University of Melbourne Magazine

Respect and responsibility


    Anti-harassment posters on the University of Melbourne campus.

    Anti-harassment messages are prominent across University of Melbourne campuses.


    In a lesson plan devised by Professor Helen Cahill, year 3 and 4 students are told a story about Jacquie, a young girl who overhears her best friend’s parents having a fight. Someone is hurt. Jacquie’s friend asks her to keep it a secret, but Jacquie is scared and worried for her friend.

    What could Jacquie do?

    The students work to recognise that sometimes it takes courage to ask for help, and to put into practice the skills of help-seeking. They learn the No, Go, Tell model, which teaches them skills for personal safety, and that it is important to “tell” rather than to keep secrets about violence.

    This is the kind of scenario Victorian students will be asked to contemplate by the time they have completed a new respectful relationships program developed by education experts at the University of Melbourne.

    The learning materials include lessons on emotional literacy, positive coping, problem-solving, help-seeking and stress management – laying the foundation for a focus on positive gender relationships. The age appropriate topics evolve in complexity as students move from prep through to year 12.

    Cahill and her team at the Youth Research Centre in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education study ways to improve the learning experiences and wellbeing of children and young people. In 2016, they were asked by the Victorian Department of Education to create a series of lesson plans and learning tools for teachers to talk about gender, sexuality, discrimination and gender-based violence.

    The result is the Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships (RRRR) learning materials, which are now being rolled out to an initial 120 primary and secondary schools across the state. They extend an earlier version of the program designed to teach children about self-esteem, problem solving and other social and emotional skills.

    “We build the social and emotional skills for positive relationships generally, with an additional focus on understanding how gender norms affect us, and on the importance of seeking help for those affected by gender-based violence,” says Cahill, who has been leading professional development workshops to help teachers introduce the program into their schools.

    Professor Helen Cahill

    Professor Helen Cahill, from the Youth Research Centre in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

    The learning materials come at a critical point for policymakers and institutions. High-profile incidents of violence against women and increased awareness of the issue have forced us all to contend with a darker side of Australian life, in which one in four women have experienced violence by an intimate partner.

    In August, the Human Rights Commission released a long-awaited, landmark study into sexual assault at Australia’s 39 universities, in which a high proportion of students who were surveyed reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment or assault of some form, on or off campus in 2016. The survey findings underscore the need for action on gender-based violence.

    While the majority of incidents occurred off-campus, one in four students reported being harassed while in a university setting, or while travelling to or from university.

    University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis AC has promised to use the findings to drive sustained improvements in the University’s culture, policies and practice. “Sexual harassment and sexual assault are unacceptable – every time,” he said in a video message to students and staff.

    Heading the University’s response is the formation of a Respect Taskforce to develop comprehensive strategies for achieving change, amid a range of training and educative initiatives and a more visible campus presence for anti-harassment messages.

    The RRRR learning materials, meanwhile, aim to encourage better behaviour and understanding of the issues from an early age.

    The initiative is supported by the Victorian Government, which set aside $21.8 million for prevention education and support services in schools in the aftermath of its Royal Commission into Family Violence.

    “This is a huge investment,” Cahill says. “There are very few places in the world where you can find such a comprehensive approach to improving awareness and services, and the provision of a curriculum all the way from foundation to year 12.”

    She says social and emotional learning and violence prevention should be addressed in schools, in addition to homes and the community at large, because young people are especially vulnerable to mental health issues, and need particular help to overcome the barriers to seeking help in relation to gender-based violence.

    “It’s also about getting them ready for adulthood, when they’ll be needing to look after their own affairs, needing to know how to reach out if something happens, how to set boundaries and manage themselves in increasingly complex relationships, including intimate ones,” Cahill continues.

    “The earlier we lay down the track, the longer lasting and better the results are.”

    So, how do you teach children about something as complex and challenging as gender, sexism and sexual assault, especially when adults are still grappling with those issues themselves?

    In the early years, Cahill says, students are taught to notice and appreciate difference. Teachers might start asking small children what kinds of toys tend to be given to boys and girls, and if boys and girls have to be limited by these options. They talk about fairy stories that feature damsels in distress or knights in shining armour, and consider whether girls, too, can do brave acts, and boys can also show vulnerability.

    Toward years 5 and 6, teachers work with children to talk about fairness, and human rights and the different ways that gender norms play out in their lives – how they dress, how they act and what options in life might be open to them. The emphasis is on opening up options for students, on questioning those gender norms that have limiting effects, and on challenging those that lead to harmful practices.

    As students enter their teenage years, they are taught about the prevalence of gender-based violence, consent, the legalities of sexting, and how to provide peer support and to set boundaries. Also, what to do if they – or someone close to them – experience harassment or assault.

    Andrew Musgrove, a PE and maths teacher at Hume Secondary College in Broadmeadows, in Melbourne’s outer north, has been working with earlier incarnations of Cahill’s learning materials for three years. He will teach the lessons on gender and gender-based violence for the first time in 2017, but he already pushes his students to question preconceived notions about what it means to be a man or woman.

    “When they ask me my favourite colour, I say it’s pink straight away. And they go, ‘that’s a girl colour’, and I say, ‘it’s my favourite colour and I’m not a girl’.”

    “Obviously the idea of gender is a lot more in-depth than that,” Musgrove adds. “But it starts with challenging the kids’ ideas of what’s normal.”

    Cahill says each school decides how best to provide for respectful relationships education and social and emotional learning within their programs, under the general guidance of the Victorian Curriculum. At Musgrove’s school, students in years 7 to 9 engage with the RRRR learning materials every fortnight.

    Hume Secondary College’s deputy principal, Kate McArthur, says Cahill has taught her and her staff that the learning materials needed to be provided in a collaborative and participatory environment, one that encourages role-playing, discussion or collaborative exercises.

    “It can’t be taught in the traditional way where the teacher stands at the front and puts stuff on the board,” McArthur says. “If they find themselves in a challenging situation, they need to have practised these skills beforehand.”

    Current and former students who have experienced sexual harassment or assault can contact the University’s Safer Community Program for information, support and advice.

    Visit email or phone +0061 3 9035 8675