independent schools

The surprising history of sexual obsession in our schools

Why are some independent Christian schools so obsessed with sex and should taxpayers be paying for it?

These two questions were raised on Monday night by Australian flagship current affairs program, Four Corners, which broadcast an expose on schools associated with Catholic sect Opus Dei. The report made shocking allegations about pastoral processes and the sexual health curriculum in the Sydney schools. It was stomach-turningly medieval with references to self-mutilation, female purity, and excuse-making for uncontrollable male libido.

We’ve seen this type of thing before. In 2021 Citipointe Christian College handed down a controversial contract to the parents of enrolling and enrolled students. The contract indicated that enrolment would be cancelled if a student claimed, or even discussed whether, their biological sex was different to their identifying gender. The contracts likened homosexual acts to paedophilia, incest and bestiality.

But the Opus Dei schools and Citipointe are still not the first private schools to be obsessed with sex, sexuality and gender. We recently published a paper on another that was active in the 1970s and 1980s. This far-right organisation, which ran its own schools, was also obsessive about what happens in the bedroom.

So why sex?

Both Citipointe and the Opus Dei schools’ establishment histories can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s, many conservative and religiopolitical groups were challenged by the civil rights gains of the 1960s and sexual freedom in general. We often forget in the teaching and research of the women’s movement that the opposition to that movement did not simply go away because legislation began to be passed permitting new sexual freedoms. Indeed, a counter-revolution thrived.

Children and the focus on sexuality education after the Sexual Revolution and eventually, the AIDS pandemic, created the perfect combination for a conservative moral panic that still exists in various forms today. Teachers’ characters were core to this conservative campaign. Universities, because they were locations of student protests in the 1960s and hubs of sex, drugs and rock and roll, were considered places where preservice teachers were being corrupted. Religiopolitical organisations argued that if teachers were corrupted by their university lecturers into believing in sexual freedoms, then those teachers would ultimately corrupt the children. For example, Queensland Minister Collin Millar on the 1980 Education Committee related:

This morning I spoke on the telephone to a lady who visited one of our colleges of advanced education after having been invited to listen to a course being put forward for teacher trainees. She was sickened by the disgusting material that was being put before these young trainees. (Qld Legislative Assembly Hansard, 18 March, 1980, 2744)

This sentiment continued into 1985 when Greg Sheridan, current foreign editor for The Australian, wrote in Restore magazine – a publication by religiopolitical organisation Logos Foundation – that ‘the state education system seems to have been captured by mediocre talents who adhere to it a variety of fruit-cake ideologies with little regard to serious scholarship’. In June 1987, former Premier of Queensland Joh Bjeke-Peterson told Logos Journal that:

All of us must try to work together as a Christian nation, to maintain … a sound national heritage based on a Christian background and the proper training of teachers. We have a great responsibility and I feel we are very close to losing that which we have.

Religious groups saw the breakdown of traditional family values through the corruption of the teaching profession at universities and morally panicked. In response, numerous religiopolitical organisations developed their own schools that hired Christian teachers and taught Christian doctrine.

So, these schools exist and are, due to the deregulation of Australian education funding policy, allowed to exist.

But should taxpayers’ money be allowed to let them thrive?

These schools are ultimately products of the education policy environment in which they exist. In the 1970s to 1990s, they took advantage of the school funding changes brought in by the Fraser government, and were supported by the rising neoliberalism of the Hawke and Keating governments and, ultimately, the deregulation of private schooling under the Howard government.

Why do these schools thrive?

AWell as with everything academic – it’s complicated. But essentially, Australian education policy is systematically Christian. This makes it very difficult to make education policy that does not favour Christian-style education. Even pedagogy and curriculum in public schooling faces this dilemma as it endeavours to keep up with social change.

Australia nominally runs a public education system that in the late-19th century had to deal with the established power of Catholic schooling within the colonies, rampant sectarianism, and the desire to ensure state-based schooling was available for all children (excepting, of course, First Nation’s children who were fundamentally excluded from mainstream schooling). The newly federated colonies insisted that government money should only fund a secular school system that reflected a desire to avert sectarianism and avoid privileging one Christian religion above another. In other words, secular education was supposed to mean neither Catholic nor Protestant, not freedom of or from religion, as it is often defined today.

Further, under Section 116 of the Australian Constitution, the Australian government cannot interfere with religion, but can interact with it. In other words, the assumed separation of church and state under the Westminster system does not really exist because the Australian government can very much be influenced by religion if the desire for religion is democratically popular.

And in the 1990s Christian education became enormously popular.

The Howard government (1996–2007) gave ‘primacy to the private purposes of schooling’, with Howard positioning himself as a moral political figure who understood the possibility of religion. While in Opposition in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Coalition realised the political potential of the Christian right’s opposition to civil rights legislative change. Whether Coalition ministers believed in the opposition or not or not, these religiopolitical groups presented a real opposition to the ALP government. Shoring up that support once in power, the Howard government made opportunistic political moves that undertook the ‘deployment of conservative family values in the service of neoliberalism’ and made it easier for private schools with private agendas to thrive.

As enrolments in these new private schools rapidly grow, so too does the school funding that follows those children. And it is a difficult sector for the government to intervene in and regulate because the mass proliferation of Christian schooling has privatised and individualised religious belief. This means that, constitutionally, the government cannot interfere. The state must leave the regulation of religious practice up to the community it exists within until that community is seen to break the law.

The potential breach of law and human rights in some of these schools is why Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace felt it appropriate to intervene in the Citipointe contract, and why Premier Dominic Perrottet must launch an investigation into the Opus Dei schools.

But should we have to wait until an organisation breaks the law before governments move on regulating taxpayer contributions to schools that may be spreading misinformation and discrimination? What about the private schools that aren’t doing these things? How does an education minister even begin to think through the complicated nature of government intervention into religious doctrine in schools they allowed to thrive? They can’t. It’s too fraught and would be democratically VERY unpopular. While we don’t have the words to get deeply into the autonomy of schooling, we can say that if parents are to make an informed choice about the school they send their children to, there must be transparency in the enrolment materials about where government funds are being spent and what doctrine underpins  a school’s ethos. This information should not require a theological deep dive, nor investigative journalism.

From left to right: Naomi Barnes is a Senior Lecturer and network analyst interested in how ideas influence education policy. Spanning across disciplines, her research contributes to scholarship concerned with evidence-informed policy in education. The growth of communication via social media has kept her motivated to develop models which show the impact of the platforms on the politics and policy of education. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Knight’s key area of interest is equity of access to and in tertiary education, the provision of institutional information and support for transition into post-school education. In 2017, Lizzie completed a PhD at Monash University, investigating change in marketing messages over the period of higher education massification. Lizzie is also a professional careers counsellor. Melanie Myers is a writer, multi-discipline researcher and sessional academic at the University of Queensland. Her doctoral novel Meet Me at Lennon’s (UQP) was published in 2019 and her articles and nonfiction have been published in various literary journals. Her academic articles have been published in Hecate and TEXT Journal of Writing and Writing Courses.

How to fix education: cut tests, defund private schools

In the final part in our series of what the next government should do to save Australian education, Jill Blackmore, Amanda Keddie and Katrina MacDonald ask: What is the problem of schooling in Australia and how can we fix it?

Education has been politicised over the last three decades, yet it has not been a key feature of the current election campaign. To be sure, we have heard public statements from Federal Education Minister (acting) Stuart Robert about ‘dud’ teachers in our public education system as well as his approval of increasing student demand for private sector schooling. Amid both parties’ support for parental choice in education and concerns about Australia’s under-performance on standardised international and national tests such as PISA and NAPLAN, the focus in this election campaign has largely been on how teacher quality might be improved through attracting and retaining better teachers. While quality teaching is important, this focus misrecognises the ‘problems’ of Australian education in a number of ways.

First, the yardstick of a successful education cannot be measured by student performance on standardised tests. These are highly narrow indicators of school success but continue to be put forth as evidence that our teachers and schools are effective/ineffective. For decades, education policy and practice has mandated the multiple purposes of education (academic and social). It is more important than ever before as we witness the social and economic costs of rising global and local conflict and the continued degradation of our environment that schools develop students’ critical, social and relational capacities as future active citizens to change a world on the brink of destruction. Although, it is promising to see the inclusion of sexual consent education in the Australian Curriculum as well as efforts to better recognise and integrate Indigenous perspectives and learning, it seems that politicians remain focused on narrow academic outcomes as the indicator of school success. Decades of research has told us that the testing culture in schools continues to degrade quality teaching and learning. Standardised testing of literacy, numeracy and science is not the problem. The problem is the way it has been weaponised to blame schools, teachers and students within a marketized and competitive education systems where under-performance on these tests is equated with bad teachers and schools (Smyth, 2011). How might this be different? Some have suggested that testing a randomised sample of schools to represent the diversity of schools in Australia might be a good way of gauging school performance on these markers.  Many countries reject standardised assessment, and have adopted this practice, such as New Zealand did in 2018.

Second, the emphasis on teacher quality in current political arguments tends to focus on teachers as individuals rather than as part of a feminised and (now) marketised profession that continues to be maligned publicly including by our elected representatives in government (Barnes, 2021). Raising the status of the teaching profession is a laudable goal amongst Labor’s education policy promises. Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions. They are overworked, confronted with increasing violence from students and parents, and they are operating in marketized systems where they must prioritise improvements on the measures that count (i.e., narrow academic outputs) lest their school becomes labelled as failing. In this pressurised environment, teachers are exhausted by increasingly untenable amounts of administration, accountability checklists and external demands (Heffernan, Bright, Kim, Longmuir, & Magyar, 2022). Teaching is therefore no longer attractive to many and even those who become teachers are disenchanted and exit because of the conditions of work and lack of professional autonomy. Both major parties have a commitment to attract high academic performing students into the profession through various programs and incentives. These initiatives may raise the status of teaching to some extent for some schools but they will do little to change the devaluing of the profession as feminised or the marketized system that has de-professionalised teachers.

Third, improving Initial Teacher Education is another policy focus for both major parties. Again, as it is situated within a competitive marketized system, Initial Teacher Education has been damaged as a consequence of JobReady policies. Federal funding to Education faculties has declined at the same time as they are expected to teach more students. This has led to a degrading of teacher education courses. Competitive market and education policy pressures have led to a burgeoning of shorter courses provided by multiple providers and intensified measures of accountability. Teaching is a complex profession that will not be mastered through short university courses. Teacher quality that leads to creating active, informed and critical citizens who can change the world for the better requires degree courses that foster deep, critical and broad learning about this complex job.

Fourth, both parties are silent on the gross funding inequality within and between our education system. In 2020, the total gross income available (including state and federal recurrent funding, equity loadings, fees and charges) per student was $16,020 for public schools, $17,057 for Catholic schools and $22,081 for independent schools (Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority). The reality is that public schools are chronically underfunded according to the minimum Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) (less than 1% of public schools will receive the minimum funding by 2023). In addition, the Catholic Education Office and ‘Independent’ schools have fewer accountability requirements. These schools are, of course, selective in who they accept (on the basis of ability to pay but also other factors such as religion and gender) which segregates children and fortifies inequality. Public schools, on the other hand, are left to support the most disadvantaged students with less resources. 

Fifth, both major parties support the right for parents to shop around and select the ‘best’ school for their children. What politicians don’t divulge is how this practice has been highly damaging for school equality. School choice policies over decades have encouraged competition, stratification and residualisation within and between education sectors assisted by the public availability of standardised testing data (MySchool) where schools are ranked on their performance. This has increased inequality between schools, students, communities, families and teachers – the ‘good’ schools get more students and more funds while ’bad’ schools get less students and less funds. What politicians don’t say is how school choice privileges already privileged parents and students who have the capacity and resources to select schools (including moving house to be close to ‘better’ schools). 

State governments are ostensibly responsible for public schooling in Australia, however federal governments can do a lot to improve education. If political parties are serious in this endeavour, the following (at least) needs to occur:

  • Remove standardised testing of narrow academic performance of all schools to testing of a random representative sample of schools
  • Improve the work conditions of teachers and school principals through greater pay, less intensive workloads, greater access to specialist support, greater time for professional development and planning, and greater security of employment (e.g. reducing casualisation)
  • Stop blaming teachers especially those in the public sector for problems that the system and society have created (schools cannot cure the ills of neoliberal, capitalist societies)
  • Implement the Gonski funding recommendations fully and immediately as they intended. This means equitable and fair redistribution of resources on the basis of need. This will mean recalibrating federal and state funding models to reduce or remove funding to ‘independent’ schools that do not need this funding.

From left to right: Jill Blackmore AM Ph D FASSA is Alfred Deakin Professor in Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia and Vice-President  of the Australian Association of University Professors.  She researches from a feminist perspective education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; leadership, and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; and teachers’ and academics’ work. Recent projects have focused on school autonomy reform and international students’ mobility, identity, belonging and connectedness. Her latest publication is Disrupting Leadership in the Entrepreneurial University: Disengagement and Diversity (2022, Bloomsbury). Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. Her research examines the processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in education settings. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts. Follow her on @amandamkeddie. Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Deakin University’s Strategic Research Centre in Education, Research for Educational Impact (REDI). Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, spatiality, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina’s qualitative research has focused on principal’s social justice understandings and practices, and the impact of school reform policies on the provision of just public schooling. She tweets at @drfeersumenjin