It’s back to school on sex ed­u­ca­tion

Rotorua Daily Post - - Nation -

In 2007, I fin­ished high school. He­len Clark was the Prime Min­is­ter. Ev­er­more’s song Light Sur­round­ing You was the sin­gle of the year at the New Zealand Mu­sic Awards (then held at the Aotea Cen­tre). Brit­ney Spears shaved her head in the mid­dle of a pub­lic melt­down. Lorde turned 11.

It was also the year when the cur­rent New Zealand cur­ricu­lum was im­ple­mented.

A lot has changed since then. Same-sex mar­riage has been le­galised. On­line porn has ex­ploded. The term re­venge porn (un­for­tu­nately) has en­tered our ver­nac­u­lar. Send­ing nude pho­to­graphs has be­come an en­tirely un­re­mark­able part of many re­la­tion­ships (or flir­ta­tions). Un­so­licited dick pics have be­come a (re­volt­ing) thing.

The land­scape that teens are ne­go­ti­at­ing when it comes to re­la­tion­ships, sex and sex­u­al­ity is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to that older gen­er­a­tions have nav­i­gated. And I in­clude my­self in that state­ment. I may be (just) south of 30, but I had a charmed, in­no­cent, rose-tinted ride com­pared to my younger peers.

In the UK, there is some recog­ni­tion of the fact that sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion, as pre­scribed by their cur­rent cur­ricu­lum, is largely out­dated. The Bri­tish Govern­ment has re­cently re­leased a new draft re­la­tion­ships and sex ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum. Con­sul­ta­tion on the doc­u­ment has just closed, and it has drawn both vo­cal sup­port and op­po­si­tion from var­i­ous quar­ters.

Talk­ing to teenagers about sex is al­ways a sen­si­tive sub­ject. It al­ways in­spires strong re­ac­tions. But it is too im­por­tant a con­ver­sa­tion to shy away from. The very first col­umn I wrote for this news­pa­per was about sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion. Since then, I’ve co-pro­duced a web­series on the sub­ject and writ­ten a book that delved into the sex­ual land­scape young peo­ple face, which in­cluded an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the re­search around young peo­ple and porn. It’s a sub­ject close to my heart, be­cause I know that our cur­rent sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion frame­work is fail­ing a num­ber of Kiwi stu­dents. I be­lieve it’s time that we fol­lowed Mother Eng­land’s lead, and up­dated our own cur­ricu­lum.

Why? Be­cause the world has changed rather a lot since I was at school, and the cur­ricu­lum hasn’t kept pace. There is not one men­tion of LGBTQ+ (nor the words those let­ters de­note) in the 2007 cur­ricu­lum, for ex­am­ple. Nor is there a sin­gle men­tion of the word con­sent. The lan­guage used is broad and avoids any­thing even close to the dreaded com­pul­sion. Legally, schools are given the scope to de­cide what they teach, which leaves open the op­tion for avoid­ing con­tro­ver­sial top­ics. Even if those same top­ics will be near im­pos­si­ble for teenagers to avoid in the real world.

The Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion has long held that the cur­ricu­lum’s open­ness to in­ter­pre­ta­tion is a strength rather than a weak­ness, but in some ar­eas — par­tic­u­larly sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion and the his­tory of New Zealand — I would ar­gue that it in­stead rep­re­sents a fail­ing of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Un­der the cur­rent leg­is­la­tion, some schools are do­ing a won­der­ful job, but some are equally do­ing a ter­ri­ble job, but well within the law.

It is true that there are sup­port­ing doc­u­ments that go along­side the cur­ricu­lum. One such text, re­leased in 2016, pro­vides guid­ance on teach­ing stu­dents about di­verse sex­u­al­i­ties and con­sent. It is a de­tailed re­source that of­fers clear sug­ges­tions for what should be cov­ered as part of Health teach­ing. Why then can’t it be adapted, given le­gal clout, and merged into the cur­ricu­lum proper?

None of this is meant to crit­i­cise health teach­ers. Most health teach­ers are do­ing a fan­tas­tic job, but there are those who ei­ther work in school en­vi­ron­ments where re­stric­tive regimes hin­der their abil­ity to en­gage with par­tic­u­lar ar­eas of sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion, or whose own views in­ter­fere with the scope of teach­ing their stu­dents re­ceive. Stan­dar­d­is­ing the cur­ricu­lum would re­move those bar­ri­ers and en­sure greater qual­ity con­trol.

More time also needs to be de­voted to health teach­ing.

Cur­rently, stu­dents are likely to spend an hour per week in health class com­pared to four to five in English and maths. Health teach­ers are not given any­where near enough time to teach their stu­dents about vi­tal top­ics. While lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy are un­doubt­edly im­por­tant, so is learn­ing about re­la­tion­ships and well­be­ing. While I’ve never used any­thing I learnt in maths from year 9 on­wards, I use con­cepts and skills that I learnt in health al­most ev­ery­day.

Un­like some of my peers at other schools, I was lucky to have great health teach­ers, but my health ed­u­ca­tion still missed some cru­cial points. When I was at school, for ex­am­ple, there was lit­tle, if any, men­tion of same-sex at­trac­tion or re­la­tion­ships. The sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion I re­ceived was ex­clu­sively het­ero­sex­ual. Statis­tics tell us there will have been LGBTQ+ stu­dents in my class. In­deed, though I didn’t prop­erly un­der­stand it at the time, I was one of them. I’ve of­ten won­dered whether I would’ve un­der­stood my sex­u­al­ity ear­lier had I re­ceived more in­clu­sive teach­ing.

Anec­do­tally, I’ve heard from stu­dents and par­ents that there are still schools in 2018 at which LGBTQ+ re­la­tion­ships and at­trac­tions are ex­cluded from sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion teach­ing. And it’s not only health classes that should be scru­ti­nised.

It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the whole school — ev­ery class, ev­ery teacher and ev­ery board of trustees — to cre­ate a safe and in­clu­sive en­vi­ron­ment.

The prob­lem isn’t that health teach­ers are do­ing a bad job. It’s that the stan­dard varies con­sid­er­ably at each school. The sys­tem, as a whole, is fos­ter­ing in­equal­ity in the qual­ity of sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion that Kiwi stu­dents are re­ceiv­ing.

Which is, frankly, un­safe. Our young peo­ple are liv­ing in a more dan­ger­ous sex­ual land­scape than their par­ents and grand­par­ents. Be­tween eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble vi­o­lent on­line porn, in­stan­ta­neous im­age­shar­ing tech­nol­ogy, scan­dals like that in­volv­ing Welling­ton Col­lege, the in­fa­mous Roast Busters, and some of the worst sex­ual vi­o­lence statis­tics in the OECD, I’d have thought that we should be do­ing ev­ery­thing that we can to make sure that our young peo­ple are safe and happy. It’s time we put their safety be­fore our pearl-clutch­ing squeamish­ness. Be­cause oth­er­wise, our kids will con­tinue to fall through the cracks.

"The land­scape that teens are ne­go­ti­at­ing when it comes to re­la­tion­ships, sex and sex­u­al­ity is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to that older gen­er­a­tions have nav­i­gated."

A modern cur­ricu­lum needs to shine a light on all as­pects of sex­u­al­ity.

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