For everyone Trigger warning: keeping the curriculum safe

Who is responsible for curriculum content – and what happens when it inadvertently triggers a vulnerable student, asks HEATHER GALLAGHER.

It’s period six on a Friday and you have put an equation up on the whiteboard for your Year 12 maths class when you become aware of a possible situation. You forge ahead, thinking perhaps you’re overthinking it – but the next thing you know, a student is in tears.

The student in this scenario was my child. Still recovering from an eating disorder, they were distressed by this maths question from independent education supplier Edrolo:

At the beginning of a weight-loss program, Sam weighed 96kg. After the 15th week, he weighed 84kg. Assuming his weight loss was linear, how much weight did Sam lose each week?

 Unfortunately, this was just one of numerous triggering examples in Edrolo’s resources, in which questions referred to weight loss, junk food consumption and exercise. Here are just a few of the opening sentences for Year 12 maths problems: 

The regulars at Moe’s Tavern were unhappy with their health and collectively decided to lose weight.

Sebastian was trying to become healthier and lose weight, so he decided to begin an exercise program.

The scatterplot shows the relationship between the waist measurement and weight of a group of men. 

According to the Butterfly Foundation, enquiries for their school services were up by 150% in the first term of 2021.

It raises important questions about who is responsible for creating and overseeing the educational content that’s put in front of our kids. What sort of quality control systems are in place?

According to the Butterfly Foundation, a national charity devoted to Australians affected by eating disorders, enquiries for their school services were up by 150% in the first term of 2021, compared to pre-COVID Term 1 in 2019. Butterfly education services manager Helen Bird says it is critical for curriculum producers, exam boards and educators to review content to ensure it doesn’t inadvertently do harm.

“Any curriculum or exam content which asks students to calculate or explore BMIs, body measurements, calorific content, calorie expenditure, or explore dieting or diet trends can be incredibly triggering for a young person experiencing an eating disorder and may drive disordered eating behaviours in vulnerable young people,” she says.

It is concerning that it took a parent’s complaint to highlight these issues to a company that describes itself as a trusted source for teaching and learning.

More than a thousand schools across Victoria, NSW and Queensland use Edrolo, with 90% of schools in Victoria signed up for the company’s resources. When I contacted the company as a parent back in September, I was told they would keep my concerns “top of mind as we review these and create any new content in the future”. 

This year, when I followed up my original request, Edrolo’s recently appointed communications manager Clinton Milroy informed me that my original complaint prompted the creation of a taskforce. A new content audit checklist now ensures materials are “sensitive and appropriate”. The weight-related problems I listed above have been removed from the website and the senior maths text is being scrutinised before its reissue next year.

Edrolo’s co-founder Jeremy Cox said the company was committed to improving its quality assurance processes. “We have developed a content audit guide, to prompt our authoring teams to identify and review content that may be sensitive or triggering in terms of, among others, wellbeing and mental health, gender, race, disability or violence.”

It is concerning that it took a parent’s complaint to highlight these issues to a company that describes itself as a trusted source for teaching and learning, with a “systematic, innovative, and research-led approach” to designing its resources. 

“The department does not have a relationship or contract with software provider Edrolo.”

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which declares itself to be “the authoritative source of advice on, and delivery of, national curriculum” referred me to the federal education department. The federal education department said it was a matter for the state education departments. A Victorian education department spokesman said that schools were responsible for the curriculum content they provide to students.

“The department does not have a relationship or contract with software provider Edrolo,” he said. “Schools must ensure the teaching and learning resources they use are challenging, engaging and age-appropriate, with content that is not offensive to students or the wider school community.”

While schools have autonomy in selecting appropriate resources, principals cannot reasonably be expected to review all content prior to distribution. Nor can we expect teachers to take responsibility for redacting content in textbooks and test papers.

I can’t help thinking that if I hadn’t complained, Edrolo’s content would have remained unchecked. Surely, if curriculum content is being outsourced, it is up to ACARA and the education department to create checks and balances that will keep our children safe.

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