Many thousands of words have been written about Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, intervening to stop Burwood Girls High School screening the documentary film Gayby Baby in school time. As an educator and educational researcher, three important issues were raised for me. But first a quick recap of the episode.
The NSW Education Minister intervened to stop a public high school screening the documentary film Gayby Baby, as part of their Wear it Purple Day celebrations. This was a result of a front page story in the Daily Telegraph which claimed parents at the school were outraged. It later transpired neither the school nor the Department of Education had received complaints from parents. However, by then the Minister had sent a memo to all NSW public school principals ordering them not to show the film, “so as not to impact on the delivery of planned lessons”.
It’s worthy to note it has since been claimed the school received four emails “expressing concern” about the documentary. If this is true and the emails might be construed as “complaints” it would represent approximately 0.3% of the student population. Neither the Department of Education nor the school have commented on this to date.
On the same day the article was published the Minister told 2GB radio “…during school hours we expect them to be doing maths and English and curriculum matters. This movie is not part of the curriculum and that’s why I’ve made that direction”. He noted in the same interview that he had not actually seen the film in question.
Three big issues
Appropriateness/politics of the film’s content
Much opinion has been given as to the inappropriateness of showing the film to secondary students because same sex couples are involved, that showing it is an attempt to subvert young people and to politicise the curriculum.
I have not seen one article condemning it by someone who has actually seen it.
As for politicising the curriculum, anyone who thinks small-p politics can be kept out of contemporary schooling does not understand what school is about. As curriculum theorist James MacDonald wrote 40 years ago:
“…all curriculum design is political in nature; that is, it is an attempt to facilitate someone else’s idea of the good life. By creating social processes and structuring the environment for learning, curriculum design is thus a form of ‘utopianism’, a form of political and social philosophising and theorising.”
What constitutes a waste of school time?
The second issue is around what we expect children and young people to be doing “in school hours”. If the concern is precious school time was to be spent on an activity not directly related to the curriculum (although I could provide a substantial list of places across the 7-12 curriculum where a film such as this could be directly relevant) what does this mean for the way schools operate?
Sports and swimming carnivals, school concert rehearsals, Harmony Day, all take time away from ‘normal’ class and redirect it elsewhere: to the building of community, and the celebration of diverse strengths within the community. In most secondary schools around the state over the next two weeks, classes will be suspended as students bid a fond farewell to Year 12. This too will be time lost from maths and English. School photo days, visits by local and not so local politicians and, dare I say it, scripture classes, all take ‘time away’ from “maths and English and curriculum matters”, if we define the curriculum in purely narrow terms.
We hardly, however, raise an eyebrow at any of these. The general acceptance of these activities, and more, suggests as a society we expect more will happen in our schools than such a narrow rendering of curriculum would suggest.
The impact on public school principals
The third issue is around the work and role of the principal. If teaching, done well, is an impossible task, then being a principal must rate even higher than teaching on the impossibility scale.
We experience notorious difficulty in attracting good people to principalship: anecdotally, I could name 10 outstanding educators of my generation who would have made excellent principals but made the decision years ago that the job was impossibly demanding and often thankless. One of the contributing factors to this is seen to be the difficulty of needing to “please all of the people all of the time”: walking the tension between doing what’s right for the school community and conforming to the many requirements put in place by systems and governments.
While it’s easy to whip up outrage in the public space, it’s also important to note that the school in question has a long history with ‘Wear it Purple’: the student-run organization established to combat homophobia in schools was in fact co-founded by an ex-student of the school, and the school has participated in the event each year since its inception. The film, which has received national acclaim, was directed by an ex-student of the school.
Again, it’s salient to note that according to the school and the Department of Education, no complaints about the screening of the film were received from parents at the school. If the recent reports are correct and 0.3% of parents emailed the school about it, then that still says there was overwhelmingly widespread support for the initiative within the school community.
While a local Presbyterian minister reported “heaps” of complaints having been made to him, he was unable to substantiate or even quantify his own claim.
So it appears that we might take from this case that decisions made by school principals, taking into account the nuances of their school communities, about such things as the allocation of time and the opportunities offered to students, may now be subject to unilateral decisions spurred on by anonymous complaints made to media outlets.
I’m a fairly astute observer of the relationship between education policy and the mainstream media, but even for the casual observer it’s not hard to see the difficulty in this. The erosion of principal autonomy and lack of trust implicit in this approach isn’t likely to make principalship more attractive to outstanding educators: quite the opposite.
Finally, in this era of Local Schools, Local Decisions, are we left to assume that the power to make local decisions on the part of principals is now limited to what the tabloid newspapers find acceptable? Because that’s an expression of ‘school autonomy’ I think we could all do without.
Dr Nicole Mockler is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.