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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsFebruary 22, 2024

Here’s exactly what students are required to learn in sex ed

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The guidelines for relationships and sexuality education are set to change, thanks to NZ First. So what’s actually in them?

One of the promises in NZ First’s coalition agreement with National reads, “Refocus the curriculum on academic achievement and not ideology, including the removal and replacement of the gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education guidelines.” 

On Monday, Christopher Luxon promised “there will be sex ed” at the post-cabinet press conference, in response to a question stemming from his booing at Big Gay Out. Plans for removing and replacing the guidelines did not make the 100-day plan and have not been finalised, but have come under fire from educators and across parliament benches since at least November last year. NZEI Te Riu Roa president Mark Potter has said the push for change is coming from “conspiracy-based thinking” and Labour education spokesperson Jan Tinetti has connected them to “an imported culture war.” On Sunday, Labour launched a petition to protect the Relationship and Sexuality Guidelines.

Which leads to an obvious question: what’s actually in them? 

First of all, it’s not all about sex. Relationships and Sexuality Education is much broader and goes well beyond the physical. The guidelines support a holistic approach based on a hauora model, which includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. They’re intended to do much more than ward off STIs, encompassing friendship, safety, and critique of media and social norms. 

Relationships and Sexuality Education is taught from year 1. There isn’t a set curriculum; each school creates its own. Schools are expected to consult with their community every two years on the delivery and contents of their health curriculum, of which it’s a part.

In 2020, the Ministry of Education introduced guidelines to support schools with their programme. They are an updated and more focused version of guidelines first published in 2002 and revised in 2015. The update was informed by an awareness of changing family structures, shifting social norms in relation to gender and sexuality, and the rise of social media, digital communications and devices. 

Funnily enough, though they’re now maligned by NZ First, they were introduced by a NZ First MP, then-associate education minister Tracey Martin.

Here’s what’s in the guidelines: 

Years 1-3 (5-7 years old)

Students begin RSE in their very first year of school. First they learn to identify body parts, then about hygiene and appropriate touching. They’ll learn that bodies are diverse and change over time, and about human reproduction.

Through games and activities, they can learn how to show respect for themselves and each other. They should understand what consent means in a range of contexts, and be able to give and receive it at places like the doctor, playground and online.

Students will learn to express and manage their feelings and needs, and be able to listen and recognise the feelings of others. They should learn how to engage positively with others. They should know about belonging, roles and responsibilities, how to ask for help, and stand up for others (for example if there is bullying).

Students should learn that personal identities differ. They should be able to identify gender stereotypes and know the difference between gender and sex.

A key learning outcome is having students analyse representations of sex, sexuality, and relationships on social media in terms of their impacts on relationships and wellbeing (Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

Years 4-6 (8-11 years old)

In the later years of primary school, it’s advised that students learn about puberty. They should understand that it’s different for different people, and that there’s social, emotional and physical needs associated with its changes.

Socially, students should understand different types of relationships (friendships, romantic, whānau, etc) and how these can influence wellbeing. They should know some skills to address relationship challenges.

Consent, pressure, coercion, and rights should be understood by students and they should develop skills for giving or withholding consent, staying safe and engaging respectfully. Students should know a range of health and community services and have strategies for seeking help.

Out in the world, they should understand how school and community contexts (eg, school procedures and rules, sports and physical activities, and community facilities and environments) link with people’s gender and sexual identities; and can take action for inclusion.

They should be able to identify connections between people’s wellbeing and media representations of relationships, gender, and bodies.

Years 7-8 (12-13 years old)

At intermediate, lessons about puberty continue in more detail. Students should learn about hormonal changes, menstruation, body development, and the development of gender identities, and about how pubertal change relates to social norms around gender and sexuality. They should be able to make plans to support their own wellbeing and that of others as they navigate these changes.

Students should be taught to understand various differing approaches to conception and contraception and how these relate to social norms, choice, consent, and wellbeing.

They should learn tools to manage intimate relationships and relationship changes. They should have knowledge of rights and responsibilities, the need to give and receive consent, the need to make informed choices, and to communicate assertively.

Students should know how to access help for themselves and others, know about a range of strategies and resources that support health and wellbeing, and understand how these can enhance wellbeing, mitigate risk, and support gender and sexual identity. They should be able to identify connections between people’s wellbeing and representations of relationships, gender, and bodies. 

The guidelines insist on a whole-school approach, with school policies for inclusion and diversity. (Photo: Getty)

Years 9-11 (14-16 years old)

In the first years of high school, students should learn about a range of cultural approaches to gender and sexuality and how these relate to holistic understandings of wellbeing. They should be able to examine how gender and sexual identities can shift in different contexts and over time, and understand how these identities can be affected by relationships, family, media, popular culture, religion, spirituality, and youth cultures.

In their relationships, they should develop skills like effective communication, a strong personal identity, assertiveness, giving and receiving consent, dealing with pressure, demonstrating care and respect, decision making, problem solving and considering risks and safe sexual practices.

Students should understand how ideas about love, intimacy, attraction, desire, romance, and pleasure can affect wellbeing and relationships. They should recognise how different values affect people’s behaviours in intimate relationships and develop interpersonal skills and plan strategies for responding.

They should be able to analyse representations of sex, sexuality, and relationships (in social media, advertising, and entertainment) in terms of their impacts on relationships and wellbeing, and use a range of strategies to take action when these affect their own wellbeing or that of others.

Students should understand school and community policies and events that support sex, gender, and sexual diversity, and know how to support these policies. They should be able to critique heteronormative messages and practices in the school or community and recommend actions to address these.

Students should learn to compare concepts of love, attraction, romance, pleasure, and consent from different perspectives and in different situations, and can take ethical standpoints considering different values.

High school students should be taught to plan actions to enhance communication and wellbeing in situations involving alcohol and other drugs, say the guidelines (Photo: Getty)

Years 12-13 (17-18 years old)

In their final years of schooling, students should learn how sex, gender, and sexuality might change through life. They should understand changes relating to fertility, menstruation, and menopause, and explore the impacts of people’s choices relating to sexual health (eg, choices about using contraceptives, hormone blockers, or drugs, and about dealing with STIs). They should be able to make strategies to meet their current and future sexual health needs.

Students should be able to reflect on their personal identity (including gender, sexuality, body, ethnicity, culture, location, ability, and age) and explore identity politics and related issues in diverse contexts.

Senior high school students should be able to identify risks in intimate relationships in online and offline environments, and be able to explain their personal values and needs (eg, in relation to dating, the influence of pornography, or issues of consent). They should be able to explore desire, pleasure, consent, and attraction as interpersonal, social, and ethical concepts, and plan to actively promote positive, equitable, and supportive relationships.

In their friendships, partnerships, and social interactions, students should be able to plan actions to communicate effectively and look after their wellbeing (including online and in situations involving alcohol and other drugs). 

Students should be able to analyse a range of issues (eg, online dating, pornography, fertility treatments, contraception, environmental impacts of menstrual products) that affect relationships, gender identity, and sexuality and then advocate for sexual and environmental justice and for inclusive cultures.

Should all this be left to parents?

On Monday, Luxon repeated his line that certain things should be left to parents, one he’s often turned to when questioned on this subject. Apart from the biannual consultation with their communities undertaken by schools, parents already have the final say. They can withdraw their children from all or part of relationships and sexuality education by advising the principal in writing, and teach them what they want at home.

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