Sexuality issues – not just sex education – must form a part of schools’ health and physical education curriculum, argues Victoria University expert Libby Paterson 

‘Rape culture’ and ‘consent’ are front and centre in all forms of media at the moment and the role schools, parents and whānau should play in educating our students is being widely discussed. But what should or could sex(uality) education in schools look like in an ideal world?

Let’s be clear: sexuality education, not sex education, is part of New Zealand schools’ health and physical education (HPE) learning area. Holistic sexuality education is not just the biophysical aspects around sex, puberty and reproduction, but also the importance of relationships, feelings of self-acceptance, and tolerance for diversity in sexuality and gender. As such, it is well positioned to address issues of rape culture and consent through quality teaching and learning.

New Zealand state and state integrated schools are underpinned by the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, within which HPE is one of eight learning areas.

Sexuality education is a key element of HPE and in 2015 the Ministry of Education published a revised Sexuality Education: A guide for principals, boards of trustees, and teachers to support schools.

The Education Review Office has identified that schools with effective programmes spend at least 12–15 hours a year on sexuality education, and significantly longer in the case of senior secondary programmes. Where does this time come from in our already busy schools?

The reality is that time is precious in both primary and secondary schools and the focus is often on assessment and progress toward National Standards and the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. The pressure is real, with outcomes scrutinised by everyone. As a result, health and sexuality education is often marginalised and teachers experience challenges in implementing effective programmes, including receiving sufficient professional development in the area.

At the same time, research shows classroom teachers play a central role in health and sexuality education. Although external providers can be used as support, one-off speakers from outside a school are not as effective.

The New Zealand Curriculum is a framework curriculum and does not specifically prescribe content; the Sexuality Education guide aligns with other aspects of the Curriculum and suggests ideas for teaching and learning for levels 1–8.

Teaching about rape culture, consent, pornography and other issues needs to be connected to the underlying concepts and objectives of the HPE learning area as a whole.

Rape is not addressed directly in the Sexuality Education guide, but students from a young age are taught about developing positive relationships, expressing needs and feelings, listening to others, critiquing gendered and sexualised media images and stereotypes, and identifying rights and responsibilities in relationships.

The guide is thorough and well-scaffolded. The key is the ‘how’: putting students at the centre, building on prior knowledge, empowering them, providing them with agency, helping them to deconstruct social messages and to be able to critically reflect on and discuss many of the issues facing them.

It is no longer about just transmitting knowledge and hoping they will be safe.

Schools are at the beck and call of attending to many of society’s ills, as well as political and government interests. Because they have a captive audience — with students spending six hours a day in their environment — there is the view that they can fix social issues. Much research has been written about these ‘invaders’ in the school space.

But health and sexuality education is much more than an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff responding to the latest incident. And we all have responsibilities for it.

Each Board of Trustees, through its principal and staff, is required to give students in years 1–10 effectively taught programmes in all learning areas. A further responsibility under the Education Act is to consult with the school community on the way health and sexuality education should be implemented.

So there is your chance to be involved and help shape the health and sexuality programme in your child’s school.

It takes a whole village to raise a child — what role will you play, be it in school or the community?

We should be advocating for more time for quality health and sexuality programmes, not only in schools but also in our wider school communities and society as a whole.

Behavioural change takes time.

Libby Paterson is a health curriculum course coordinator at Victoria University of Wellington

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