Consent and sexuality education
We’ve heard a lot of discussion in recent days about consent – what consenting to sexual intimacy really means, what young people are learning about consent at school, and what they need to learn.
Along the way young men and women have led much of this discussion, in public spheres and on social media. Understandably it has been with great feeling. Young women are saying they don’t want to be on the receiving end of sexual thuggishness, and many young men are speaking out, saying they want to make it clear to their peers that this isn’t okay.
So what is the education system’s responsibility in all of this? Are schools teaching about consent? What are they required to teach? What should parents be doing?
Teaching children and young people respect for others is a responsibility for all of us, particularly those of us who are parents. We pass on values through our words and our actions.
The New Zealand Curriculum recognises that schools have a special responsibility to work with children and young people on the skills they need to navigate the often difficult waters of interpersonal relations and sexual identity. That goes well beyond the mechanics of sex.
Sexuality education is a compulsory part of our health and physical education curriculum, which schools must deliver in Years 1 to 10. We expect schools to follow the guidance we issued in 2015, which spells out in detail what should be covered by sexuality education. For secondary schools, that detail sets out a clear pathway through topics that include consent, coercion and sexual violence.
This is tricky terrain, and one in which schools need to work in partnership with parents. Our guidance puts sexual identity and sexuality firmly in the context of relationships with others. It covers the skills of self-knowledge, assertiveness and caring that are central to healthy relationships. These are also skills they are learning at home, both in what they are told, and what they observe around them. Students also learn about personal boundaries in sexuality education. From the beginning, we expect schools to teach children to identify safe and unsafe touching and the importance of respect. By Years Six to Seven, students are identifying pressures from others and developing assertiveness strategies.
Any teaching programme must also tackle the fact that to understand consent, first you need to grasp empathy and respect for others’ feelings. So at the heart of sexuality education, again from a young age, is material on affirming the feelings and beliefs of others. Threaded through the New Zealand Curriculum as a whole is respect and caring for others.
Schools told us they needed guidance of this kind, and the feedback we are getting is that they are tackling these issues in their health curriculum. That’s not to say that teaching consent in itself will prevent every single instance of unacceptable behaviour. . The recent discussion about consent was initiated by online comments by a student at a boy’s school who discussed taking advantage of girls whilst drunk. That school had been teaching its students about consent. But while teaching consent in schools isn’t a silver bullet, it is an essential part of addressing unacceptable behaviour.
Should we go a step further and make teaching of consent compulsory? In our view, schools and parent communities need to jointly address young people’s health and wellbeing if that is to be more than just compliance with a regulation. We can provide the guidance, schools and parents make it real.
We encourage all schools to look at what they are doing on sexuality education with their parent communities. Equally this is a very good time to discuss consent at home, uncomfortable though it might be.
And if you’re not sure what your school is teaching on consent, and how closely it is following sexuality education guidance at each year level, then it’s a good time to talk to them too and ask for more information.
Schools are required to consult with their school communities every two years, or more often, about how they teach sexuality education. It is one of the reasons there is variation from school to school in teaching on this.
Finally, I want to thank those young people who are displaying impressive leadership in leading this debate, and making it meaningful. We can be sure this conversation will continue.
Karl Le Quesne, Deputy Secretary for Early Learning and Student Achievement
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