Richard Glover: Well, the much discussed report into the Safe Schools program is in. The one the Government commissioned, Mr Turnbull commissioned, from the Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Western Australia, Professor Bill Louden. It’s been published now. And it does defend the program, very stoutly. It says it’s a great program, it does good work, but it has called for lots of changes. In fact big changes. So much so that some people might think the program is being gutted. So is it a gutting or is it just a sensible compromise that will hopefully please all sides, if that’s ever possible in politics. Well Simon Birmingham’s the Minister for Education and Training. Simon, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Richard. Good to be with you.

Richard Glover: You’ve always been a big defender of this program. Is the fact that Bill Louden has found so many problems with it of concern to you?

Simon Birmingham: I’ve always been very careful Richard to defend very strongly the objectives of the program; the objectives to support tolerance in schools, to reduce instances of homophobia and to support students who need help when they are dealing with questions around their sexual identity. But I have equally said that there are things in the resources, in the content of those resources, that I can understand why they raise eyebrows and I’ve always been open to looking at those, and what Professor Louden has found is that in some of the classroom resources that have been developed there are activities, particularly some of the role playing activities, that are not appropriate for all children in all instances. So in addressing that concern today, I’ve been very clear that I think those activities should simply be taken out of those lessons so that parents can have confidence that when a teacher is applying any of the things out of these resources, they will be appropriate for the age of the children that they are being applied to.

Richard Glover: Okay, these are pretty big changes. Lesson plans for lessons two, six and seven. Lesson five gets changed. Their website basically gets pulled down in terms of having resources on it. It’s entirely banned for primary school. The third party affiliations are all removed and any linkages on the website are all removed. These are big changes.

Simon Birmingham: They are big changes. Some of them are perhaps putting into explicit terms what vastly was the case in terms of practice already. There’s no evidence to suggest really that the program was delivered around the place in primary schools, certainly not at any scale, but making it explicit to give that confidence to parents that these are resources developed for children in their early high school years and that’s where they should be used. In other areas around how the program materials are housed and where they’re housed, they are presently on a separate website that is independently established under this program, that is exclusive in terms of providing only resources related to how you deal with homophobia or transphobia or the like. Whereas we actually have an educational hub online that the Commonwealth, state and territory Governments all contribute to, that currently has resources to deal with racism, with how we support students with disability in an exclusive learning environment, in an exclusive school, how we deal with children from families where there’s been domestic violence: a whole manner of different issues that schools have to confront. I think that, in terms of giving confidence to parents, and to schools, that the resources around this Safe Schools program for dealing with homophobia and transphobia are appropriate but are also easily accessible, we will shift them to be housed on this education hub as well.

Richard Glover: That does sound like you don’t trust the Safe Schools people to run their own website.

Simon Birmingham: I think it’s just a better long term solution. This program was only funded for a four year contract in any event. So in terms of making sure these resources are about for the long term once they’ve had some of the problems that Professor Louden has identified fixed up, then it makes sense to have them there. The other problem you raised Richard though, was the one around external parties, third parties, website links and those sorts of things. That has perhaps been the area of, certainly some of the most controversial criticism.

Richard Glover: Well, basically, George Christensen, from your side of politics, says that if you go to the Safe Schools website that then directs to you another one of their supporter bodies, and then that supporter body website you can then link to inappropriate websites. That’s been his argument. This is denied by the Safe Schools people.

Simon Birmingham: That essentially is some of the argument. Look I think we should essentially take the safest possible pathway here. This Government, the Coalition Government, has been very seriously committed to e-safety, particularly for children. We appointed a first ever e-safety commissioner, and I think the best thing we can do here is to say these are resources being produced for use in a school environment. The type of external parties or bodies that students might be referred to should be ones that we have the highest possible confidence in, which is why I am saying they should be limited purely to Government funded mental health or counselling services so that students can get support where they’re needed, teachers can direct them to that, but we can also have confidence as a community that there aren’t things that we can’t possibly control. And of course websites change day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, so the idea that we can somehow keep a constant look over what’s appropriate on websites that aren’t government funded and aren’t part of the program is obviously ridiculous and we’re far better off limiting it to those that we know will be of the highest standard because they are appropriate for the delivery of such Government health services. 

Richard Glover: One of the lessons that does sound like it will be changed is the role play lesson. Role play has been used in anti-discrimination in schools for a long time. Children are invited to imagine life through the eyes of being a black person, or a refugee or something like this. It’s a very common technique of trying to encourage empathy. If you allow that in schools, and you’ve allowed that for years, what’s wrong with imagining for a second that you’re gay, and you’ve got to tell your parents that you’ve got a boyfriend?

Simon Birmingham: Professor Louden who is an esteemed and well recognised academic in the education space found that there were some circumstances where some children- this would not be an appropriate activity. And again, out of an abundance of caution is my view that this comes out. Not all role playing comes out of all of the lessons, so there are other areas of role playing where there are essentially an activity of trying to speak without your teeth being seen, in essence to try to hide part of your identity and try to get an appreciation of what it might be like to hide part of your identity in a role playing exercise and of course the parallel then is drawn to people who, because of a fear of being picked on or bullying in relation to their sexuality, might be hiding that.

Richard Glover: So you’re convinced that you can take out some of the things that some people find alarming without gutting it?

Simon Birmingham: I’m absolutely confident that we still have, at the end of these reforms, not only a strong set of resources that teachers can pick and choose from in relation to their use in schools, subject to parental approval and so on, but then in many ways we have an enhanced set of resources because- and what I hope is that we can end a lot of the criticism around this, build parental confidence in it, and that from there it might actually be used in more schools to get a better outcome without the type of concern about the extremes of this debate. Because in the end, stopping bullying, whether it’s racism, whether it’s homophobia, are objectives that we should all stand up for and support in terms of the best learning environments for our children.

Richard Glover: Okay, the Minister for Education Simon Birmingham is with us. Just finally, what happens now? Are you convinced, for a start, that your own back bench will accept this, or are the George Christensens and Cory Bernardis going to take this fight to the death?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I have spoken to a wide variety of the back bench, and George Christensen has spoken publicly since these changes were announced. Now, as your listeners would know, and you would know, just yesterday George was emphatically calling for the whole program to be axed and the funding to be scrapped. That’s not the pathway that we have taken. We have decided that we should use the remaining term of the program to fix it, to fix the resources and to then ensure that they are available alongside all of those other tolerance type resources in the future.

Richard Glover: [Interrupts] Okay, but will- I suppose I’m asking…

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] And I’m pretty confident based on George’s response today that he sees that as being a sensible set of actions and he seems to have lowered the tempo of his criticisms in that regard. I hope that generally speaking we will see people see this as a sensible middle of the road set of actions that most parents would think are acceptable. Will I still get criticism, probably from the extremes of both sides of the debate? You bet. That is a fact of life, and have thick skin if you are a politician, expect those critics. The one thing I would say to them though is, remember this is a program about the well being of children in schools. It’s not a political football, it shouldn’t be used as a proxy for other debates. We should be focused on getting this right, for the well being of our kids in schools, and if people want to have arguments about other issues that might be somehow tangentially related to this because they also deal with rights in terms of LGBTI peoples or the like, well that’s up to those individuals to have those debates in that space. Don’t cloud our schools with those types of debates.

Richard Glover: Okay, and just finally, the other side of this, the Victorian Government who set this thing going, and the Safe Schools people themselves, will they accept these changes. Will they just carry this out, or might there be a rear guard action from this side and say well okay we’ll lose the Federal funding, we’ll go with the Victorian funding which was promised last week by the Premier and we’ll keep the program as it is. Is there a chance of that being an outcome?

Simon Birmingham: Well state school systems are largely run and predominantly funded, as they always have been, by state governments. And I can’t control what happens in those environs. This contract which was let by the previous Government for a four year period is delivered by an organisation called the Foundation for Young Australians. I’ve spoken with them today, and they seem pretty committed to working cooperati9vely with us to implement these changes.

Richard Glover: Alright. Peace has broken out. Perhaps. We hope.

Simon Birmingham: We can but hope. Peace, and I hope some time later tonight, sleep. Like every other senator.

Richard Glover: Yeah, get into those jim-jams. Hey Simon, thank you very much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure Richard. Any time.

Richard Glover: Simon Birmingham who is the Minister for Education and Training as Professor Louden suggests some changes to the program, but the continuation of that program. So yeah, will that be accepted on all sides? We’ll have to wait and see.