Education unions urge governments to fund inclusive education

published 13 March 2023 updated 22 March 2024

“Unions are a place for inclusion”, Australian Education Union (AEU) Federal Secretary Kevin Bates told participants at the Diversity in Education Conference, a Sydney WorldPride event. Education unions from around the world took part in the Sydney WorldPride, a two weeklong celebration of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI)+ people.

The Diversity in Education conference was hosted on 28 February by the AEU and the New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF), with support from Education International. The conference was an international LGBTI+ forum for educators to create awareness and understanding of gains made by, and challenges facing, LGBTI+ workers within schools, as well as an opportunity to build community.

Furthering the rights of LGBTI+ students and teachers

Representatives from Education International (EI) member organisations, i.e. the AEU, the National Education Association (NEA)/USA, the Fédération syndicale unitaire-Syndicat national unitaire des instituteurs, professeurs des écoles et PEGC (FSU-SNUipp)/France, the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW)/Germany, the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association / Te Wehengarua (NZPPTA), the Educational Institute Of Scotland (EiS), the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)/Australia, the Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU), the Friendly Islands Teachers Association (FITA)/Tonga, and the Samoa National Teachers’ Association (SNTA), joined other activists, civil society members, and unionists to build solidarity and community and learn from one another on how to further the rights of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and other gender diverse students and teachers.

With plenary discussions, international panels, and over 25 workshops led by teachers and their union representatives, speakers offered insights on better protection of and respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and other gender-diverse students and teachers in schools. The role of unions in securing LGBTI+ rights, and strategies to build more inclusive unions were key themes as well.

During workshops:

  • NTEU shared their ongoing campaign to secure gender affirmation leave for workers.
  • IEU made a presentation on the role the union has played in supporting LGBTI+ staff and students in religious schools.
  • EiS described the role the union played in securing the rights of LGBTI+ students and teachers, including on obtaining the government’s 2021 national commitment to an LGBTI+ inclusive curriculum, the first country in the world to do so.
  • NZPPTA outlined the role of the union’s Rainbow Taskforce in providing trainings to teachers across the country on building more inclusive schools.
  • GEW shared strategies for supporting trans, intersex, and nonbinary students at school.
  • AEU Tasmania highlighted the role of union organising in fulfilling LGBTI+ rights.

It was clear that teachers play a critical role in the advancement of LGBTI+ rights in schools, just as unions play a critical role in securing the industrial and professional rights of LGBTI+ workers.

AEU President Correna Haythorpe told the conference: “We are committed to fighting for and protecting the industrial and professional and civil rights of our members and, indeed, the rights of all LGBTIQA+ people throughout the world”.

In order for educational settings to have a culture of support and inclusivity, she believed governments and their departments must take the lead and set the standard. “To build inclusive systems we must address the issue of resourcing,” she said.

Go Public! Fund education

Calls for greater education funding were made by EI President Susan Hopgood, who stressed that “dwindling government investments in public education translate into an education system that is fundamentally less inclusive, impacting the most marginalised and vulnerable”.

She highlighted tools that are crucial for the delivery of inclusive, quality education, including for LGBTI students, such as:

  • Comprehensive gender and sexuality education that is based on scientific evidence and human rights standards.
  • Pre-service and continuous professional development for teachers.
  • Resources for LGBTI student organisations in schools.
  • Inclusive curriculum, resources, and materials.

Hopgood also deplored the fact that education support personnel such as school counsellors or family social workers “are often the first to go when governments choose austerity over humanity”.

She went on to explain that, through the EI Go Public! Fund Education campaign, education unions around the world are joining forces to build inclusive quality public education for all: “We are mobilising to fully fund public education systems and resist budget cuts, austerity, and privatisation. Go Public! Fund Education is an urgent call for governments to invest in public education, a fundamental human right and public good, and to invest more in teachers, the single most important factor in achieving quality education.”

Teachers as agents for change

The special role of teachers was also celebrated by conference speakers. They said that, as educators, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and members of the global community, teachers play a critical role in promoting inclusion and diversity in their schools, and ensuring that LGBTI students and families feel safe, seen, and respected.

The Diversity in Education Conference was part of a larger programme during Sydney WorldPride, where participants both took time to celebrate the collective joy of the LGBTQIA+ community as well as to strategise and to learn from one another how the rights of LGBTQIA+ students and teachers can be furthered in our schools, communities, and unions.

Mardi Gras Parade

The festivities began with Sydney’s Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras Parade, where EI members marched to show their support for LGBTAIQ+ teachers and students. Sydney's 45th Mardi Gras was one of the biggest ever, according to organisers, with over 12,000 marching in the parade and thousands watching. The Mardi Gras Parade commemorates the Pride celebration in New South Wales in 1978, in which police attacked members of the LGBTQ+ community. The New South Wales Teachers Federation has participated in the Mardi Gras Parade for several years. As Deputy President of NSWTF, Henry Rajendra, explained, “it is important for our LGBTQIA+ families and students to see their teachers in the Parade as it reaffirms that teachers see and validate them”.

WorldPride Human Rights Conference

EI delegates also participated in the Sydney WorldPride Human Rights Conference, which was the largest LGBTQIA+ Human Rights Conference ever to be held in the southern hemisphere. In a three-day exploration of LGBTQIA+ human rights, participants reflected on where they were, their vision for the future and their legacy of change. Union delegates brought the voice of educators and unionists to the Conference.

Roundtables led by representatives from AEU, EiS, and GEW facilitated roundtable discussions on building inclusive education institutions. Strategies for collaboration amongst parents and teachers, and the importance of continuous professional development for teachers on LGBTQIA+ inclusion in schools were key issues discussed.

Hilario Benzon, Associate Director of the NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Department at the Center for Racial and Social Justice, gave a keynote address on Equality in education: creating safe spaces for teachers and students. He provided a glimpse into the anti-LGBTI+ and anti-gender legislation being introduced at a record pace across the United States, many of which directly impact curriculum in schools, school facilities, or school sports programmes. He also highlighted how so far in 2023, there have been over 327 bills introduced as “a coordinated attack against public education and the LGBTQIA+ community”. Benzon went on to explain the NEA’s efforts to resist these bills, through training and professional development of its members for the classroom, training on how to address local and state government bodies, messaging guides, and forging partnerships with other civil society organisations, amongst other initiatives. “Through all these attacks, we must continue on our journey towards freedom, liberation, and joy with no exceptions!” he continued.

Call to action

EI President Susan Hopgood stressed that “the collective strength of teachers, activists, and education unions means we can effect change even when governments are unwilling, unable, or hostile to providing quality education that is inclusive or ensuring equal access to human rights for LGBTI people. Let’s stand up to intolerance and discrimination whenever and wherever we see it. Let’s keep working to ensure our unions and schools are more LGBTI inclusive.”

The EI experience at Sydney WorldPride concluded with a powerful finish as delegates joined an estimated 50,000 people for a historic Pride march over the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was also the first time since 2000 that the bridge was closed for a march.

EI is looking forward to continuing this spirit of solidarity and joy at the next WorldPride, to be held in spring 2025 in Washington D.C., USA.