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What parents really need to know about the ERO sex education report

The Education Review Office has released a new report on sexuality education in New Zealand schools. It’s important that parents read beyond the more sensational media headlines, writes Family Planning national health promotion advisor Amanda Hargreaves.

The first review of sexuality education in New Zealand schools since 2007 is out. For experts in this field, its findings are no surprise.

Many children are being let down by not having a consistent and good quality of relationship and sexuality education. All children, of all ages, need this education. This will look different obviously at each level, depending on age and stage.

It’s important that parents (I’m a parent and teacher myself) keep things in perspective and read beyond the media headlines. Much of the coverage of this report will be about pornography and sexual violence – it’s vital that we talk about this, but we mustn’t lose sight of the big picture: children are not getting the good quality relationship and sexuality education that they desperately need it. Just one fifth of schools in New Zealand are delivering consistent and effective programmes in this area.

Sexuality education is far more complex than the mechanics of sex or talking about pornography.

Relationship and sexuality education should start early – the simple mantra of “my body, my choice” can be taught from a very early age. Talking about friendships and caring for our bodies is something many parents are already doing with their children. Schools and the wider community can, and should, support this kaupapa.

Family Planning CEO Jackie Edmond said on release of the report that our children and young people deserve better. They need better.

“Young people need to be able to make responsible decisions about relationships and sexuality. They need to be equipped to manage the complexities of online interactions and consent.”

We know parents agree with this. We all want our children to feel safe, be safe and have healthy relationships. Why then, are we still here waiting for good quality relationship and sexuality education in schools?

The answer is complex.

Because relationship and sexuality education spans a number of sectors – education, public health, violence prevention – it’s vital to have a strategic and integrated approach at the national level.

The report identifies the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health as critical stakeholders. They should provide leadership, accountability and coordination of funding and resources.

Parents have a powerful voice in this discussion. We can ask for better resources, more funding and support for our teachers, and a collaborative and community-driven approach to relationships and sexuality education.

Teaching our tamariki about healthy relationships is a collective responsibility. As parents, we can talk to our children about their needs, our board of trustees or teachers about what they’re delivering, and our communities about how to support this kaupapa.

We must voice our expectations as parents and support our school and community to make a difference in the lives of all young people.

Children keep telling us: educate us early before social media does. They’re voicing loud and clear that they want information about gender identity and diversity. They want help to make sense of what they’re seeing online. They want help to work out how to negotiate friendships and relationships.

Research shows that when people have access to high-quality relationship and sexuality education as well as health services, they’re more likely to have positive and safe relationships, delay having first-time sex, use condoms and contraception, and seek support when needed.

Reading a headline that says “teach kids about porn” isn’t what relationship and sexuality education is about. This report is telling us something our children and experts in this area agree on. We need to get this right.

Are we going to listen to our children? Are we going to listen to the experts?

And what is at stake if we don’t?

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