Dr Grant Rodwell writes on the causes and impacts of 'moral panics' in school education policy

Dr Grant Rodwell. Picture: Supplied
Dr Grant Rodwell. Picture: Supplied

Damage done by a ‘moral panic’ to school communities and students can be lessened by understanding the motives behind such reactionary behaviour, a Tasmanian expert says.

Dr Grant Rodwell, a former Tasmanian principal and researcher at the University of Tasmania, has published a book, Moral Panics and School Educational Policy, investigating the causes and influences of moral panics in schools across Australia, America and the United Kingdom.

He said the intense social focus on topics such as same-sex marriage, Safe Schools, and Islamophobia have been shown to cause excess anxiety in schools, affecting students, teachers and parents in different ways.

Dr Rodwell said much of educational policy in Australia “is driven by moral panics” and follows a similar trend internationally.

Moral panics have been identified by social scientists since the 1970s as a sudden outburst of anxiety and outrage over a social issue. 

Dr Rodwell observed most of the moral panics about education policy are generated by ‘moral provocateurs’ who are not part of the education community, but are on the outside looking in.

“When you look at a moral panic and what it is, you find that these deep-seated things exist in society and all they need are certain people to prompt them, push the buttons and they re-emerge,” he said.

Dr Rodwell said that pushing-buttons effect was obvious in the same-sex marriage postal survey, as politicians weighed in on its potential impact in schools, without being part of the school communities they were discussing.

The ‘moral provocateur’ will perform a stunt or create outrage deliberately to gain the attention of the media.

‘Moral entrepreneurs’ are another key ingredient: people who will feed on the panic and continue to develop outrage, fear or drama, Dr Rodwell said.

He said each moral panic, regardless of topic, follows a similar pattern that, when identified, can be handled by schools to reduce the impact on their community.

“The first thing [in school communities] is to understand what constitutes a moral panic – who are the provocateurs, who are the entrepreneurs, what’s the motive of the media … and what’s the motive of the politicians,” he said.

“If you’ve understand that, you’ve gone a long way in understanding the moral panic and you can understand it a bit better.”