Recent media coverage has called for improvements to relationships and sex education in schools, with a specific focus on consent. Over the past two years Council has been calling for Comprehensive evidenced-based Relationships and Sex Education (CRSE) in ACT public schools.
This advocacy journey began when we invited Churchill Fellow Katrina Marson to present her research findings: Ignorance is not Innocence: Safeguarding sexual wellbeing through relationships and sex education at our AGM in November 2019. Katrina has extensive experience as a criminal lawyer specialising in sexual offences (prosecution and defence), law reform and policy as well as earlier academic research into sexual violence prevention.
The evidence base
Katrina’s research explored different comprehensive relationships and sex education (CRSE) programs in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States. At her presentation, Katrina explained the positive impacts a comprehensive evidenced-based relationships and sex education framework has. This includes promoting wellbeing, self-management, healthy relationships, reducing sexualised violence, and protecting against negative sexual experiences. Katrina’s research found that to create the benefits a CRSE must:
- meet the needs of all students, including those with special education needs and disabilities
- engage parents and carers early
- explicitly teach protective behaviours including body autonomy and consent consistently from preschool
- be delivered by educators with specialist training
- be accurate and age appropriate
- be positively role-modelled in everyday school life
- be embedded in expectations for school communities
- be supported by all school staff
- be integrated into school life rather than taught only in specific years
- be evaluated against accountability mechanisms.
Sex ed in ACT schools
Currently, the Australian Curriculum requires relationships and sex education be delivered in specific school years. In the ACT we know that public schools may fulfil this requirement in a number of ways including procuring specialist services to provide incursions or by teachers developing their own content. Irrespective of the current approach in ACT public schools, the research clearly demonstrates a more comprehensive, consistent approach to relationships and sex education is needed.
From working with our members, we know that relationships and sex education is an area which parents and carers can find emotive and difficult to navigate, and around which different parents hold strongly varying views, a wide range of beliefs and detail-specific concerns. Despite all of this, research clearly shows that evidenced-based relationships and sex education has many benefits (as detailed above). For this reason, Council is calling for a comprehensive evidenced-based relationships and sex education framework in our schools, carefully tailored to the needs of students at each school level. At several of our meetings, this direction was discussed and supported.
Following this work, Council continued to work with our members to create a Relationships and sex education policy which was formally discussed and adopted in September last year.
Forming an Alliance
Since Katrina’s presentation in November 2019, Council has been working with key players who contribute via research, advocacy, teacher training and health education programs to support ACT students and parents. This group is now known as the Relationships and Sexuality Education Alliance of the ACT (the Alliance), of which Council and Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT (SHFPACT) are members.
The Alliance aims to ensure that all students and young people have access to comprehensive relationships and sex education as human and educational rights.
It is also clear that to be successful, a schools-based relationships and sex education framework must include and engage parents early on. Whatever our individual views, beliefs and frameworks, research shows that what is taught in schools needs to be supported and reflected broadly through the community, with parents and carers having a critical role to play. The more parents and carers can understand the evidence base behind what is taught, and the importance of what is being aimed at, the more comfortable and supportive they are likely to be (more on this in upcoming issues!).
Council looks forward to supporting the work of the Alliance with our members including an upcoming launch.
This article appeared in ParentACTion Magazine, Term 2, 2021.