A model for a generation: how Victorian schools are tackling family violence

Originally published on EducationHQ Australia (June 7 2016)

We take an exclusive first look at the early results of a new ‘Respectful Relationships Education’ trial in Victorian schools as teachers around Australia look to tackle family violence.

In a hall hung with the flags of 35 different countries, more than 100 students in northern Victoria put their heads together to try and solve a problem – the same problem facing governments, police and support services all around the world. How do we end violence against women?

It was part of a mock UN conference run by the Victorian division of the United Nations Association of Australia in May, with student teams representing countries as far apart as the US, Pakistan and the Philippines.

But the reason they had come together was much closer to home – communities in the region had recently seen an increase in family violence.

According to guest speaker and local solicitor Steven Bliim from Murray Mallee Community Legal Service, the region now has the highest incidence rate in the state.

“I don’t know whether that’s an increase in the family violence that’s there or if it’s just an increase in reporting because it’s become much more topical…” Bliim tells EducationHQ.

“I think there’s probably a degree of both unfortunately. In Mildura and Swan Hill, we’ve moved from about three and four in the state about 12 to 18 months ago to numbers one and two in the state in terms of incidences of family violence.”

Teacher Heather Conner from host school Robinvale College says the conference topic “ending violence against women and girls” was specifically requested by the school due to the increase.

“We felt that it was appropriate for our local district, in Australia itself and overseas, and that it was something some of our students might be experiencing and it might be helpful for them to work through,” she says.

“I have personal experience as a young relative of mine has been going through a domestic violence issue, through the AVOs and things like that … I’ve had students who have certainly experienced it and I know parents who have experienced it so it is certainly in the town.”

The conference at Robinvale, which saw 139 students from eight local schools pass a model UN resolution on gender-based violence, is just one of many conversations that are starting in schools around Australia as domestic violence comes to the fore of public discussion.

And, finally, it seems we may have at least part of the answer.

In the wake of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Victorian Government is rolling out a new Respectful Relationships Education (RRE) program from Prep to Year 10.

The program, which was trialled last year in 19 schools, aims to tackle gender inequality before it develops by challenging prejudices and behaviours that can lead to violence.

One hundred and twenty “lighthouse” schools will receive additional support to “champion” the initiative thanks to $21.8 million in funding from the Andrews Government over the next two years.

Making the announcement in April, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said that some of that money would also go towards training for thousands of teachers across the state delivering RRE as well as dedicated health officers in each community to assist schools in their response to family violence.

“By having this program in Victorian schools and kindergartens, our students will learn from a very young age that the best relationships are respectful ones,” Merlino says.

RRE was listed among the key recommendations set down by the Royal Commission into Family Violence earlier this year, which called for education to be “a fundamental component of Victoria’s family violence prevention strategy”.

Similar initiatives are now in the works for Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and New South Wales.

According to Our Watch, a not-for-profit group that campaigns against family violence, the RRE curriculum could be a world-first. Policy and projects manager for children and young people Cara Gleeson says an Our Watch report released in December last year analysed best practice RRE from around the world and found no equivalent program.

“Let me know if you find one,” she says. “We found a bit of detail in other countries but not anything that was necessarily evaluated, that was practised and publically available.”

That same report also looked at the capacity for Australian schools to tackle gender-based violence. The RRE model, it said, provided an “unprecedented opportunity to create positive change for a whole generation of young people”.

“Properly embedded in education systems, and with the appropriate support to teachers, schools and their community partners, the benefits of Respectful Relationship Education have the potential to reach 3.7 million students across Australian primary and secondary schools, as well as a workforce of over 250,000 teachers,” the report says.

For Gleeson, it is an “exciting time” in Australia’s education history. But, navigating such a sensitive new area is already throwing up challenges for teachers and policy-makers alike.

“When we’re talking specifically about the connection of gender inequality and rates of violence against women, it’s quite a confronting thing for people to think about,” she says.

“It can mean that there’s a bit of backlash or a bit of a resistance.”

Last year, Our Watch partnered with the Victorian Government to help 19 schools deliver the new curriculum resource Building Respectful Relationships: Stepping out against gender based violence for Year 8, 9 and 10.

The group also conducted an evaluation of the pilot program, due to be handed to the government in a matter of months. So far, Gleeson says, results are promising

“It shows a good improvement across several different measures with students… improvement in teacher and student relationships, colleague relationships and peer relationships.”

A draft of the evaluation submitted to the Royal Commission reported students were also demonstrating an increased understanding about violence, gender and gender inequality, and were less likely to victim-blame or excuse gender-based violence. Sixty-four per cent of the 42 teachers surveyed said there had been a positive change in classroom behaviour since the trial began.

“The kind of change we want to create is generational, its culture change,” Gleeson says.

“We learnt a lot in that 12 months but we do note that 12 months is not long enough to sort of see cultural change.”

One school involved in the study that did make strides fairly quickly was Gisborne Secondary College. Acting principal of the school Tracey Summerton says the program tied together a lot of initiatives staff had already been running in the personal development space.

“All these community things like respect, achievement and diversity, if they are the lynch pin to what makes good and useful people, then it needs a bit more direction because you don’t get that stuff just from happenstance,” she says.

According to Summerton, students have literally “run with” the program – organising a five kilometre charity run to raise funds for Our Watch.

“They brainstormed to see the type of things they could do, to see what things are involved in changing not only their own awareness from doing the program in class but how do you inflate that learning … how do you actually take it out into the community and make it count?” Summerton says. “I can’t even begin to tell you some of the branches this has taken.”

Key to the trial’s success was teacher training and support. Some teachers at Gisborne initially lacked confidence delivering the program.

“A lot of our health and PE staff happened to be the right people to lead discussions on things around sex, around respectful behaviours, around approaching people and how do you know if somebody’s invading your space,” Summerton says.

“That is not the sort of curriculum content that most teachers would do if they’re learning about English or humanities … these are very human learning experiences, you can’t ask somebody to just wing that … it’s a very sensitive and new area for teachers to be able to tackle.”

Summerton admits she also “very specifically” sent male teachers off to RRE professional learning sessions.

“It wasn’t targeting them to change up their performance but … it was really nice to have male teachers being able to talk about good relationships…Too often, men run a mile, and yet girls need to hear that.”

Of course, teachers had to be equally mindful not to “overstep” into the role of a counsellor or parent.

One family at Gisborne initially thought the program was intruding on their parenting and decided to withdraw their child, before changing their mind.

Management of staff was another delicate balancing act.

“One of the things that was very difficult at first … is that lots of teachers will claim that they have been engaged in Respectful Relationships for their entire career and that might be spanning a time of 30 or 40 years,” Summerton says.

“So, it sometimes can appear like a whole new generation of radical feminists are going to come marching in.

“Whenever we do PD or training for teachers who are delivering a program we make sure that they’re not only looking at the specific curriculum materials but they also … have just a bit of reflection on any of the baggage that they might have themselves that might need to be addressed … on those sneaky aspects that are quite covert, if there’s still language that is used in places…”

While the program sits within the health, physical education and personal development areas of the curriculum, it is designed for a “whole-school approach”, with schools encouraged to perform these kinds of “audits” of their internal culture.

“RRE is not solely about what a student might review in their health and PE class, it’s about what the student will see in every part of the school that they walk through,” Gleeson says.

“One school thought ‘we’re good, we’ve got fantastic females in our leadership team’ and then someone sort of looked around the staffroom and looked around the school hallway and said ‘hang on, we’re only profiling our male athletes and our male students’ accomplishments’ and it wasn’t done intentionally … but sometimes we can do that stuff subconsciously.”

The education sector is already a “highly gendered workplace”, Gleeson says.

Statistics from the April issue of Australian Teacher Magazine showed that women currently make up 81 per cent of  the primary teacher workforce nationally but hold only 58 per cent of principal positions. Likewise in the secondary sector, 58 per cent of teachers are female and only 42 per cent are working in the top job.

In an ideal RRE scenario, schools will serve as “models” of an equal workplace in action.

Summerton says she has learnt “a mighty amount” about the glass ceiling during her time in the sector.

“But I have to hope that girls who are going through secondary colleges now don’t have to know it the same way I did.”

And yet, within Australia’s “very large” teaching workforce, Gleeson says there are even more troubling realities to confront.

One in four women aged over 15 will experience violence at the hands of a current or former partner.

“We can deduce from that, that within the school workforce there will be teachers and staff who have experienced or are experiencing family violence in their lives and then there will also be perpetrators as well,” she says.

“Not saying that every teacher is a perpetrator, but we’ve got to make sure that there are supports for principals and teachers and staff and students.”

More and more, Steven Bliim finds schools themselves are becoming the sites of family violence.

“A lot of changeovers for time spent with parents happen at school these days as opposed to a police station,” he says.

“It can lead to problems and can drag the school into problems that are very difficult.”

Ensuring schools know how to respond in these sorts of situations is critical. While Our Watch has welcomed the Victorian Government’s “record” half a billion dollar investment in family violence prevention, Gleeson says more money is still needed for response services.

“RRE happens alongside work that should be happening in communities,” she says.

“That’s definitely something that the Royal Commission report helped show, that this area is critically underfunded and has been for decades.”

In its March report, the Royal Commission also raised concerns that the government’s current approach to RRE might be “inadequate”.

“It does not appear to meet the whole-of-school test,” the report said.

A whole-of-school approach was described as one including “a broad range of school policies, training and professional learning for teachers beyond those actually delivering the curriculum, the establishment of protocols with support agencies beyond Child Protection, and the engagement of the parent community in preventing family violence”.

“The Commission is particularly concerned that a failure to incorporate these aspects creates the risk that harm already caused by family violence will be exacerbated if the curriculum triggers disclosures of family violence in schools without appropriate policies and protocols in place, without teachers having the appropriate knowledge and skills, and without parents understanding respectful relationships education,” the report said.

Our Watch identified seven key elements to best practice RRE in their December report, including a “whole-of-school” approach.

“We’re not there yet,” Gleeson admits, citing concerns raised around adding to teacher workloads.

Still, the early results are mostly positive.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of principals and students and teachers and, overall, many were really excited to be doing this work and it’s really well timed,” Gleeson says.

“Really, if you think of how exciting that some children will be starting Prep in the next couple of years and, throughout their education, every year they will be repeating that RRE.”

There is still no official word on when the program will be up and running state-wide.

Back at Robinvale College, students may not have heard of RRE yet, but conversations around domestic violence and gender equality are far from absent.

In a particularly tense moment during the mock UN conference, one student representing the Afghanistan delegation rose to her feet.

She was responding to accusations from the German, Finnish and US teams that her country “needed to deal with the treatment of women under Sharia law”.

To the US delegation, she threw down a challenge of her own: “what you are doing to stop Islamic women from being harassed on the streets by non-Islamic men?”

The hall fell silent for a moment. Four students on the US team put their heads together to consider.

Now looking to expand RRE at Gisborne Secondary, Summerton is optimistic about the program’s success in other schools.

“The cultural change is slow but some of the things that I have seen here – they do my heart good.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.


By Sherryn Groch


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