Editorial: Dodging tricky issue a tragic error

Last updated 05:00 10/03/2014

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Sex education in schools is a hit-and-miss affair, and it needs to change. All schools teach the subject, but the practice is "patchy", according to an important study last year by Parliament's health select committee. It recommended major reform and a much more liberal approach to the whole issue. These changes were clearly needed.

But now the Government has given a lukewarm and disappointing response.

The main problem is that teachers of sex education vary widely in their skills, both within schools as well as between them. Sex education is "a lottery", according to Associate Professor Penni Cushman of Canterbury University's College of Education. And poor education is one of the causes of our high rate of teenage pregnancy - third in the OECD behind the United States and Chile.

The Government, however, has reacted weakly to the proposals for change. The committee wants all schools to adopt within two years a best practice model as recommended by the Ministry of Health in 2008. The Government makes no commitment to the goal or the deadline. It merely notes that all schools have to teach the subject and that it will give "consideration" to the Health Department criteria. This is feeble and suggests that once again the politicians have dodged the tricky issue of sex. All the evidence suggests that sex education needs to be taught in an open, liberal, inclusive way. Too often it is taught by a physical education teacher with little knowledge and often a half-hearted or even embarrassed attitude to the subject. This will change only if there is a rigorous programme of training and monitoring.

Unfortunately, the Government has fudged the other important recommendation, which is for the Education review Office to be much more rigorous in its treatment of sex education. The committee wanted ERO to report within three years on whether the schools were meeting best practice and the needs of all students. The Government's response is mealy-mouthed and evasive. It amounts to saying "ERO already checks how the schools are doing. ERO's Wellbeing Review this year will consider whether the health curriculum is meeting students' needs."

ERO has already shown, in its 2007 report, that sexuality education is not meeting students' needs. What is needed now is action, not merely continuing the status quo or reinventing the wheel. The reason for the Government's weakness is political funk. The recent uproar over sex education at Blaketown School shows the problem. A teacher answered year 7 and 8 pupils's explicit questions about sexual activities and some parents objected. Sex can be political dynamite. In the Blaketown case, the teacher went beyond what some parents would tolerate and perhaps beyond what was suitable. Once again, sex education is shown to be hit-and-miss and liable to go wrong.

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The select committee recommended a new, consistent and evidence-based programme. The Government has responded with murmuring and evasion. What a tragically missed opportunity.

- Wellington

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