Australia/April 20, 2022/
The new curriculum will reportedly focus on age-appropriate consent and respectful relationship education and cover information around gendered stereotypes, coercion and power imbalances.
But what does this actually look like in practice?
Here’s what we know about the new curriculum and what has changed over the years in Australian sex education.
What has consent education looked like in Australian schools?
The exact date consent education began in Australia is hard to pinpoint however Honorary Professor Deborah Ollis at Deakin University said it varied across states and territories but the beginnings of sex education arrived in the 1980s.
“In the 1980s they developed the National Statements and Profiles with eight learning areas and one of those areas was health and physical education and into that curriculum back then sexuality education was an area of focus,” Professor Ollis said.
In the early 1990s the curriculum focused on gender-based violence after the rollout of the “no fear” resource, she said.
This is when a mandate was given to Australian schools to teach sex education, and this new national curriculum included consent.
“That was given to all Australian schools from prep to year 12,” she said.
“In that there was a huge component on consent and it was much of the backbone on the relationship education.”
Professor Ollis said in the early 2000s the language in the curriculum changed to talk about respectful relationships “out of a concern of violence against women”.
“It’s not new, something like consent has been covered in the curriculum for decades,” she said.
Why is it now mandatory?
So what is the new curriculum all about if consent education has been taught for decades?
Well, it has never been mandatory for all schools to teach and the curriculum was open to “interpretation”.
“Schools have had enormous flexibility about how they interpret the curriculum,” Professor Ollis said.
This is a key reason for the change and why student activist Chanel Contos began petitioning for reform a year ago.
Another problem is consent has been included in the public school curriculum but may not always be taught in non-government schools due to the flexibility around teaching.
“It is very different when government jurisdictions have curriculum guidelines but I guess in other sectors, religious and non-government schools that may not be the case,” Professor Ollis said.
Now that is mandatory, both public and independent schools will be able to have specific guidelines about it.
“Having consent embedded in the national curriculum should make it easier for all schools to teach consent and enable them to access curriculum materials that are consistent across the nation,” an Independent Schools Australia spokesperson said.
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What should the curriculum include?
One of the key things about teaching consent is starting at an early age.
“Age-appropriate” education is a term that is thrown around a lot in this conversation, and that means starting with students in early primary.
It can be taught through a friendship lens from kindergarten and build up to talk about intimate and romantic relationships as students grow up.
Professor Ollis said this means students will have a background understanding of consent when they reach the conversations about sexual consent, so it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.
“Students in Year 1 need to understand issues around their body and that people don’t have the right to touch it without consent,” Professor Ollis said.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks from Curtain University added that modelling consent in an age-appropriate way could involve discussions about whether or not students feel comfortable “giving someone a hug or you prefer to give a high five”.
With access to the internet, more children are gaining access to pornography at an early age, Professor Ollis added, so teaching media literacy and sexualisation online needs to start early.
Other considerations Professor Ollis outlined include the correct language around sexual organs, gender and power relationships, and sex positivity.
“Consent is much more complex than just ‘say no’,” Professor Ollis said.
What will the new curriculum look like?
The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority which is responsible for delivering the national curriculum said it will strengthen “the explicit teaching of consent and respectful relationships” in age-appropriate ways.
Dr Hendriks said “strengthening” means using the word consent in the classroom.
“The language isn’t explicit enough then a school can just talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships and skirt around that without going into great detail,” she said.
The national curriculum has been endorsed by education ministers and will be available to view next term, so we can’t be sure of the ins and outs of the curriculum just yet.
But Dr Hendriks who has seen the draft of the new curriculum said it “heavily mentions” consent and respectful relationships.
She also said the new curriculum will begin “age-appropriate” consent education at an early age, basically from kindergarten.
But Dr Hendriks said the national curriculum is not always adopted completely by state and territory schools.
“NSW and Victoria have both said they will adapt and create their own curriculum and similarly in Western Australia,” she said.
So there will still be some flexibility to the curriculum but Dr Hendriks said the mandate is a “starting point” and she hopes having a national standard will improve the depth of consent education embedded in schools.
What is missing?
Both Dr Hendriks and Professor Ollis emphasised the importance of professional development for teachers when teaching consent, something that has not been addressed in the new mandate.
“You wouldn’t expect a maths teacher to teach maths without an adequate background,” Professor Ollis said.
“Unless we provide in-service professional development for teachers in schools we can’t expect them to be addressing these sensitive issues.”
Professional development can look like funding and time for teacher relief to attend external workshops.
Connecting the school and community is also important in consent education, Dr Hendriks said.
“It is a societal thing and we all need to work together collectively,” she said.