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What do schools need to do to have a good culture and healthy approach to gender?

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Cranbrook in Sydney’s east is one of the most elite boys schools in Australia. On Monday night, the ABC’s Four Corners program aired claims some female teachers had been bullied by male staff and sexually harassed by students.

Amid the school’s decision to go fully co-ed by 2028, there are concerns about whether Cranbrook will be a safe space for girls.

In a statement to the ABC, Cranbrook said its “current staff, including female staff, overwhelmingly support the School, its values and its culture”. It also said it has appointed teacher Daisy Turnbull to prepare for coeducation and “support the furtherance of gender equality” at the school.

What do schools need to do in order to be genuinely gender inclusive?

Sexist school cultures

In the last few years, a number of boys private schools have faced allegations of unacceptable gendered cultures. This includes sexual assault perpetrated by students, offensive behaviour online and in public and woefully inadequate responses to sexual assault and violence between students.

Previous Australian research has also found elite boys schools can be hostile places for women and girls, trans and gender diverse students, as well as boys who don’t conform to traditional norms of masculinity.


Read more: Why do we have single sex schools? What's the history behind one of the biggest debates in education?


It’s not enough to simply go co-ed

Simply enrolling girls will not automatically make a boys school more inclusive, less sexist or safer.

Schools aiming to truly welcome a wider range of students will need to significantly reshape the structures and culture of the school itself, both within and beyond the classroom.

The World Health Organization has developed a framework to ensure schools are healthy and safe. It addresses three overlapping areas:

  1. teaching and learning

  2. the broader school environment

  3. partnerships with parents and the community.

This approach can be applied to gender equity and inclusivity.

A boy in a school uniform raises his hard. A female teacher points to a map on a board.

Teaching and learning

The first component of a healthy school involves what students learn and the approaches and strategies used to teach it.

Schools that are gender equitable provide diverse curricula and equally diverse extra-curricular opportunities accessible to all students, regardless of gender.

There are all kinds of boys and all kinds of girls. So even single sex schools should be catering to students with a wide range of skills, interests, preferences and experiences. Likewise, there are students who are trans and non-binary, who may be excluded from school activities divided along narrow gender lines.

Some co-ed schools still segregate boys and girls for certain subjects. This approach upholds the idea that boys and girls learn differently and that some topics (such as menstruation) are too awkward to discuss in mixed-gendered groups.

Some schools choose to segregate classrooms to improve girls’ opportunities in areas they have been traditionally underrepresented in. While this can spring from feminist recognition of gender inequalities, it reaffirms the very divides it is attempting to challenge.


Read more: As another elite boys' school goes co-ed, are single-sex schools becoming an endangered species?


Gender equity across the curriculum

The current Australian Curriculum provides opportunities to engage young people in discussions about gender stereotypes and power in age-appropriate ways, in both primary and high school.

In English, students should meet diverse characters that challenge traditional gender roles and inequality.

Science, technology, engineering and maths subjects can foster enthusiasm for STEM-related content and careers, through hands-on classroom activities that encourage critical thinking and build confidence.

In health and physical education, comprehensive sexualities and relationships education should be a priority and include discussions of gender, power, violence, consent and healthy relationships.

Teachers’ values and attitudes about gender will also be reflected in their everyday teaching routines and practices. This includes whether or not they address students through gendered language, divide students into gendered groups for activities or discipline boys and girls differently.

So teachers also need support and quality professional development to keep pace with evolving understandings of gender and gender diversity.

A group of young women play basketball on an indoor court.

The broader school environment

The second component of a healthy school is the school culture. School leaders should use respectful and inclusive language and there should be strong policies to deal with child-protection concerns, gender-based discrimination and violence at school.

Research indicates that, unlike other forms of bullying, gender-based violence is often overlooked or ignored by staff. Sexist language and behaviours can be dismissed as “just a normal part of growing up” and so become a routine part of young people’s schooling experiences.

School staff should also feel valued, respected and safe in their workplace regardless of their sex, gender or sexuality. Unfortunately, evidence indicates this is not always the case. A 2018 survey found 43% of NSW LGBTIQA teachers reported experiences of discrimination in the workplace. Australian research published in 2020 found women teachers were experiencing unacceptably high rates of sexual harassment in elite boys schools.

School leaders have a duty to ensure their schools have robust policies and processes for responding to disclosures of harassment and discrimination from staff. They also need to pursue evidence-informed cultural change to ensure a safe work environment.


Read more: There are reports some students are making sexual moaning noises at school. Here's how parents and teachers can respond


Involve students

Students can be active partners in developing an inclusive school community and can even help co-design curricula relating to gender, overcoming biases and developing healthy relationships.

Student diversity should also be reflected through gender-balanced representation in student leadership roles. Student initiatives around gender equality and LGBTQIA+ visibility, such as gender and sexuality alliances, should also be supported.

School uniforms should provide options so all young people feel safe and comfortable in what they wear at school.


Read more: 'Why can't I wear a dress?' What schools can learn from preschools about supporting trans children


Partnerships and services

The third and final part of a healthy school looks beyond the school gates. Schools should see parents as partners and celebrate diversity in the community.

Parents should be invited to ask questions about curriculum and school culture and to raise concerns or lend expertise. School policies should be publicly available and regularly reviewed with student and parent input.

Schools can also work with organisations that promote gender equity, diversity and promote healthy relationships such as Our Watch, Family Planning and Twenty10.

These organisations can support schools’ counselling and pastoral care services and provide resources and training for teachers.

All schools can adopt this model

While boys schools have been the focus of recent media attention all schools should be called upon to evaluate and reflect on their gendered culture.

Co-ed and girls schools are not immune to gender-based violence, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

A whole-of-school review of curricula, school culture and partnerships can help schools ensure they are creating inclusive and respectful environments. This work is urgent if we aspire to a society where all students and teachers are safe in our schools.

Kellie Burns has previously received funding from the University of Sydney Equity Prize

Jessica Kean receives funding from the Australian Research Council for the Special Research Initiative 'Australian Boys: Beyond the Boy Problem'.