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Sexuality education in primary schools

Jenny Walsh

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Meghan Lodwick:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast series, I'm Meghan Lodwick. And today, I'm speaking with Jenny Walsh from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. Jenny worked for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development as the principal writer for 'Catching On Early: Sexuality education for Victorian primary schools'. Jenny, thanks for your time.

Jenny Walsh:

You're welcome.

Meghan Lodwick:

Now 'Catching On Early' is an evidence-based resource founded on the latest research into sexuality and child sexual development. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Jenny Walsh:

Well, the research into what children need to know is largely based on observations of the sorts of questions they ask and is in some ways informed by research around concerns around their sexual safety. But mostly it's looking at the effect of sexuality education on promoting positive sexual health and relationships. So we know that children when they are between the ages of five and eight tend to be interested in things to do with how babies are made.

And by the age of eight are beginning to notice the differences between themselves and their peers. They, then by the age of nine, start to go towards different friendship groups and gender starts to become more of an issue at that age. And so if you're a kid that is not a typical boy or a typical girl, then you might find that you bereft of your existing friendship networks. And so gender becomes an issue very early on for children. So, sexuality education is an opportunity to make sure that all kids feel included in the class and that some of those cultural assumptions about what a good boy should be or what a good girl should be can get discussed in that context.

The other stuff that comes up with children at that age is a curiosity about things to do with sex. And so it's great to have a language and preparation I guess to know how to talk to kids about anything to do with sex. And if you've never talked about it before, and if they don't know what the different part of their bodies are, then it makes it exceedingly difficult by the time they get to eleven to engage in any kind of conversation about what's happening with them in relation to puberty.

Meghan Lodwick:

And how is this different from the education that's implemented now?

Jenny Walsh:

In Victorian primary schools, there's an expectation that children will begin to learn about their bodies and about how babies are made from about grades 3 and 4 on. This is different in that it is suggesting that we need to at least make children familiar with what the sexual parts of their body are called earlier on because the aims of the curriculum are actually quite simple; but of course anything to do with sex is never quite simple.

So really what we want them to be able to do is know what the parts of their body are called and feel able and comfortable enough to talk and ask questions about anything to do with that aspect of life. And then by grade 6 that they know how babies are made. So there are the key things that we'd like to come out of it.

But the other kind of tune that is underlying the entire program is one of respectfulness and feeling respect for your own body and other people as well and talking about sexual matter as in a respectful kind of way as well.

Meghan Lodwick:

Who's responsible for planning and delivering the sexuality education in schools?

Jenny Walsh:

Well, teachers in schools are responsible for delivering it. But the problem for most teachers is that they haven't had a chance to be trained in how to do it and so they are really anxious about it. And of course people of our generation who are teachers have grown up in an odd time where there's been a lot of sexual freedom and a lot of discussion about the damage done by not talking about sex or too much talk about sex. But they haven't had the benefit of learning of how do I do it properly and in appropriate way with other people's children. And so the sense that they'll get in trouble, that parents will be unhappy with them is something that stops them from taking this aspect of the curriculum on.

Meghan Lodwick:

Does any of the education extend to the parent or the community?

Jenny Walsh:

Along with the program, there is information for parents to understand child sexual development and exactly what the purpose of the program is. And schools are always encouraged to let people know that the sexuality education is happening at their school and to have education nights as well. This is a great opportunity than to work with community nurses who can come in and work alongside the teachers o talk about the program and what's important to teach kids about this topic at this young age.

The other part of the program is that we include homework sheets cause that's what the research tells us makes a difference. And so the children are given a sheet to take home and find out from their families something about for example stories of when they were a baby, why they have the name they have. And then as the children get older asking questions of their parents or other trusted adults about what it was like growing up, what it was like considering going into high school.

And so it's actually creating opportunities to talk about the subject more at home. And so what we're finding in schools where we've been testing it is that parents are saying thank you because it is a difficult subject to broach and this provides a safe intervening to it.

Meghan Lodwick:

Yes, it sounds like a very pronged approach. Now, how do similar systems internationally and nationally measure up to this one?

Jenny Walsh:

Victoria is well ahead of the game when it comes to dealing positively with sexuality. The department has for some years now already had a secondary school curriculum in place and has also been running programs around making school safe of the kids who might be same sex attracted.

So the only gap that we had was in primary school sexuality education. And so whilst we had the guidelines in the curriculum said kids should learn this, we didn't actually have a teaching resource. Simply this is how you achieve those goals. So that's what we've got now.

Meghan Lodwick:

And in Victoria, this concept has been extended to the whole school learning approach. Now, what does that mean?

Jenny Walsh:

It acknowledges that learning in a school happens outside of a classroom as well. For example, if you consider the experience of an 11-year-old girl who might stop menstruating while she's at school and what her experience of what happens next when she's at school. If she learns that there's no facilities for her to use, she doesn't know who talk to then, she's learning that in fact that it's a shameful thing to happen that it's unnatural and embarrassing.

So a whole school approach is saying that we need an opportunity to think about how we deal with all this kind of incidents that touched on things to do with sexuality.

Meghan Lodwick:

So will extra classes be added to a child's curriculum?

Jenny Walsh:

See, this is always a problem to primary schools. They've got so much that they have to teach. Our suggestion is that they're already doing a lot of personal development education and relationships and social skills education that lays the foundation for kids being able to manage this part of their lives later on.

So as a minimum I would say if you can just have two or three sessions with the children that specifically address the sexual aspects of growing up, that is enough to be going on with.

You all then have established what the rules are or about talking about those medicine the kids know what they meant to do next time they will ask the question.

Meghan Lodwick:

And if those sessions were implemented, would a parent have a right to exclude their child from attending them?

Jenny Walsh:

I guess a parent always has a right to exclude their child, but their permission doesn't need to be sold from grade 4 on. It is a part of the health and physical education curriculum and it's also interpersonal part of the school curriculum as well.

Meghan Lodwick:

Now, Jenny what would you say to criticism that sex education in primary schools risks sexualizing children at an early age?

Jenny Walsh:

Well, we are all sexual from the moment we're born. But it depends on your understanding of what sexual is. If we understand that through getting love and affection and the quality of the relationships at home and learning about what's rude and what's not that's learning about stuff that impacts on your capacity to maintain your sexual health and to have healthy relationships later on in life.

They are learning that from the moment they are born. They're also learning a lot on TV and radio, and billboards and magazines. And if we stay silent, if the responsible people stays silent, then there's a vacuum there that ads a perfectly happy to fill with particular messages about sexuality.

So sexuality isn't wrong, it's a part of human development and human nature in a very positive part of it. So it's actually just finding a way to talk about in a positive way, and by holding up a beacon of what it's meant to be about what component of your life it's meant to be, then it's easier than to make sure that you have a capacity to say well those messages actually about sex are very particular kind of message that might be about selling stuff or expressing sex as just a thing about being ready to have sex and so on which is not what child sexuality should be about.

Meghan Lodwick:

So what kind of sexuality knowledge would a child have by grade 6 through this program?

Jenny Walsh:

We would hope that they would know most importantly that their curiosity about things to do with the sexual parts of their body is fine and natural and good, that talking about and going to trusted adults to ask questions and find out information is a really good to do, and adults won't run shrieking in horror when they do that.

And that they have an understanding of what's going to happen with their bodies when puberty starts. Puberty is starting earlier than it used to. And it is code word really for sexual growth and development. And so what we want them to know is what's going to happen and that knowledge is power and confidence in managing that aspects of their lives.

Meghan Lodwick:

With all the bodies involved; the schools, the government, the community, the parent, what would you regard as a successful outcome of the program?

Jenny Walsh:

There is still a lot of nervousness about taking the subject done. And I would like to see all primary schools participating at some level in presenting this information to kids and making it a safe issue to talk about rather than leaving it to internet pop-ups to do the education for us.

Meghan Lodwick:

That makes a lot of sense. That's all the time we've got for La Trobe University podcast today. If you'd like to leave some feedback about this or any other podcast in the series, or suggest a possible topic, you can get in touch with us at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Jenny Walsh, thank you so much for your time.

Jenny Walsh:

Thank you.

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