by Paul Bibby
EVERY Tuesday afternoon during the first term at Matraville Sports High School, a group of young women take part in classes intended to boost their self-esteem. Some have personal problems, others have behavioural issues, while a few simply go because their friends do.
For the next two hours they learn a range of skills including how to put on make-up, do their hair and nails, and walk with books balanced on their heads.
The program, called Shine, was created by the Hillsong Church. It is being run in at least 20 NSW public schools, numerous small community organisations and within the juvenile justice system.
Hillsong describes Shine as a "practical, life-equipping, values-based course" and its website is awash with glowing testimonials from young women whose lives have been improved by learning about "being a good friend" and "learning about myself".
But serious concerns have been raised by teachers, adolescent developmental experts and parents groups. They say the program is inappropriate for troubled young women, that the under-qualified facilitators are reinforcing gender stereotypes. and that some parents have not been properly informed.
Shine was originally developed by the CityCare arm of Hillsong as an explicitly religious program. The church says it is now "community-based, not religious-based" but, as recently as 2005, promotional material referred to young women's "created uniqueness".
"Through skin care, natural make-up, hair care, nail care girls discover their value and created uniqueness," the material says.
The term has been omitted from more recent material but the beauty classes remain, as do etiquette and deportment lessons.
The program has set alarm bells ringing for psychologists such as Dianna Kenny, an adolescent development expert at the University of Sydney. "They are essentially saying you are not appropriate as you are and we're going to show you how to be appropriate," Professor Kenny said.
"We don't have control of our physical characteristics. To emphasise that takes away from the autonomy of people as individual human beings. That runs completely contrary to what we know about adolescent development.
"We do want our young people to feel good about themselves, but what [they] need is help from professional counsellors."
Most of the facilitators who deliver Shine in Sydney classrooms have no university counselling qualifications, although Hillsong says they must have some qualifications or experience.
In some schools, Matraville Sports High included, the program is run by careers or physical education teachers. At other schools, including Alexandria Park, Glenwood and Cheltenham Girls, it is run by young recruits from Hillsong's leadership college.
Schools pay Hillsong to run the program, with parents asked to pay for books and materials such as hair spray and make-up.
"Over the last two or three years teachers have been coming to us with concerns about Shine," said the president of the Hills Teachers Association, Sui-Linn White. "It is the gender stereotypes that they are imposing. The focus on skin care, nail care, hair care - it objectifies women … These are things women fought against for centuries - they've got no place in a public school."
One teacher from a Hills district school, who asked not to be named, said Shine facilitators had run activities that undermined other teachers. "They were asking the kids to talk about which of the teachers they didn't like."
He said parents may not have been properly informed. "I don't know whether the parents, knowing what we know now, would have put their kids in. I don't know whether the school would have hired them in the first place."
Parents groups from Queensland and the Northern Territory have complained that their schools have tried to sneak Shine in almost unnoticed.
"In our view, this is a way of getting religion into schools through subterranean means," said one parent, Hugh Wilson. "The principal or the chaplain decides it's a good idea and, next thing you know, your kids are being taught about make-up by the Hillsong Church."
The church says parents have been overwhelmingly supportive of the program.
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