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Australian parents want schools to teach more sex education topics and teach them from a younger age


Decades of research have shown that when relationships and sex education are delivered properly, it can improve the sexual, social and emotional health of young people. It can also lead to better study results.

But also research shows schools fear that parents and families will revolt if they give too much detail in their sex education programs.

So it is important that schools know what Australian parents actually think and want when it comes to relationships and sex education.

Us recent research surveyed Australian parents about what schools should teach and when they should teach it.

The History of Sex Education in Australia

Sex education in Australian schools has a long and complex history. Propelled by the HIV and AIDS pandemic of the early 1980s, programs often focused on preventing sexually transmitted infections, leading many of us to tough lessons, such as how to put condoms on bananas.

Lessons about our changing bodies, menstruation and pregnancy prevention were also common. For many, the only time we might see our school nurse was that one time they came into class to put a tampon in a glass of water – much to the horror of anyone who should be using one.

More recently, schools have covered a wider variety of topics to reflect the modern problems of young people. Among other things, attention is paid to permission. Age-appropriate consent education will be compulsory from 2023, from first grade through year 10.

However, the actual delivery of relationships and sex education in Australian schools is still very varied. And students often tell us that the content they get is non relevant. This is in stark contrast to the UK, where relationships and sex education became mandatory in 2020.

Sex education has passed from the days when it was just a condom demonstration with a banana.
Natalia Vaitkevich/Pexels, CC BY-NC

What should good sex education meet?

According to international research, schools should teach a wide range of sexuality-related topics from the earliest years. Previous approaches that relied heavily on fear or risk should be avoided. Instead, the focus should be on well-being.

To give children and young people the information they need to be safe and healthy, a good relationship and sex education should include:

  • name all body parts without shame

  • learn about the social, emotional, and physical changes associated with puberty

  • developing a healthy body image (this includes learning that our genitals all look different – and that’s okay)

  • skills for making decisions about sex and relationships, how to communicate effectively with friends or partners

  • how to navigate online spaces safely, including understanding the impact pornography can have on how we view sex

  • gender stereotypes and how they are problematic for everyone

  • skills to maintain healthy relationships and how to participate in sexual practices as safely as possible

  • confirmation of LGBTIQA+ diversity and

  • trusted places to look for support or get more information.

Read more: Netflix’s Sex Education does sex education better than most schools

Our research

Us new research project set out to find out what Australian parents think about school relationships and sex education through an online survey.

More than 2,400 Australian parents were surveyed by the end of 2021. They represented all states and territories, and their children attended both primary and secondary schools.

All school sectors – government, independent and Catholic – were represented.

What should students be taught?

Overall, 90% of parents in the survey agreed or strongly agreed that schools should teach relationships and sex education.

Parents also rated a list of 40 sex education topics, from correctly naming body parts to sexting and masturbation. They were then asked whether such a lesson was appropriate for the school class.

A hug from a young couple.
The parents surveyed overwhelmingly wanted schools to teach relationships and sexuality.
Savannah Dematteo/Pexels, CC BY-NC

Across all 40 themes, there was strong support for schools to address each of these issues. In most cases, the support was more than 95%. Some of the most supported topics were peer pressure, communication skills, and puberty-related changes.

Support was lowest for topics such as pleasure, masturbation, pornography, gender stereotypes, gender identity and sexual orientation. However, support for these topics still ranged from 83% to 92%. This confirms other recent research, which showed that Australian parents are strongly in favor of schools that teach about gender and sexuality diversity.

When should students be taught?

Parents in our study were also asked to indicate which grade level each subject should be introduced to first.

Most parents thought that a small number of subjects could be easily started in elementary school, while the remaining subjects would be deferred until middle school. Elementary school topics included bodily autonomy and personal boundaries, personal safety (or prevention of child abuse), and correct names of body parts, including genitals and changes associated with puberty.

Interestingly, their preference was for more sensitive lessons, such as reasons for whether or not to engage in sex, safer sex practices, sexting, contraception and pornography starting in Years 7 and 8. This is an important finding, as we know that many schools wait to teach much of their sex education until ages 9 and 10, according to guidelines from the Australian curriculum.

While most parents rated the current quality of relationships and sex education at their child’s school as between good and very good (58%), 21% felt it had not been taught by their school at all, and 12% did not know what their school actually delivered.

Read more: Relationships and sex education now compulsory in English schools – Australia should do the same

What happens now?

Our study clearly shows that the vast majority of Australian parents surveyed want schools to offer a truly comprehensive relationship and sexuality programme. Yes, there is public support to cover consent – ​​as it should be. But parents also want many things to be taught at school without permission.

Despite a vocal minority that might criticize certain lessons, schools should be confident that most families are behind them. In many cases, they actually want these subjects introduced in earlier grades.

Two teenagers sit close to each other, read and drink coffee.
Parents want schools to teach a wide variety of relationship and sexuality topics.
Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels, CC BY-NC

Schools can benefit from consulting with their parent organizations and developing a specific one school policy about relationships and sex education. Any policy must be strongly evidence-based, but it will also benefit from input from staff, students and parents.

Our curriculum writers also need to be sure to include terms like “sex,” “birth control,” “pornography,” “gender diversity,” and “sexual orientation” in their educator guidelines. For too long there has been a reluctance to give clear instructions to schools about what exactly should be taught. This lack of clarity along with insufficient teacher traininghas had a major impact on our ability to conduct relationships and sex education across the country in an effective and uniform manner.

Young people have one right learn about their bodies. And Australian parents want schools to play their part in this.

Talk soon. Talk often is a resource to help families have discussions about relationships and sex with their children. Slow manners yarn is a similar resource for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

The author wishes to acknowledge her co-researchers: Katrina Marson, Jennifer Walsh, Tasha Lawton, Hanna Saltis, and Sharyn Burns.

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

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