Victorian education officials have conceded there is a lack of hard evidence on the rates of homophobic bullying in schools to justify the state government’s decision to mandate the contentious Safe School program.
Responding to questions on notice after a recent parliamentary hearing, the state’s Department of Education and Training revealed this week that it could not provide a statistical breakdown of bullying cases by cause, such as race, gender, physical appearance, disability, faith or sexual preference.
The admission comes as the Andrews Labor government has committed to spending more than $2 million rolling out the Safe Schools program, developed by La Trobe University academics but now run by the department, to all public secondary schools.
The program, which provides information, professional training and sex education resources to help schools deal with homophobia, has been widely criticised for being about promoting sexual and gender diversity, as its previous manager Roz Ward once claimed, rather than stamping out bullying.
“Instances of bullying are often recorded by schools. However, the root causes and reasons for bullying behaviour are often complex and may not be easily identifiable,” was the department’s response to the public accounts and estimates hearing held in February.
“In many instances children and young people involved in bullying are not able to clearly articulate the reason for their behaviour, therefore making reporting on the root causes for bullying behaviour unreliable.”
The response also calls into question repeated claims made by Victorian Education Minister James Merlino that 75 per cent of same-sex-attracted youth had been bullied.
The reference appears to be based on a 2010 research report by La Trobe that promoted the work of Safe Schools, for which it later received state funding to deliver on the government’s behalf.
The Writing Themselves In 3 report since has been criticised by academics over its various shortcomings, including the requirement that participants self-select, meaning the sample group could not be considered representative of the broader same-sex-attracted population.
The parliamentary secretary to the opposition leader, Tim Smith, who posed the question to the department, said it was clear it did not collect independent data on various causes of bullying in schools. “Good policy should be evidenced-based,” Mr Smith told The Weekend Australian.
“All children should be taught tolerance and respect for the multiplicity of differences that exist between students, whether it’s based on social background, gender, sexual preference, religion, language, appearance et cetera.
“The Safe Schools program is a highly politicised program aimed at spreading a postmodernist ideology and radical ideas about sex and gender — not combating homophobia.” The Liberal Party had committed to scrapping Safe Schools in favour of a comprehensive anti-bullying program.
Longtime LGBTI health advocate Rob Mitchell said the program had been “irreparably tainted” through a lack of governance and transparency for years.
“We’ve had the same group conduct the research, design the program and then attract the funding to deliver the program,” he said. “The only thing (the government) can do now is get a credible independent group without an agenda to devise a comprehensive anti-bullying program.”
A spokesman for Mr Merlino said the government had made the program mandatory because “it saves lives”.