How children are taught about sex, relationships and sexuality at school is shaping up to be a political hot potato in Australia (again). It’s already been slated to be an issue in the Victorian state elections later this year. That’s just a short time from being on the agenda during the same-sex marriage debate.
Now a radical shift in how children in England are taught about sex, relationships and sexuality promises to be the biggest reform of its kind in nearly 20 years (Wales, Scotland and Northern Island have their own education authorities).
Here’s what Australia can learn from the new English system, which proposes mandatory sex and relationships education across primary and secondary schools, inclusive of diversity, with age-appropriate content. There is, however, a clause to allow parents to withdraw their children from these classes, and for faith-based schools to continue to teach according to the tenets of their faith.
Why is England changing its approach?
Current English guidelines on sex education in schools, introduced in 2000, present heterosexuality as the “norm” of human sexuality, and explicitly restricts the “promotion” of diverse sexual orientations.
But the new guidelines are presented in a framework of equality and inclusion, with more balanced views of sexual and gender diversity. They have a particular emphasis on healthy relationships; safely navigating the online environment, including sexting, pornography, sexual harassment, and bullying; and will be LGBTIQ inclusive, aiming to prepare young people for their future relationships.
So, the proposed changes provide an opportunity to transform the experiences of young same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people at school. For the first time sexual diversity and issues relevant to LGBTIQ young people will be addressed in the curriculum explicitly.
These reforms also mirror change in other western European countries (such as Sweden and Denmark), where sex, sexuality and relationships education has become much more inclusive of diversity.
Together, these more progressive approaches acknowledge that, at the core of our identities are our sexual orientation, gender identity and the relationships we establish throughout our lives.
Meanwhile, in Australia …
In Australia, the approach is less progressive. Sex and sexuality education continues to raise anger from more conservative elements of the community. The public criticism of the Safe Schools program (which offers an opt-in model of inclusive sex, sexuality and relationships education) resulted in a fragmentation of sex education in Australia.
While marriage equality was seen as inevitable in Australia, there was less of a flavour for sexuality and gender education in Australian schools.
Fixing gaps in the curriculum
The Safe Schools program was designed and originally implemented in Victoria, and later rolled out to all of the states and territories. It was designed to fill the gap in inclusive sex education.
While sex education is addressed in the Australian Curriculum, and each of the state and territory versions of the curriculum, it’s only explicitly mentioned as part of health and physical education. So sex education is largely dealt with in biological terms (the mechanics of sex); healthy relationships are expressed in vague terms; and references to sexual orientation and gender identity are just as vague.
This leaves it open to teacher and school interpretation about how much detail to provide students about topics like changing identities and the factors that influence them (including personal, cultural, gender and sexual identities).
Unfortunately, many teachers are under-prepared by their pre-service teacher education courses to teach these topics effectively and inclusively.
In England, teacher education programs will need to adapt to the proposed changes and existing teachers will need professional development to adequately equip them for these reforms.
Australia hasn’t always been so conservative
Australia’s early response to HIV and AIDS is widely recognised one of the most effective in the world, despite using what some considered controversial strategies at the time.
These included condom vending machines, needle and syringe exchange programs and, perhaps most importantly, the risk factors for HIV transmission were discussed publicly in often explicit language.
This community-wide response to a health crisis included providing sex education in schools, despite many critics advocating abstinence as a solution to preventing HIV infection.
The fear associated with the AIDS epidemic receded as medication became available to treat HIV infection and limit the impact of HIV. Funding for public education campaigns become increasingly difficult to obtain and topics related to sexuality and sex education became less urgent.
And here we are in 2018 Australia, still coming to terms with human sexuality and how we teach our children and young people about this most human of topics.
The Victorian election and beyond
In the run-up to the Victorian election, there’s continued debate about the Safe Schools Program. The Victorian opposition promises to scrap the program should it be elected. Current Premier, Daniel Andrews, promises to keep it.
Bullying both at school and online and increasing rates of sexually transmitted infection in young people, indicate the situation is urgent.
Australian educators need to address these issues quickly and effectively if young Australians are to make informed decisions and choices about sex, sexuality, gender and relationships.
An alternative to Safe Schools?
If Safe Schools is a program governments don’t feel equipped to adopt because of conservative (or reactionary) forces, then a viable and inclusive alternative that represents the full spectrum of human sexuality and gender identity needs to be adopted.
As a society, we need to think of the best interests of young people and not be side-tracked into a cultural debate about political correctness. This does little but delay meaningful reform, such as in England, which promises to deliver inclusive and diverse representations of human sexuality and healthy relationships.
David Rhodes works for Edith Cowan University