Introduction by Croakey: The Federal Government this week removed two videos designed to teach children and teenagers about consent, following widespread criticism from both Liberal and Labor state governments.
As the ABC reported, the videos — one involving a milkshake and the other a metaphor of shark-infested waters — were labelled as “woeful” and “cringeworthy” by State Education Minsters and widely criticised by health and social policy advocates.
In the article below, Monash University academic Dr Ruth Walker reports on research on teachers’ perspectives of sexual and reproductive health education in primary and secondary schools and a national survey of secondary students.
They found that both students and teachers need to be involved in its design and teachers to be equipped to deliver it in Australia’s under-resourced classrooms.
Dr Ruth Walker writes:
The Federal Government recently funded the development of consent education resources that are completely out of touch with students and teachers.
These resources have just been launched. The video clips involve bizarre metaphors for consent and cringe-worthy ‘That ‘70’s Show’ acting narrated by an old man with a pompous English accent. What went wrong?
Due to the outcry from students, teachers, experts in sexual and reproductive health, both sides of politics and the general public, two of the most criticised resources were removed from the Good Society website earlier this week.
Funded by the federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment, the Good Society provides resources that promote respectful relationships.
To the government’s credit, teachers, parents and carers have free access to these resources. On the flip side, what we have witnessed is a reported $3.8 million that could have been better spent.
Last month, Victoria’s Acting Premier and Education Minister James Merlino announced that all students in Victorian government schools will receive consent education from this month.
One may ask, ‘Isn’t consent being taught already?’
However, regardless of what is mandated or how much money the government throws at sexual and reproductive health education, including consent, it will never be effective if students and teachers are not involved in decision-making around this issue.
What should guide consent education?
Our research indicates that the provision of evidence-based and consistent education around consent is, ‘easier said than done.’
This is because of the complexities of providing sexual and reproductive health education in busy and under-resourced school environments.
If consent education is mandated for all students, more must be done to ensure that the education provided is acceptable to students and achievable for teachers.
A national survey revealed that many students are critical of the current provision of sexual and reproductive health education in Australia.
Students want clear messages about their sexual and reproductive health. They are happy to receive this from their teachers and external providers.
The needs and expectations of students must be prioritised in the development of sexual and reproductive health education resources that are co-designed with students, teachers and health experts.
Co-design is when all stakeholders are involved as equals in the design of a product or solution, though care must be taken to acknowledge and mitigate the power imbalances that may occur in co-design with young people.
The voices of teachers must also be considered as we urgently strive towards excellence in sexual and reproductive health education in Australia.
Teachers understand what actually happens in their classrooms. They know that our current sexual and reproductive health curricula (national and state-based) looks very different on paper compared with what is actually provided to students for a range of reasons.
Classrooms are a cauldron bubbling with students’ and teachers’ personalities, emotions, interests and agendas. Teaching can get messy sometimes, especially if sensitive topics are the focus. We must listen to teachers’ views of what is workable and what isn’t.
Needs and abilities of teachers
Our research found that many teachers are well-equipped and confident to deliver sexual and reproductive health education but others remain untrained and unqualified.
Yet, these teachers who lack training and confidence are often ‘obliged’ to teach sexual and reproductive health to fill their teaching loads and to address staffing and timetabling issues.
One teacher we interviewed reported that being equipped to provide advice and education around sexual and reproductive health should be considered part of teachers’ ‘duty of care’ for students.
Another issue raised by teachers is that our current sexual and reproductive health curricula (national and state-based) is from Foundation to Year 10.
This means that students aged 15 to 18 years are likely miss out on sexual and reproductive health education at a critical time in their physical, social and emotional development.
Finding time to provide sexual and reproductive health education in students’ final two years of schooling may be considered a barrier by many schools.
We have found that a whole school approach that prioritises student sexual and reproductive health as a part of overall health wellbeing can facilitate a sexual and reproductive health education program that teachers consider to be beneficial and that students enjoy.
Another teacher we interviewed summed up this issue, saying:
I’m so passionate about teaching it well because the implications of not teaching it well can last forever. So that’s why I’m really passionate about getting it right in school.”
Students, teachers and health experts should be involved in the co-design of sexual and reproductive health education.
All teachers should receive basic training in sexual and reproductive health so that they are equipped and confident to manage issues that arise in the classroom or during extra-curricular activities such as school camps and excursions.
This training could be provided as part of schools’ established in-service training programs.
The gap that currently exists in sexual and reproductive health education for students in their final two years of secondary school must also be addressed. This can occur when school communities recognise sexual and reproductive health to be a crucial aspect of students’ overall health and wellbeing.
Dr Ruth Walker is a teacher and academic with expertise in women’s reproductive health, Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation, Monash University.
The author reports no conflict of interest.
The research referred to in this article was conducted by a team led by Associate Professor Jacqueline Boyle (Academic Gynaecologist, Deputy Director of the Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation, Monash University) and Associate Professor Deana Leahy (Faculty of Education, Monash University). Funding was provided by The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre and the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Preconception and Pregnancy.