Measure of respect

This year kicked off with a spotlight on teaching respectful relationships and consent education in school, writes IEU VicTas Assistant Secretary Cathy Hickey. Here’s how two Victorian schools approach it.

Australia got a wake-up call about sexual assault through an online petition, launched in March 2021, calling for consent education to be taught at a younger age. Organised by former Sydney school student Chanel Contos, 22, the petition has so far garnered more than 40,000 signatures and 6200 testimonies.

While schools and systems across Australia use a number of programs and resources, the Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino, has recently called for a nationwide rollout of the respectful relationships program run in many Victorian schools. He has also mandated consent education in Victorian government schools.

Several reviews of current programs are also underway. The review of the Australian Curriculum being undertaken by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) is examining whether consent needs greater emphasis. The Queensland Government has also committed to review its Prep to Year 12 Respectful Relationships Education Program.

Here we take a look at the work taking place in this area in two non-government schools: Kingswood College in Box Hill, Victoria; and Sacred Heart Primary School, Diamond Creek. They share their approaches to embedding respectful relationships in their school’s learning programs.

Consent and the national debate

Our Kingswood College authors sum up the nation’s challenge succinctly.

“Unfortunately, a glance at any media source in Australia will confirm that there is an ongoing national crisis in gender relations and family violence, despite what positive relationships we might enjoy in our own workplaces and families,” they said.

“A royal commission into family violence and another into institutional responses to child sexual abuse demonstrate the depth of the issues which face students, their families and educators alike.

“While women continue to die at the hands of intimate partners or ex-partners – and the statistics for women who have suffered abuse, sexual assault or sexual harassment remain as high as they currently are – we must assume that educators and students are living with the current or historical impacts of these crimes. That makes the teaching of this kind of content extremely sensitive. It also makes development of the skills in the Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships [RRRR] curriculum an imperative.

“Often, as a wellbeing educator, one might reflect on the challenge of engaging in this kind of teaching. It only takes a look at the ‘milkshake video’, now removed from the Australian Government’s The Good Society website, to see the myriad ways the conversation can be derailed.”

The national conversation about consent is the latest reminder that students’ access to a robust, clear, appropriate, inclusive and safe curriculum – one that equips them for mutually respectful interactions and purposeful participation in school and wider communities – is paramount.

Staffing, planning, programming and pedagogy may present all manner of problems for school leaders, teachers and support staff, but it is useful to be reminded that what we are doing when we work with students to develop their respectful relationships competencies is an incredible privilege.”

Kingswood College Box Hill, Victoria

Kingswood College is a co-educational Prep-to-Year 12 independent school in Melbourne’s east. The school’s vision statement highlights its aspiration “to be a world-class school known for our innovation, engagement and collaboration, where students’ potential soars because we nurture and challenge them to know themselves and achieve their personal best as global citizens”.

Positive, mutually respectful relationships between students, between students and staff, and between the college and parents are central to Kingswood. The school has a long history of focusing on respectful relationships as part of a wellbeing curriculum that aims to equip students to know and be themselves in order to live purposefully in the world.

Once referred to as ‘pastoral care’, the program has always had a place in the school curriculum and several years ago became known as ‘wellbeing matters’. Sequential across the whole school, it is dedicated to resilience building, positive psychology, study skills and relational interactions between students and their wellbeing mentors.

The school continually improves its formal program. Some years ago, updating material on family violence resulted in a robust focus on respectful relationships and child safety. The Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships (RRRR) curriculum’s eight topics are an effective synthesis of many of the key focus areas for our wellbeing curriculum and allow us to employ a whole-of-school approach to this area of social and emotional learning.

Whole-of-school approach

Kingswood is taking a whole-of-school approach to teaching respectful relationships and it is embedded in the wellbeing curriculum from early learning to senior school. Staff have frequent access to professional learning in the area of respectful relationships, and we have undertaken a gender-equality assessment in relation to college policies, curriculum and practises.

In junior school, respectful relationships are also addressed in the context of the Primary Years Program and also on a daily basis in circle time, during which students may discuss issues that impact them on the playground. Some elements are also covered in subjects such as Religious Education, where values are explored.

We firmly believe that learning about wellbeing and respectful relationships does not just occur in weekly wellbeing sessions. Rather, it should be modelled by staff relationships with each other, with students, and with the broader community.

Kingswood is also part of a cluster of schools that work together on respectful relationships education. While this was challenging in 2020 given COVID-19 constraints, we hope this initiative will resume in the near future. This approach allows for schools to work more collaboratively with each other with the same content and program. It allows us to learn from each other, leading to enhanced student outcomes.

Taking a whole-of-school approach means we continually develop students’ skills, knowledge and understanding of how to relate purposefully in the world. Teachers also benefit from this because students bring their competencies and language into every interaction at school and this improves our learning culture.

We have also audited our curriculum, particularly in relation to our English texts, to ensure they are representative of the world our students live in and the world we want to help them create. This has meant checking the dominant voices, expressions of identity and cultures in the texts we set for students, and adjusting our curriculum as necessary.

Benefits for students and staff

Staff can often feel less confident in dealing with the more challenging aspects of the RRRR curriculum and the pedagogical approach can be challenging for some teachers. One of the strengths of a whole-of-school, iterative approach is the way students and teachers develop, early on in the program, the competencies and language that enables them to discuss the more challenging topics later in the program. This means teachers can tackle the later topics from a strengths-based approach because the students will have the emotional intelligence and vocabulary to build on their understanding in a safe classroom environment.

With thanks to Grant Exon, VCE Wellbeing Coordinator and Lucinda Malgas, College Chaplain and Head of Journey’s Precinct, Kingswood College

Sacred Heart Primary School Diamond Creek, Victoria

Our school was established in 1962 to serve a widespread parish including the greater Melbourne areas of Diamond Creek, Wattle Glen, Hurstbridge, St Andrews and other nearby areas. Currently there are 146 students at Sacred Heart and 22 staff including full-time, part-time/job share, support and administration staff.

Students at Sacred Heart enjoy the benefits of studying in a small school. All students know each other across the year levels and develop strong and supportive relationships with each other. The school has a firm focus on student wellbeing and has developed a number of programs to support a culture of acceptance, caring and inclusiveness.

Since 2017, Sacred Heart has been involved in the Respectful Relationships initiative and has been a Lead School for the past two years.

Sacred Heart became involved in this initiative when Wellbeing Leader Gina Murphy, in analysing the school’s behaviour management data, recognised a need for building the social skills essential for positive relationships.

At Wellbeing Leaders Networks, Gina became aware of the Respectful Relationships initiative and recommended it to the school leadership team. She said it was an evidence-based approach and was well-resourced through the Department of Education and Training. It also included professional learning opportunities on the initiative’s guiding principles; as well as training in how to access and implement the tools to support staff in delivering general and sometimes sensitive information.

Staff felt this initiative was part of a society-wide movement for change in response to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. We were fortunate that staff member Norah Jacombs agreed to lead our Respectful Relationships program. With her passion and drive, she has been fundamental to ensuring this initiative is kept among the school’s priorities at all times.

Planning and action

At Sacred Heart we implemented the Respectful Relationships Initiative using a school-wide approach encompassing not only explicit teaching of materials but also integrating this into the culture of Sacred Heart.

We have developed an annual action plan working with all staff to have a shared language and methodology. This allows us to stay on track with implementing the Respectful Relationships initiative and to reflect regularly on our progress as a group.

Our pedagogical goal is ultimately to provide tools to enable students to navigate everyday relationships and challenging situations they may face both now and in the future. Using the RRRR program enables our staff to deliver a targeted Social Emotional Learning program to all students that is underpinned by a clear scope, sequence and age-appropriate materials.

Enhancing voice, expanding vision

During our journey with the Respectful Relationships initiative, we have had many ‘a-ha moments’ – and some challenges – but through teamwork and ongoing dialogue we have had many, many more successes.

As a school we recognise that Social and Emotional Learning underpins the wellbeing and safety of all of our students and that Respectful Relationships is a strong cornerstone of our SEL curriculum. We know that Respectful Relationships enhances student voice and provides opportunities for students to show shared vision and leadership at our school. This improves student learning across all areas of the curriculum.

From implementing Respectful Relationships over several years, our staff have developed greater confidence and knowledge of the importance of Social and Emotional Learning through various professional learning opportunities and in dialogue with other members of both school and partner communities. Being involved in Respectful Relationships has provided us with the ability to network with local schools and share resources to strengthen the program.

So our parent/guardian community can join us on this journey, we have ensured Wellbeing is a consistent component of our weekly newsletters. In this way we can keep parents/guardians informed of the processes we use to implement Respectful Relationships and what it means to students.

This also means we can support and enhance our students’ knowledge of themselves and others both at school and, equally as important, outside of school.

Overcoming challenges

In implementing the Respectful Relationships initiative, staff experienced several challenges in planning, implementing and teaching the program.

One of our first challenges was to address the reality that students present at different stages of their emotional maturity and development in any given year level. This meant staff needed to really know their students and modify their delivery to different cohorts of students.

The Wellbeing/Respectful Relationships Team took this on board and facilitated staff meetings to ensure all staff understood the principles behind the curriculum materials and were therefore comfortable with selecting the activities supporting these principles, using the language and approach suitable to their particular cohort. We also timetabled a common Social and Emotional Learning timeslot across the entire school.

Another challenge was ensuring parents understood the content and importance of the program and supported delivery of sensitive material, particularly around topics 7 and 8 (gender diversity and gender-based violence).

We addressed this by providing our parish priest with the relevant material and inviting him to attend staff meetings to discuss staff concerns and provide the church’s position on these topics. This dialogue provided our staff with increased knowledge and confidence.

Getting started

We advise schools starting out on this journey to, first of all, gain familiarity with the resources and curriculum through professional learning and trying out various materials at staff meetings. Obtain the staff’s approval and commitment based on their authentic understanding of the program’s principles and processes.

To implement the program, create a team of leaders to drive it, network with other local schools and liaise with the Department team.

It is vital for schools implementing this initiative to acknowledge the many great things you already do in wellbeing at your school and find ways to build on these with a Respectful Relationship lens.

Also always remember to celebrate and communicate to your community all of your successes, small and large.

With thanks to Sacred Heart Principal Jim O’Sullivan and teachers Gina Murphy and Norah Jacombs

The national conversation about consent is the latest reminder that students’ access to a robust, clear, appropriate, inclusive and safe curriculum is paramount.
This report was compiled by Cathy Hickey, Assistant Secretary, IEU VicTas


Respectful Relationships: A Resource Kit for Victorian Schools
Respectful Relationships Education to Prevent Gender-based Violence: Lessons from a multi-year pilot in primary schools (May 2021)
The Queensland Respectful Relationships Education Program (RREP)
Peer Support Program:
The Good Society: A resource for teaching respectful relationships (Australian Government)