Bi, gay, queer, questioning? What's it to you?

10th December 2010 at 00:00
Canada: A school board's pupil survey asks questions about sexual orientation that many feel are none of its business

The government of Canada, citing the intrusive nature of asking how many toilets there are in your home, recently ditched the centuries-old long-form census. But the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), in Canada's capital, seems to have no such qualms about asking for personal information on its pupils.

The soon-to-be-rolled-out student survey, with its long list of questions, including sexual orientation, has sparked serious concerns over how much information education leaders want to hold on students.

All pupils are first asked to indicate their ethnic background from 14 categories, subdivided into a bewildering 87 sub-groups.

Pupils aged over 13 are then asked whether they are: bisexual, gay, heterosexual, lesbian, queer, questioning, transsexual, prefer not to disclose, or two-spirited (a term used by native Canadians to denote bisexuality).

The survey has prompted irate calls to radio talk shows and letters to newspaper editors from parents and pupils claiming the questions are "none of the school's business".

But the OCDSB claims it is part of its efforts to better understand and serve its students. "To meet our goals for each student, we need to know our student population," says Barrie Hammond, the board's director of education.

"Having a clear understanding of the language spoken at home, what the cultural norms are and number of years students have been in our jurisdiction helps us better understand the make-up of our student body. We have more than 70 different languages spoken in homes and a wide variety of ethnic origins."

A similar survey by the Toronto District School Board led to the creation of schools that focused on athletics or music and academies for male and female pupils, as well as programmes designed to help visible minorities succeed in school.

But critics are also wondering why the survey is confidential rather than anonymous. Each response will have a number, which is keyed to the student who answered it.

"To understand school climate, we need to be able to break out the school stats by school level in order to support kids," says Mr Hammond. "For example, if there were students at a particular school who did not feel welcome based on their group, then we would take measures to address that."

Ottawans are also concerned about the reliability of at least one of the questions on the survey given to pupils in junior grades.

In an attempt to ensure that schools and learning materials are inclusive, the survey asks "how often are people of different backgrounds and abilities seen andor included" in posters, books and videos, school staff and council.

However, since the question is a difficult one for six to 11-year-olds to answer, the board asks parents to help their children with the question - raising concerns about whose views the survey is really collecting.

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