View from here - Bi, gay, queer, questioning? What's it to you?

17th December 2010 at 00:00
A school board's pupil survey asks questions about sexual orientation that many feel are none of its business, Nathan Greenfield reports

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 seems to have no such qualms about asking for personal information on its pupils.

A new 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 among 14 categories, sub-divided 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 talk radio shows and letters to newspaper editors from parents and students claiming these questions are "none of the school's business".

But the school board 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 in home, what the cultural norms are and the 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 Board of Education led to the creation of schools that focused on athletics or music, and academies for male and female students, as well as programmes designed to help new Canadians and visible minorities succeed in school.

Ottawans are left wondering, however, about the reliability of the survey. In an attempt to ensure that schools and learning materials are inclusive, one of the questions given to junior grades asks "how often are people of different backgrounds and abilities seen andor included" in such things as posters, books and videos, school staff and council.

However, since the question is a difficult one for 6 to 11-year-olds to answer, the board asks their parents to help their children with the question - raising concerns about whose views the survey is really collecting.

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