Headmasters Blog

International Women's Day 2022 – Breaking the Bias

How Scotch College teaches respect and consent

 This year’s International Women’s Day 2022 theme – #BreaktheBias – reminds us of the challenges that women face in our society and the role that we all play, as individuals and as a community, in breaking these biases.

Inequality and the structures that support it are often invisible and we are all responsible for recognising our own biases and for taking action. The following statistics outline just a few ways in which girls and women experience harm and discrimination.

Key facts

Taking a stand

As a single-gender boys’ school, it is particularly important that we take a stand in addressing gender inequality. In 2021, we saw many women demonstrate how far we have to go. They stood up to powerful institutions, told their own stories and empowered others to share theirs in turn. It was a seminal moment for schools when Chanel Contos instilled a change that I hope will continue, and certainly a change that Scotch wholeheartedly supports and is committed to being part of.

After Ms Contos’ Teach Us Consent website presented undeniably concerning accounts of female students’ abuse and mistreatment by male students, we, as a school, reflected on how we can be part of a better future. Our 2021 Captain of School, Josh Ledger, spoke about how respect – and breaking the bias – starts small; in the way that boys speak to girls and women and how they speak about them; in not letting your friends’ derogatory comments slide.

Reverend Gary van Heerden discussed how “the mistreatment and abuse of women by men in this country is nothing less than a pandemic”. As he noted, one in three women will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, which is simply not unacceptable. I said this at Assembly and again to the media at the time: respect and consent are not negotiable, and those at Scotch who fail to meet these standards will be judged accordingly. But conversations and passionate speeches are not enough – change requires action.  


Consent in the curriculum

At Scotch, this starts in Junior School, where our students learn consent right from the start in our Early Learning Centre. They learn what it means to ask for and give consent to join in games, share toys, or take photos. Our Scotch Junior School team, led by Head of Junior School, Maria Hodges, has also worked closely with our sister school, Presbyterian Ladies’ College, to produce a dedicated curriculum that builds children’s understanding of digital technology to help keep them safe.

In our Primary Years Programme, we teach the Keeping Safe Protective Behaviours curriculum, empowering our students to know they have the right to always feel safe and that they are the “boss of their bodies”. Our relationship with PLC is integral to this, and our junior students spend time with their sister school peers at least once a term to develop healthy relationships that we continue to grow over their school life.

Creating a safe forum to share

In Middle School, this curriculum expands as students learn to recognise abuse and understand their rights, responsibilities and ethical behaviour. In Year 8, we introduce students to ‘circle conversations’. Facilitated by Scotch’s Chaplain, Reverend Gary van Heerden, these forums see students become witnesses to the stories of their peers, in a model that is largely used to discuss issues of discrimination and respect. In a circle conversation, the facilitator interviews a student as those in the circle listen; the participant and witnesses then swap places, recounting what it meant to hear the initial conversation and reflecting on their own experience; finally, the facilitator and participant return to the middle of the circle to reflect on the witnesses’ shared thoughts.

In Senior School, the focus on respectful relationships and consent increases. From Years 9 to 12, students undergo multiple programmes covering sex education, consent and the law. We hear from staff and students in Chapel, Assembly and House Room and invite guest speakers to discuss digital safety, images and consent and the problem with pornography. This year, we are also pleased to launch a new programme with PLC that will see student leaders from both schools use circle conversations to discuss issues of identity, respect and consent.


A responsibility for all

While there is much we do in a school environment, it is important to remember that teaching healthy relationships also takes place in the home. Schools have increasingly assumed much of the responsibility for teaching respect and consent, among other key life skills. But this work can only go so far, and parents must play a role. The values that we teach at Scotch must be mirrored by parents and our wider community. Ultimately, creating a fair and respectful society is a responsibility for us all.

Like most institutions, Scotch is not perfect, and we must continue to strive to be a leading organisation on social issues. The concept of masculinity itself is changing, and respect and equality are something that we as a school, community and individuals must remain committed to. As our 2021 Captain of School Josh Ledger said, respect and change start small. Women face discrimination in our communities, in the workplace and in our schools. It is up to us to break the bias.

Dr Alec O'Connell

Dr Alec O'Connell FACE, FAIM, FNAAUC

As Scotch College's 7th Headmaster, I focus on preparing boys for life through focusing on values and cultural alignment.

I am a passionate educator focussed on student and community engagement. My goal as a Headmaster is to graduate future thought leaders who are prepared for life after school.

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