Respectful Relationship education

Six things schools need to do now to stop gendered violence

Wesley College refers sexual assault and harassment complaints to police (ABC News, March 2021)

Abuse Scandal Shocks St Kevin’s College (Star Observer, February, 2020)

‘Do they even know they did this to us?’: why I launched the school sexual assault petition (The Guardian, 15 March, 2021)

Outrage over Victorian high school’s rape culture apology (NineNow, April, 2021)

If recent media headlines are anything to go by, schools are floundering in their efforts to address the prevalence and severity of gender-based violence. For some school communities, there seems to be a general sense of surprise or shock that sexual harassment and assault happens in their schools. For others, well-intentioned attempts to address these issues have been met with strong backlash. The reality in schools is far more complex. Most schools are inclusive spaces, and many principals and teachers are doing great equity work. But this work is difficult.

Schools have long been charged with addressing gender-based violence and it has always been fraught with contention and backlash. This is perhaps because the spectrum of gender-based violence has been so normalized that many find it difficult to see and name – whether through private school boy sexist chants, sexist language or jokes, inappropriate touching to more serious sexual harassment and assault. For a long time, the sexual harassment and abuse experienced by girls and female teachers in schools was trivialized and minimized. Perhaps now, with the strength and power of young women’s voices such as Chantel Contos, Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame and the sustained public and media interest in gender justice issues (post #MeToo) there will be real change in how schools are supported to address gender-based violence.

OurWatch in partnership with the Department of Education and Training (DET) and Deakin University has recently released the findings of an evaluation into the implementation of a whole school approach to Respectful Relationships Education (RRE) in 18 primary schools in Victoria and Queensland. The findings of this mixed methods study, drawing on survey, interviews, and classroom observation data, show promise in the potential of this program to begin shifting gendered attitudes in Year 1 and 2 students (on survey items measuring change in attitudes associated with which gender should perform stereotypically masculine and feminine jobs and activities) and to support positive behaviours, as one student commented in an interview:

‘“Respectful relationships” is about friendship, teamwork, helping, being nice, you get to know more people, stop fighting, stop bullying, fewer rude words, more teamwork, not being mean, how people feel, being nice and not mean, to listen, “do things that help people, from being angry to happy”.’

Findings also show promise in the program’s potential to support teachers to critically reflect on the gender bias in their teaching and relations with students: 

‘I don’t want to admit this but … when the boys are fighting at lunchtime and the parents are like, why are they doing this and I just – I’m like oh, sometimes boys will be boys.’ (Teacher)

‘It’s not necessarily that you want to have attitudes which are discriminatory or mean but it’s been so deeply seeded that it comes up without being conscious. It’s not necessarily a conscious thing that happens. Only by people sitting and going well, do I think that? Why do I think that? Where would I have got that idea from? That reflectiveness is not something that is a naturally occurring thing for the majority of people.’ (Leader)

These are important findings that build on decades of research that argues the significance of 1) schools working with young children to challenge their gendered attitudes and behaviours; 2) teachers developing critical awareness of how gender informs their teaching and 3) a whole school approach to gender inclusion and respect. 

What is Respectful Relationships Education?

The Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victoria) conducted in 2016 recommended that respectful relationships education (RRE) be mandated in every school from prep to year 12 (Royal Commission 2016). In the State of Victoria, RRE is currently being rolled out in over 1850 government, catholic and independent schools. 

RRE is a primary prevention program for schools that seeks to prevent violence before it occurs. It is based on evidence that gender-based violence is driven by gender inequality. Its major focus is on challenging and finding alternatives to the rigid gender roles that support gender inequality. RRE’s whole school approach supports schools to review all aspects of their operation and culture in relation to gender inclusion and respect

The gender inequality that leads to gender-based violence permeates all institutions, including schools. Schools are microcosms of society and thus reflect its biases and injustices. Gender and heteronormative bias are evident in school leadership positions and practices, staffing roles and responsibilities, teachers’ gendered perspectives and practice, what knowledge is valued in the curriculum, what sports are most revered, how students are disciplined and how they relate to each other. In order to redress the gender inequalities that lead to gender-based violence, these areas of bias in schools must be addressed. 

The findings of the RRE evaluation in primary schools

The findings of the primary school pilot resonate with the findings of a similar secondary school pilot of RRE led by OurWatch in 2015 – which highlighted that effective implementation of RRE requires:

  1. comprehensive and ongoing professional learning for teachers to deliver respectful relationships education,
  2. an explicit focus on addressing the drivers of gender-based violence in the curriculum,
  3. strong and long-term commitment to the program from the school community (i.e., teachers, school leadership and parents),
  4. policy and resource support from education systems, 
  5. school readiness to implement and integrate the program into school structures and practice, 
  6. support and planning to monitor the ongoing progress of the program, 
  7. support for staff to respond to disclosures of violence from students and staff.

Key considerations for schools to support RRE

There are six parts to a whole school approach to respectful relationships education: 1) school culture and environment, 2) leadership and commitment, 3) professional learning, 4) support for staff and students, 5) teaching and learning and 6) families and communities. Gender bias and discrimination can be found in all of these areas. It is in these key areas that RRE schools are concentrating their efforts to identify and transform gender-based violence. Some important considerations within each area are: 

  1. School culture and Environment: How is the school culture and environment gendered? How does gender (and other intersecting forms of identity) inform what is valued (e.g., curriculum, extra-curricular activities) and who is valued (which teachers, which students)? How is resistance and backlash against efforts for gender reform articulated and managed? 
  2. Leadership: How is leadership gendered? How does gender (and other intersecting forms of identity) inform who makes decisions and how are they made? How does gender inform staffing decisions?  
  3. Professional Learning: How are leaders and teachers professionally supported in their gender justice work, e.g., to understand concepts such as gender, heteronormativity, gender lens, gender equality/inequality and the complexities of gender-based violence (e.g., its intersections with poverty, Indigeneity, ethnicity, sexuality, disability etc.), and how these concepts are translated in their leading, teaching and relations with students?
  4. Support for Staff and Students: What processes and support are in place for staff and student survivors of gender-based violence? 
  5. Teaching and Learning: How is teaching and learning gendered? Is there an explicit focus across the curriculum on identifying and challenging gender stereotypes and biases? Is there a critical awareness amongst staff and students about their own gender and other identity biases and how they impact on their relations with others?
  6. Families and Communities: How does the school connect with the broader school community including families, local services and sporting clubs to challenge gender bias? 

Gender-based violence is shockingly prevalent but it is also preventable. While schools should not be positioned as a panacea for this social ill, they can make a difference. They can be sites of resistance and transformation of gender-based violence towards a more equal and just society.

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