03 Mar Should relationships and sex education be mandatory in our schools?
Relationships and sex education became compulsory throughout schools in England at the beginning of September 2020. In primary schools, the course will focus on relationships, while secondary schools will include topics such as managing intimate relationships, consent and online behaviour.
Schools — including government, independent and faith-based — must also develop a specific relationships and sex education policy that reflects their community and involves engagement with families.
England is now in line with countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and certain regions of Canada where government commitment ensures widespread, evidence-based relationships and sex education.
In contrast, Australia’s relationships and sex education response is not clearly directed or regulated. Its delivery varies widely and often fails to support the personal and social development of young people.
Why do children need relationship and sex education?
There is a wealth of evidence relationships and sex education in Australia is not meeting the needs of young people.
Young people need skills and information to navigate puberty, engage in respectful relationships (romantic or otherwise), practise safer sex, and control when and if they become pregnant.
Young people’s engagement with media and technology also means they need education on how to be critical consumers and how to interact safely online.
They need to understand how sexual behaviour can affect their mental health, and to know about the support services available to them to manage their sexual health.
There are many other reasons why Australia’s young people need better education in this area, including:
- many Australians don’t identify as cisgender or heterosexual. Sex education must recognise and celebrate identities related to gender diversity and same-sex attraction (or asexuality), not pathologise them (intersex variations are also relatively common and poorly discussed)
- young people are exposed to many negative online experiences such as cyberbullying from peers or being contacted by strangers
- Australia experiences high levels of dating violence, intimate partner violence and family violence
- young people experience disproportionately high rates of STIs and many pregnancies in Australia are unintended
- more than 30,000 of Australian children experience abuse or neglect every year
- various gynaecological health issues (such as endometriosis) are poorly understood and take years for formal diagnosis.
Students in a 2016 online survey of more than 2,000 students across 31 secondary schools in South Australia and Victoria said learning at school focused too much on biological aspects like bodies, bugs and babies. Many asked for more information on diversity, relationships, intimacy, sexual pleasure and love.
Evidence shows many schools don’t affirm all genders and sexualities and provide limited support for marginalised groups such as Indigenous young people or those with special educational needs.
What will the course look like in England?
Under England’s new policy, primary schools focus on relationships. Students should develop an understanding of families, friendships, respectful relationships and how to stay safe (offline and online). This complements the science curriculum which requires instruction about body parts, human development (including puberty) and reproduction.
Primary schools can then opt to provide additional sex education tailored to the age and maturity of their students, which may help with the transition to secondary school.
In secondary schools, lessons build on these topics in an age-appropriate way, with further instruction on general sexual health and the management of intimate relationships. Topics here can include consent, considering the influence of alcohol or other drugs, sexting and other online activities, and skills to reduce the risk of sexually transmissible infections or pregnancy.
All schools must also ensure:
- relationships and sexuality lessons are appropriately resourced, staffed and timetabled
- content is accessible for students with special educational needs. This is critically important as these students are most vulnerable to exploitation
- discussions about diversity of gender and/or sexuality are fully integrated into lessons
- the curriculum is complemented and supported by the broader school culture and engagement with community
- families are informed about lesson content and encouraged to discuss topics with their children.
What is Australia doing?
The national Australian curriculum, which provides guidelines for states and territories to adapt, isn’t clear on what the subject needs to teach. For instance, curricula in Victoria and Western Australia make no reference to terms such as “contraception” or “sexually transmissible infection” despite these terms existing in the national curriculum.
Clearer articulation of the relationships and sexuality curriculum would ensure consistent delivery across all schools.
An Australian survey reported most relationships and sex education teachers felt confident to teach general knowledge. But they were less confident in teaching about feelings, values and attitudes related to relationships or sex, or promoting risk-reducing behaviour. They were also unhappy with the level of training, resources, and external support networks provided to them.
There are currently no minimum standards to ensure a teacher is appropriately qualified before delivering relationships and sex education. But many non-government groups, and some universities, work to support trainee and practising teachers in this area. Others support schools to ensure the delivery of relationships and sex education that is comprehensive and aligns with the specific needs of each school community.
There is some level of government regulation in certain jurisdictions. Lessons focused on respectful relationships have justifiably attracted greater support in recent years, resulting in some states either mandating (Victoria), rolling out (Queensland) or trialling (WA) various programs.
Victorian government schools are also required to provide free menstrual products to students.
What Australia needs to do
There is an abundance of support materials schools can use to deliver content about relationships and sex. But we need further materials that best support marginalised groups. Those working with students from diverse cultural backgrounds or special educational needs are often left to adapt mainstream lessons with limited support.
We must not forget the importance of retaining lessons about biological concepts — such as growth and development, puberty, the menstrual cycle, reproduction, and sexually transmissible infections. But students also need to develop skills to critically evaluate media and seek help from professionals. All these topics, collectively, meet international guidelines for effective delivery.
The lack of well-defined and tightly regulated legislation, at both a state and federal level, impacts our ability to effectively meet the needs of young people. Our governments need to closely observe the regulations in England (and elsewhere) and implement similar measures in Australia.
If you or someone you know needs more information
– Kids Helpline has many great resources for young children and teenagers, with respect to sex and relationships
– The eSafety website is a resource to help Australians stay safe online
– Talk Soon. Talk Often is a resource to help families have discussions about relationships and sex with their children.
Jacqueline Hendriks, is a Research Associate and Lecturer at Curtin University