or social cachet. So if a student comes out as gay or trans, two sets of rights could collide, the student’s and the parents of his or her classmates. The government is focused on protecting the student from bullying. But parents may have legitimate concerns about whether their own children will be influenced by their gay peer.
It is, of course, wrong to expel a child who is in crisis about sexuality. A school should be as supportive as possible for every such student, adopting the approach recommended by the authorities of the religion with which the school is affiliated. According to leaks, the Report seems to say as much.
But there is a long way between that compassionate position and a blanket rule that would require independent schools to accept enrolment or staffing policies that contradict the right of the school to establish a culture that is in step with the moral values of its own families.
This is not acceptable.
All this has a back story. In August last year the then Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, said that it was “patently ridiculous” to claim that legalising same-sex marriage would lead to sweeping education reforms.
Well, this is exactly what is now being contemplated by some politicians: sweeping educational reforms that contradict not only the enshrined positions of schools with religious affiliation, but also the considered advice of the specialist body which the Government convened to avoid just the situation we now find ourselves in.
Dr Andrew Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield College and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney for 18 years. He is the author of Parenting for Character. He now works with university students in Melbourne.