Parental Rights Bill: School staff, unions and parents push back

Teachers in NSW are under attack from One Nation’s proposed legislation, writes Professional Engagement Officer Pat Devery. Unfortunately, such a threat could emerge in any state or territory.

The NSW Parliamentary Committee Report on the Parental Rights Bill, released in early September, is a sharp disappointment. The worst aspects of the Bill’s attack on teacher professionalism have not been addressed, and the IEU has called on all NSW politicians to reject the proposed legislation in its entirety.

Steered by One Nation’s Mark Latham, the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 purports to be about parental rights, but it attacks the professionalism of teachers and the rights of the child.

The union believes the Bill would be unworkable in practice and unsafe for vulnerable students in schools.

Why it’s unworkable

The Education Act already states as a fundamental principle that “the education of a child is primarily the responsibility of the child’s parents”. The IEU supports this and emphasises that parents are already responsible for teaching children about core values, such as ethical and moral standards, political and social values, personal wellbeing, gender and sexuality. However, the Parental Rights Bill goes much further in giving parents a key role in matters of school curricula.

Let’s take a closer look at what it means. The Bill proposes that schools provide a detailed summary at the start of each year regarding any course content relating to these ‘parental primacy’ issues.

Parents could then object to curricula supplied by the NSW Education Standards Authority in science (evolution); Shakespeare (cross-dressing, suicide, pre-marital sex, infidelity); geography (climate change, environment); modern and ancient history (religion, social movements; role of women; political beliefs; reconciliation); and PDHPE (personal wellbeing, identity, discrimination, sex, consent).

Parents could also withdraw their students from any class that covers these topics.

The Bill’s broad definition of parental primacy means all schools would be required to ensure the education they provide is “consistent with the moral and ethical standards and the political and social values” of parents. Given every school in NSW welcomes a diverse cross-section of students with parents from every social, political and religious view, the practicalities of ensuring the curriculum provided to each child meets their parents’ stipulations are simply unworkable.

Weight on workloads

The red tape created for schools and teachers in demonstrating compliance with the Bill would only add greater complexity at a time when teachers and education authorities are working to declutter the curriculum and remove unnecessary administrative burdens.

The Bill requires schools to provide parents with detailed summaries of course content at the start of every year, with an associated list of textbooks and other learning materials. This would not only add to teachers’ already heavy workloads, but also put school leaders in the invidious position of refereeing differences of opinion between groups of parents and potentially even between parents of the same child.

In his evidence to the Education Committee inquiry, IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam said the Bill was “an onerous and burdensome addition to what schools are already doing”.

Teachers continually evaluate and adapt their teaching programs and, on a daily basis, respond to questions students might ask in the classroom. It would be impossible to stick strictly to a course outline provided months earlier. The right of parents to withdraw children in such a situation would prove chaotic.

Jeopardising jobs

While the Parental Rights Bill supposedly focuses on parents and children, it has teachers and principals squarely in its sights. The Bill proposes a mandate that to become accredited, every teacher would have to agree that parents are primarily responsible for the education of their children, and teachers would automatically lose their jobs should they breach any of the Bill’s complex provisions.

One of the Bill’s more extreme elements, prohibiting references to gender fluidity, has been dropped from the final recommendations. However, the remaining elements of the Bill, especially the requirement to outline in detail any curriculum content which falls under the newly proposed understanding of parental rights, continue to pose a significant threat to a teacher’s accreditation should they find themselves in a position where they need to provide support to at-risk students.

This potential threat to a teacher’s livelihood, simply for answering students’ inevitable questions of affirming the vulnerable student in their care is fundamentally wrong.No teacher should lose their job for supporting a student.

It is an unwarranted and ill-conceived attack on the professionalism of teachers and the rights of the child as articulated in theUN Convention

Opposition expands

IEU members have also expressed strong opposition to the Bill. “The Bill indicates little knowledge or understanding of how schools function on a day-to-day basis, shows no regard for the professional judgement of teachers, and has the potential to cause significant harm to individual students and teachers,” the NSW North West Sub Branch of the union said in a resolution.

“It is an unwarranted and ill-conceived attack on the professionalism of teachers and the rights of the child as articulated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory.”

The IEU’s school counsellor members have also expressed their deep concern that the legislation would “place unreasonable limitations on their ability to discuss sensitive matters with students who are in need of pastoral care relating to issues of sexuality and gender”. As a result, these students could be further marginalised rather than shown care.

“We are concerned about the adverse impact on the professional judgment of teachers and counsellors and the broad effect this legislation could have on teaching, learning and student wellbeing in our schools,” the counsellors said.

The IEU’s NSW South Coast Sub Branch also condemned the Bill, describing it as “deprofessionalising and anti-student wellbeing”. In a resolution, the Sub Branch called on the NSW Parliament to reject the Bill. “It does not acknowledge the complexity of the nature of education and is therefore unworkable,” the resolution said.

The Parliamentary Committee’s report also noted that the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of NSW and the NSW Parents Council both opposed the Bill, stating in their submissions that the “uncertainty this would create within education could potentially be catastrophic to the delivery of a uniform curriculum, and place schools and teachers in untenable positions”.

This legislation has no place in a progressive society. The IEU has called on every NSW politician to vote against it.