There is growing call for national standardisation of sex and relationship education as rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) continue to rise among young people.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has developed the draft Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education, which outlines the development of a national syllabus for foundation through to Year 10.
The draft paper outlines areas of learning, which include mental and sexual health, building satisfying relationships, making health-enhancing decisions, and how factors such as gender and sexuality influence health and wellbeing.
In response to the paper the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition launched a survey in May, aimed at young people aged 15-29, to uncover how they accessed information about sex and relationships, what they want to be taught, how they think it should be delivered and by whom.
Coalition deputy director Maia Giordano has said the findings should prompt policy makers to redress the gap in sex and relationship education.
“Young people have the most to lose when the curriculum is developed in a way that is detached from their needs,” Giordano said.
“Inconsistency in how sex education is being taught is linked to the rise in STIs amongst young people.”
Family Planning Queensland also supports changes in school curriculum policy.
The organisation’s education and community services director, Cecelia Gore, said cohesion between jurisdictions would provide a platform for effective STI prevention programs, which had not been achieved by other health and education strategies.
“For Queensland there is no mandate sex education curriculum. There has been virtually no direct investment in recent years for on-the-ground implementation of effective (STI) programs,” Gore said.
“The national strategies similarly mention the importance of education and prevention with no buy in or sign up from the departments responsible.”
The Federal Government launched the Second National Transmissible Infections Strategy 2010-2013 in response to the increase in STIs and blood borne viruses.
The strategy focuses on preventing and managing STIs among priority groups, of which young people are included.
The strategy also indicates committed leadership and effective partnerships between health and education departments is a priority.
Ongoing and enhanced sex education within schools “as an integral part of the school curriculum” is also “strongly recommended” within the document.
As well as suggestions the Government has not delivered on its strategies, policy makers have been criticised for the way they approach sex and relationship education.
Australian Council of Natural Family Planning sexual health educator John Shay said the promotion of preventative measures such as condoms has given young people mixed messages.
“Teenagers have this concept that if they wear a condom they’ll be perfectly fine, because we’ve sold this safe sex idea. Where as it’s not safe; it’s safer,” Shay said.
“There is much more to (sex and relationship education) than putting some sort of temporary safeguard in place to prevent STIs.”
Cherish Life – a pro-life organisation based in Queensland – president Teresa Martin has also raised concerns about the Government’s disease-prevention approach.
“The only way to safeguard against STIs is to not engage in sexual promiscuity,” Martin said.
“My concern with the national curriculum is that there would be a very strong pitch towards contraception instead of understanding the value of a human person and that waiting would be a good idea.”
Giordano has condemned the idea that young people should be taught not to engage in sexual activity.
“We know that message doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked with alcohol and doesn’t work with sex education,” Giordano said.
“If you’ve got a school just focusing on abstinence; when young people get to a certain age and they’re wanting to explore their sexuality, (their education) is not based on reality.”
Shay said although values-based sex and relationship education was necessary, a national curriculum based on values would be difficult to regulate.
“Focusing on values is tricky because whose values do you take?” Shay said.
“The Government will probably end up approaching the new curriculum from a health perspective but even this carries values. By teaching boys to wear condoms you’re already assuming they come from a values-base that allows that.”
Giordano has suggested that inconsistencies in sex and relationship education are not just about what and how young people are being taught, but where and from whom young people are getting their information.
“Research suggests that young people do go to their mums. As research and trends change they’re not necessarily the best ones to pass on current information,” Giordano said.
“There should be a standard across all schools so that (teachers) are adequately resourced to teach it.”
Martin has rejected suggestions that teachers are better placed to teach children about sex and relationships.
“Parents do a better job of training their children than what the Government could ever do. Parents communicate feelings, values and consequences more effectively than a paid employee who is basically teaching the mechanics of sex,” Martin said.
Gore and Giordano have said another gap in the curriculum was in relation to minority groups and young people who are otherwise disadvantaged.
Gore said that Queensland’s “demographically dispersed population” made it difficult for young people – who live in regional areas or in poverty, have a disability or are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – to access appropriate information.
Giordano said many sex and relationship programs were focused on heterosexual relationships and were therefore not inclusive.
“As a rule we know that young people who are same-sex-attracted or are sexually diverse are feeling excluded and not learning the information they need to engage in safe sex practices and healthy relationships,” Giordano said.
A spokesperson for the curriculum authority said the organisation welcomes comment from educators, parents, students, and stakeholders working within the health and physical education field.
“Health and physical education is an important part of the curriculum. We’re here to work with groups to develop an Australian curriculum that represents all of their feedback,” he said.
The health and physical education curriculum is in public consultation until June 3.