School sex education a yawning gap

La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) conducted the first National Survey of Secondary Teachers of Sexuality Education which involved nearly 300 secondary school teachers from every jurisdiction including government, Catholic and independent schools.

hands raisedTeachers are a vital resource in Australia’s response to preventing STIs, unintended pregnancy, and coercive sexual activity among young people. Properly designed sexuality education, delivered by well-trained and supported teachers, can reduce the risks and underlying vulnerabilities young people face (UNESCO 2009, International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education).

Survey respondents identified that there is a great variation in teachers’ knowledge about what and how to teach sexuality education. Teachers and students would benefit from the provision of consistent pre-service training in basic and effective teaching approaches in sexuality education ensuring that students receive reliable and consistent messages.

However, about a fifth of the teachers named a lack of support in training, resources or by policy as reasons for not teaching a topic. Just under 50 per cent of teachers said that they were careful about the topics they taught because of possible adverse community reactions.

‘Out of the sample we took, 16 per cent of the respondents had no training in teaching sexuality education and the majority of teachers in the sample relied on in-service training, which is often a one off session of short duration and with a specific focus,’ says ARCSHS research fellow, Dr Marisa Schlichthorst.

For a third of the listed topic and especially for the more sensitive subject matter including same-sex attraction and sexual abuse, teachers indicated needing more assistance.

‘Without the benefit of resources specific to more sensitive and difficult subjects and the provision of training, teachers will at times limit their programs to areas that are ‘safe’ and easy to teach such as STIs or human reproduction.

‘Hence, not enough attention is paid to skills development, managing relationships, drug and alcohol use and sexual coercion all of which are extremely relevant to achieving optimum sexual health outcomes in young people,’ she says.
‘Generally, the study shows that sexuality education teachers are committed to teach this subject at school but are challenged by the constraints they face within the broader teaching environment. Teachers stated that many topics should be taught earlier than they were actually teaching them as per curriculum or even be covered in primary school,’ says Dr Schlichthorst.

The full research report can be downloaded on

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