Credit: Ocean Design

Why ACC spending millions on ‘Mates and Dates’ undermines teachers

A new consent education programme for secondary schools is well-intentioned, but it’s $18 million that would be better spent on teachers, argues health education specialist Katie Fitzpatrick 

ACC have just announced they will spend a further 18.4 million dollars on a programme called Mates and Dates for secondary schools. Mates and Dates was launched in 2016 and is a series of five lessons covering issues such as consent and healthy relationships.

At first glance, it seems like this might be a good move. Young people need to learn about healthy relationships and respect, right? And teaching lessons in schools is a good idea to address issues of violence, is it not? Yes, young people do want to learn about sexuality, relationships, communication and consent. Research suggests that young people are already asking for more learning of this kind in schools. This learning also has a place in the curriculum within health education, and teachers are employed to teach health education in schools to all young people. The Education Review Office and the Ministry of Education recommend that young people have at least 12-15 hours of sexuality education in schools (as a part of health education classes), but teachers aren’t given the adequate support and professional learning required to keep these lessons up to date.

So, hang on a minute, why are ACC funding this programme if it is already included in the curriculum for teachers to teach in schools? ACC’s Mates and Dates programme is delivered by “outsiders”, who come into each school (at great expense) to teach the five lessons. This means that more than $18 million of public money is going to fund outsiders – not teachers – to teach this content. Wouldn’t it be better for ACC to fund professional development for teachers, and to support schools with providing those recommended 12-15 hours of sexuality education? Why does the Ministry of Education – and the minister Chris Hipkins for that matter – not have anything to say about this?

A stock image of a classroom

Here are some reasons why spending $18.4 million dollars on this programme is outrageous:

  1. Mates and Dates providers may have no connection to the school or community and have no responsibility for following up student complaints, questions or for providing support or pastoral care. They will come into the school and teach five lessons out of context and without any specified follow up (or capacity building).
  2. Teachers have had no meaningful, funded, national professional development in health and sexuality education for well over 15 years. Supporting teachers will ensure meaningful learning for years to come (not just one year).
  3. Mates and Dates is not proven to be effective in terms of linking to the curriculum or building capacity in schools.
  4. International research suggests that sexuality and health education are both important and sensitive subjects. They are best delivered by classroom teachers who are experts, well connected with their communities, and are able to provide pastoral support for students.
  5. The programme has been evaluated, with the evaluation throwing up issues with the facilitators not being able to “control” classes, the lack of curriculum links, and many teachers feeling it is inadequate and distracting

The sexuality and health education national experts group (of which I am a member) are strongly opposed to this initiative. In fact, the decision to expand the investment in Mates and Dates by such a large sum has come as a complete surprise to the health education sector. Key stakeholders and experts were apparently not consulted in either the development of the teaching resources, nor the teaching approaches used. I am aware of many teachers having contacted the New Zealand Health Education Association complaining that the programme does not connect well with young people, that facilitators are not trained teachers, and that the programme is inadequate in terms of content and curriculum links.

The real issue here is that we do absolutely need good quality sexuality and health education in schools. Best practice suggests those programmes should be year-long, taught by teachers, in consultation with communities, and linked to other forms of support in schools (such as counsellors and nurses) because teachers are able to develop long term relationships with their students. $18 million would buy a great deal of support and resourcing for schools and could make a long term impact. But not if it is spent on outside providers delivering five meagre lessons. This approach needs rethinking before the money is wasted.

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