let's talk about sex

When it comes to relationships and sexuality education, the stakes are high. Get it right and kids will be armed with the information they need to make healthy choices throughout their youth and beyond. Get it wrong and it can have harmful lifelong impacts. As schools grapple with the content and delivery of sex ed classes in an ever-changing society, the question remains: are our kids being taught what they need to know? 

Relationships and sexuality education (RSE) is one of the key areas of learning within health and physical education in the New Zealand curriculum. Covering physical, social, mental and emotional wellbeing, it’s an important subject. Yet for many parents, the content and delivery of these lessons remains a mystery. And unfortunately, in many schools little priority is given to sex education. 

At intermediate level, students are likely to learn about their bodies and puberty. As they progress to high school, the topics include positive relationships, managing their health, contraception, online behaviour, coercion, and consent, among others. 

While the national curriculum provides an excellent set of guidelines and resources to support sex ed classes, incredibly, there are no requirements around what topics must be covered. It’s therefore up to individual schools to decide what and how they teach students, including deciding what is age appropriate and relevant. 

The flexibility of our curriculum means students around the country are having vastly different experiences learning RSE. In addition to concerns around inconsistency, there are other barriers and challenges to our children receiving high quality and meaningful RSE, a recent national survey found, including a lack of teacher training. Around the country, teachers are calling out for better training so they can walk into classrooms feeling comfortable and confident. 

From the parents’ perspective, there are concerns that our kids are learning too much too soon. A lack of transparency from schools around what their kids will be taught is further compounding the issue. We explore New Zealand’s relationships and sexuality education and talk to those affected – a parent, student, teacher, and expert – to get their views on this important subject. 

The parent

Paul Paynter was shocked to discover what his son learned in sex education classes at intermediate. After receiving an email to say the classes would be held, the Havelock father-of-two assumed they would simply cover the basics around bodies, puberty and sex. Instead, his son who was then aged 11, came home “totally freaked out” by the classes that included discussions on sex toys, porn (naming websites the kids were told they shouldn’t go onto), gender identities and the use of hormone blockers. 

The lessons resulted in a lot of confusion for his son, particularly around gender identity and left Paynter also feeling disturbed. “They were talking about all sorts of stuff that was way way way more detailed than I wanted to have him exposed to,” he says. 

In one lesson, within minutes of the teacher telling his son’s class not to go onto sites like Pornhub, one student had accessed the site on her phone. Paynter recognises we live in a different time to when he was taught sex education and the importance of evolving with a changing society, but finds the current approach deeply troubling. “The pendulum has swung way too far and too fast.” 

Paynter worries that we’ve moved from a relatively conservative approach to a “promotion of sexuality that’s something to rip into as soon as you can and have a great time kids”, which sends the wrong message. “There’s this idea that we can have universally pleasurable promiscuity and wonderful times from about the age of 14 it seems and there are no consequences – psychologically, emotionally, culturally, societally.” We need to be more gentle in our approach or everyone will pay the price, warns Paynter. 

Giving children information they’re not ready for, robs them of their innocence. Sex education classes should find a balance of content and delivery that caters to all children, not just the most mature students. Gender identity, for example, should be treated more carefully, he says. “What they’re doing now is promoting a myriad of paths for people in terms of gender identity and sexuality way before they’ve even come to one path … When you’re 11, 12, 13 you don’t need that and it isn’t helpful. I do think it’s an adult layer of complexity being imposed upon minds that are mostly not ready for it.” Paynter would also like to see more focus on emotional development, particularly the ability to form long-term relationships, that will build the structures of family and community. 

Yes, we need to have open, honest discussions that promote tolerance and acceptance of others. But the topics need to be treated gently, in a way that is age-appropriate, says Paynter. Based on his own children’s experiences, he’s concerned about how it could impact them and others. “They‘re asking to run a social experiment with my children. I don’t know what the outcomes will be but I’m anxious about those outcomes.” 

The student

Havelock North High School student Kate* (name has been changed) had relationship and sex education classes from the beginning of her high school career. Then aged 14, the lessons were taught once a week as part of the school’s health and life lessons and covered a broad range of topics as well as building on what she’d already been taught at intermediate. 

Kate found the classes comfortable and informative. “It normalised it quite a lot and the conversation around it. If you had questions about specific things you could ask anonymously,” she said. Students generally seemed relaxed in the classes, much more so than during earlier classes at intermediate that covered puberty, she says. “I don’t really feel like anyone was awkward or held back. It was just a safe environment to ask questions and just learn things. And most people were honestly pretty fine with it … it was just another class that we went to.”

The weekly classes also opened up conversations among Kate’s peer group she believes might not have otherwise happened. “I think everyone was pretty open to talking about it. It wasn’t really something that people felt they had to be quiet about, especially in my group of friends.”

Students learned about a broad range of topics, including consent, protection, STIs, birth control and emotional development. One class about the effects of alcohol and drugs on young people struck a particular chord with Kate. “I found it was really valuable information to have at a young age. It was a mix of things where I felt I already knew that and stuff that I wouldn’t have known.”

There’s little that could have been done to improve the sex ed classes in Kate’s view. The topics covered were relevant and age appropriate, as they expanded what they’d learnt at intermediate. “It slotted in quite nicely with our subjects and when people are finishing going through puberty.” While receiving some of the lessons from a specialist external teacher could have been beneficial, Kate says their teachers were well-equipped and engaging throughout. 

And she has no doubt about the value of good sex education. “I 100% think it’s important to have these lessons, otherwise some kids who don’t have any kind of parental support or something at home are the ones that are more likely going to end up with a teen pregnancy or an STI or something, are going to be quite uneducated on the subject. They won’t know how to handle it or what to do or what they could have done to avoid it.”

The teacher

Tamatea High School head of health, Annie Macfarlane has been teaching sex education for 23 years. Unlike previous generations, nowadays kids get their information about sex from parents, siblings or online – where it’s readily available and unregulated – says Macfarlane. As a result, when they start lessons at the start of high school their level of knowledge is often “all over the place”. 

At Tamatea High School there is a list of topics teachers cover in the classes, such as consent, what makes a good relationship and contraception, but this list is constantly revisited and adjusted to ensure it is tailored to the students in front of them. This is crucial as students’ knowledge and needs can vastly differ from year-to-year, she says. “One year the boys coming through had absolutely no concept that girls have a vagina so we had to do some work around how girls are different and this is why they’re different … the real basics that you would assume might be done in primary school. You can’t assume that.” 

Consultation with parents is an important part of the process. The school has previously tried information evenings and surveys via email, with little pick-up for either. Their most recent approach and by far the most successful, has been to hold a curriculum review dinner for students and their families and to discuss sex education as part of that. 

It’s hugely important for teachers to have a relationship with students before embarking on sex ed lessons, says Macfarlane. Lessons are never taught in term one as students and teachers need time to get to know each other and to develop trust. This creates an environment where students feel comfortable and supported.

When it comes to the way students respond to sex ed classes, there’s huge variety. “Some kids will say nothing, but take everything in. Some kids will sit there and do the work but they won’t make eye contact. Some kids really want to have all sorts of conversations.” The aim is to make classes accessible and relevant to everyone. Anonymous question boxes are a great way for students to ask anything that’s on their mind.

Macfarlane understands some of the topics that come up in conversation may make parents feel uneasy but strongly believes discussing whatever is on students’ minds in a safe environment is much better than the alternative. “Given the kids we’ve got today and what they’ve got access to I think we have an obligation to answer their questions as honestly as we can.” The aim is always to put kids on the right track by building their knowledge and understanding healthy relationships, she says. 

So, are kids learning what they need to know? The only way to know this is to talk to families, students and the teachers, says Macfarlane. There’s no doubt better teacher training would boost the value of lessons. Teachers are crying out for training on how to approach student questions, decisions on lesson content and how to tackle difficult subjects such as sexual violence, says Macfarlane.

She acknowledges the content and quality of sex ed relies on the school making it a priority. Many schools put the classes “in the too hard basket,” or combine them with PE. Currently sex education is taught as part of health and only taken in Years 9 and 10, after which many students don’t choose it or it isn’t an option at many schools. Sex education should be a subject in its own right, says Macfarlane, who advocates for it to be continued throughout high school as students’ needs evolve. 

The expert

Senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury and health education expert Dr Rachael Dixon knows more about sex education in New Zealand than most. Last year Dixon collaborated with Family Planning and the NZ Health Education Association on a nationwide survey of secondary schools’ teachers’ perspectives on teaching the subject. The anonymous survey included 197 teachers from single sex and co-educational state, state-integrated and private schools. 

The findings show that while there are positive aspects to our sex education, there continue to be gaps. The results weren’t surprising as they “confirmed what teachers have been telling us over several years”, says Dixon

Teachers reported they were covering a wide range of topics, which they feel confident about teaching. The positives start and end there unfortunately. A lack of time is a big issue, with teachers saying there is not enough allocated in the timetable to adequately cover the subject, to plan or to talk to other teachers to gain insight. Other major barriers included a lack of access to professional development, prioritising the subject and an inconsistent approach to sex education in schools. 

New Zealand’s flexible curriculum gives teachers a high degree of autonomy regarding the content and learning experiences of their lessons. But it can also have downsides, says Dixon. “Content should be based on what their learners are telling them that they want to learn about, but it also means it can be quite easy for some topics to be left out.”

When it comes to inconsistency, the quality of sex ed classes can vary between schools and within schools, depending on the teacher that’s teaching the class. Teachers are struggling with questions around what is appropriate to teach, and when and how to best serve the range of emotional and physical maturity in their classes. We’re lucky to have clear guidance and resources from the Ministry of Health to inform teacher planning but teachers need more training so they feel confident going into the classroom, says Dixon. 

A comprehensive approach to sexuality education has many benefits to young people by positively impacting their relationships with other people and society, she says. “We talk about sexuality education being able to develop knowledge, understanding, attitudes and values, and also skills that support people’s health and wellbeing.”

To keep students engaged, it’s critical that RSE is relevant to them. Dixon urges teachers to ask students what they want to learn and use this to guide planning, and to include a wide variety of genders and voices so young people can see themselves represented. 

All parents should feel informed about their school’s RSE lessons. “I would have thought that more than any other subject in the curriculum parents should be quite well informed as to what is being taught, when and how.” If there is a gap, it could be because schools aren’t approaching consultation in a way that’s working for parents, or parents aren’t engaged in the process, says Dixon. 

She also advocates continuing sex education beyond Year 10 as it currently stands. “It means they are missing out on really important learning.” Some schools are looking at ways to teach RSE at more senior levels, and this is a move in the right direction, says Dixon. 

Schools are doing their best to teach sex ed lessons that provide relevant, valuable information in a safe, comfortable environment and many students are benefitting from these lessons. But there is more work to do. 

Professional development is at the top of the list, so teachers feel confident and better prepared before they step inside the classroom. A lack of consistency also remains an issue. Students at side-by-side schools can receive a vastly different sex education, depending on each institution’s approach. Continuing lessons throughout high school that evolve with students changing needs would also better serve our young people, say experts. 

The quality of sexuality education has a long-term impact on the health and wellbeing of our children. It provides them with the knowledge, understanding and skills to develop positive attitudes and relationships as they navigate the world. It’s up to schools to reflect on their practice and consider how sex education can be responsive to their students by providing them with the information they need for life. 


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1 Comment

  1. It should be titled “A” parent’s perspective instead of “the” parent because that sounds like you interviewed just one conservative parent which is an unfair representation. Not all parents think the same way…

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