Sexuality education hit the headlines again yesterday. I usually cringe when I see sexuality education in the media, because the media tend to usually take a shock! horror! perspective, that is usually unjustified. (I have written about this before here for some background).
Yesterday's story in the Sunday Star Times arose out of a statement on a true/false quiz presented to students at an Auckland intermediate school - the statement read: "If a boy has no hair on his chest, he is homosexual."
Before we jump on the OUTRAGE! bandwagon, I think the story needs to be critically examined.
Sure, in isolation this statement looks an odd thing for a group of 11 year olds to be dealing with. But we need to consider this statement in its context: I imagine the quiz used was similar to this one recommended on the Ministry of Education’s website. The statement would have been part of an activity to get kids talking and to stimulate discussion of myths surrounding our bodies and sexuality. The students would have gone through the statements with the teacher and critically analysed each one, deciding whether there was any measure of ‘truth’ in them. Presumably, the statement in question would have been debunked by the teacher and a discussion could have ensued about how people’s bodies are very diverse, but sexual orientation has no bearing on physical characteristics. This is an important discussion to be had, as many students this age have absorbed a message that homosexual people are inherently different to heterosexual people in many ways other than simply preferring a particular gender/sex for their romantic partner.
Rather than the SHOCK! HORROR! response that intermediate students were exposed to the notion of ‘gay’, I think we need to focus on the secondary message contained in the article: that many New Zealand teachers are under resourced and undertrained to teach sexuality education. The Education Review Office 2007 report on sexuality education in New Zealand backs this up, stating that “The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” Many teachers have completed their teaching qualification with very little instruction on sexuality education (and sometimes none at all). Then they begin their teaching career and are expected to teach sexuality education, with no professional development offered. And, as this article points out, usually with very few resources. The Principal in this article stated that the reason they were using a Johnson & Johnson quiz was because there was a lack of resources from the Ministry of Education. What other subject in the curriculum needs to rely on a multinational corporation for teaching resources?
(Note that Family Planning do provide a number of quality resources and I would recommend teachers check these out before deciding to use commercial “free” resources)
As was also mentioned in the article, every school is required to consult with the community every two years about sexuality education, so parents are aware of what is being taught. A number of people I know have expressed surprise at this comment, as they have never been consulted by their children’s school. This consultation process is really important and it goes some way in avoiding panicked parents calling in the media. I really encourage parents to view their school’s sexuality education policy, and to participate in the consultation process when (if?!) it occurs. You can see what each school is required to do here.
Unfortunately, articles such as the Sunday Star Times' do nothing to increase teachers' confidence in their ability to teach sexuality education. (Which, it should be noted, is a compulsory part of the curriculum until Year 10). Many teachers find teaching sexuality education challenging anyway, the last thing they also need to be worrying about is the media jumping in and creating a moral panic about what is happening in their classroom. Schools need to work with their teachers and families to ensure that quality sexuality education is available to every child in New Zealand.
***I am really interested in learning about how different schools go about the sexuality education consultation process. I would love it if you could leave a comment or contact me regarding whether you are aware of a consultation process occurring at your school, and if so, how it is done. Many thanks!
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.