Gender and Sexuality in the Classroom

When it comes to gender and sexuality, classroom education can be contentious. A new survey aims to advance the conversation.

When debate about the ‘Safe Schools Coalition Australia’ programme raged in late 2017 and early 2018, many mainstream media outlets reported that parents didn’t want their children taught about sexuality and gender diversity in the classroom. But research suggested the contrary. Western researchers are now surveying parents across the nation to establish a clearer picture of their views.

“Studies have indicated that parents overwhelmingly feel there should be some education around these issues in schools,” says Associate Professor Tania Ferfolja, from the Centre for Educational Research in Western Sydney University’s School of Education. She explains, however, that those studies, including those she performed with her colleague, Associate Professor Jacqueline Ullman, were small and limited: “Because nothing has been done on a large scale in Australia, we really don’t know what parents want.”

Intent on rectifying this, Ferfolja and Ullman have embarked on the country’s largest and most detailed exploration of sexuality and gender diversity education to clarify exactly what parents would like to see their children taught in schools and when. Funded by the Australian Research Council, data collection for the first part of the project — a nationwide parent survey — was completed at the end of 2019. The survey was advertised via Facebook to the parents of children who attend any public school in Australia, from kindergarten to the final year of high school.

“The second phase involves contacting parents whose children are gender and sexuality diverse to ask about their experiences of the schooling system, for themselves and their children,” Ferfolja says. “This is to get a sense of where they have been best supported, and where more support is required.”

This is seen as critical because research shows that young sexuality diverse, transgender and gender diverse people are extremely vulnerable to mental health concerns. Their rate of depression and anxiety is considerably higher than for adolescents in the general population and they experience extraordinarily high levels of self-harm and suicide attempts.

“Part of the reason we wanted to do this work is that from existing research we are aware that a number of gender diverse or same-sex attracted students have quite a hard time, for a variety of reasons, but primarily to do with their experiences at school,” Ullman confirms.

The third major component of the research project by Ferfolja and Ullman is the development of a “performed ethnography”. This involves collating the voices of the research participants and creating a play for the purposes of instruction and education. Professor Tara Goldstein, who is an academic and a playwright from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, in Canada is collaborating on the work. “We are working with her to develop a performance piece that can be used for the professional development of teachers and other interested people working in support services in this area,” Ferfolja says.

Need to know

  • There was a heated political debate about the Safe Schools Coalition Australia programme in 2017-2018
  • Preliminary studies suggested that parents feel there should be some education about sexuality and gender diversity in schools.
  • Western Sydney University researchers are now conducting a nationwide survey of parental attitudes regarding sexuality and gender diversity education.

Recommendations for practice and policy are also expected to come out of the research, suggesting that the findings will help guide and streamline curriculum development, possibly nationwide. “We will be working with an advisory committee, which helped refine the survey content, to really feed results back into every state and territory,” Ullman says. Because there will be location data from participants, it may be possible to provide tailored feedback to states and territories about what parents in different locations want taught at school and for what age groups.

One of the major stakeholders in the advisory committee has been the Australian Council of State School Organisations. The council’s chief executive, Dianne Giblin, says the main reason for her organisation’s keen interest and support, is to ensure that school curricula are able to properly represent and reflect diversity across the Australian community.

“Not only do we need to give a window into sexuality and gender issues for all young people but particularly for young people who are gender diverse,” she says. “The diversity of sexuality in our community needs to be mirrored in our curriculum, so all young people have that broader perspective. It’s also needed for the mental health and wellbeing of our young people who may be transgender or same sex attracted. That needs to be reflected so that they feel comfortable about who they are.”

Moral code

“We are delving more deeply into the reasons why parents might support [particular classroom] inclusions and reasons why parents might be opposed to them,” Ullman says. “This is really intertwined with people’s sense of morals and values and their code of ethics. We’re trying to take something really complex and distil it down into a measurable set of items.”

This sort of information will also help teachers better navigate what is for many of them a potential minefield. “Teachers themselves are very uncertain about what they can actually say in the classroom; what might or might not get them into ‘trouble’,” Ferfolja says. “So, we really do need to know and, whatever the outcomes actually are, use them to inform policy and curriculum and syllabus documents, so teachers have some sort of guidance.”

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Tania Ferfolja

Tania Ferfolja is Associate Professor in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. She is a member of the Centre for Educational Research and a member of the NSW arm of the national Australia Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health. Her research centres on equity in education with a focus on gender and sexuality diversities in curricula, policy, pedagogy, schooling and employment practices in Australia and internationally. She is lead editor of the book Understanding Sociological Theory for Educational Practices - 2nd edition (2018, Cambridge University Press), co-editor of Gender and Sexuality in Education and Health (2018, Routledge, UK) and is lead author on a forthcoming book entitled, "Sexuality and Gender Diversity in a Culture of Limitation: Student and Teacher Experiences in Schools" (Routledge, in press). Tania also co-authored Crossing Borders: African Refugees, Teachers and Schools (2011 ACSA/Common Ground) and From Here to Diversity: The Social Impact of Lesbian and Gay Issues in Education in Australia and New Zealand (2002, Harrington Park Press). She has published in a range of highly-regarded, peer- review  journals, has presented at both national and international conferences and has been on the editorial board of numerous journals. Tania is currently leading research with Associate Professor Jacqueline Ullman and Professor Tara Goldstein on an ARC-funded project entitled "Gender and Sexuality Diversity in Schools: Parental Experiences and Schooling Responses"

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Jacqueline Ullman

Associate Professor Jacqueline Ullman received her PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Sydney in 2007.  She holds two Masters degrees, one in Research Methodology in Education (USYD) and another in Sociology in Education (Columbia University, Teachers College).  As a former secondary school teacher, A/Prof. Ullman brings her classroom experiences to her lectures, having worked in an under-funded Manhattan public school for a number of years.  She is a certified English teacher with a Bachelors degree in English Education (Secondary) from New York University (NYU).

As an Associate Professor of Adolescent Development, Behaviour and Wellbeing, Ullman teaches in the areas of educational psychology, sociology of education, research design and research methods for preservice secondary teachers and educators looking to pursue continued education.  


This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council.

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Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.