Nothing seems to polarize parents quite like sex ed, and we get it—this is a sensitive subject and everyone is going to have different opinions on the curriculum as a whole or specific aspects of it.
Since Ontario released its updated Health and Physical Education curriculum on February 23, parents have been asking a lot of questions about what their kids will learn and when they'll learn it. So we went to the source, education minister Liz Sandals, to get you answers.
Question: The updated sex ed curriculum is available to parents, and the fact sheets are a great overview of the changes. However, it seems that many people are having trouble understanding the difference between the specific expectations in the document versus teacher prompts. Could you please clarify the difference for non-teachers?
Liz Sandals: The actual curriculum is the expectations—so whenever it says "expectations," that's what the student needs to learn as part of the curriculum. The items labelled "teacher prompt" or "student response" aren't mandatory parts of the curriculum—they're like examples. In some cases, the teacher might use the prompt to start a discussion or move the discussion along if kids aren't responding. The bottom line: prompts are background material, conversation starters or ways to appropriately answer questions, while expectations are the actual curriculum.
Question: How is learning about anal sex and oral sex age-appropriate in grade seven?
Liz Sandals: This is where data is important. We know from public health data in Ontario that the teen pregnancy rate has dropped by 50 percent since '96 or '97. At the same time, the rate of sexually transmitted infections that are reported in teenagers has gone up. We said about 40 to 60 percent, but if you look at the reported rate of chlamydia infection in teenagers, it's gone up 80 percent.
The other bit of background is that kids are starting to go through puberty when they're eight, nine, 10 years old, which is why we talk about puberty in grades four, five and six. Again, based on public health data, about 22 percent of kids in grades nine and 10 admit that they've had sexual intercourse. So grade seven and eight becomes a window where kids are actually mature enough to talk about actual sexual activity, and when you're hopefully going to hit them before they do something stupid.
The current curriculum includes information on contraception. If the teen pregnancy rate has dropped, then kids are clearly understanding how to get pregnant and avoid getting pregnant. But they clearly don't understand how sexually transmitted infections are contracted. So they're avoiding intercourse to avoid pregnancy, but turning to other forms of sexual activity—particularly oral sex—thinking, 'Well that's OK, I avoid being pregnant.'
We have to give them the whole story: It isn't just about avoiding pregnancy—we also don't want them to contract sexually transmitted infections.
Question: Many parents have told us that they feel it should be up to them to teach their own kids about sex, that they should decide when their child is ready. What would you say to parents who feel this way?
Liz Sandals: We want parents to be involved in the conversation, but we also have to pay attention to what the public health data says. That informs our decisions about what to include in the health curriculum and when. For example, the question of when puberty begins: the onset of puberty drops about a year every decade. The existing curriculum was developed prior to 1998, and age of onset of puberty has continued to drop since then. The new curriculum will now address puberty one year sooner than the old curriculum. I don't think a lot of parents actually realize what's already in the curriculum. Kids in grades four to six are going through puberty, or beginning to go through puberty—that's when we need to talk to them about puberty. The public health data defines age-appropriateness.
Part of the reason we are developing the guides and tip sheets for parents (available here) is that we want parents to know what their kids are learning. This is a partnership, not an either/or—it isn't either the school or the parent—we think it's both. So we want parents to know what's being taught in school, and parents can have conversations around religious beliefs, cultural traditions, ethical and moral values. We want parents to be having those conversations with their kids.
Question: How will this new curriculum impact what is taught in Catholic schools?
Liz Sandals: The curriculum is the same in public schools and Catholic schools—this is the Ontario curriculum. In the case of the Catholic schools, they also do a lot of curriculum development through an organization called ICE, which is the Institute for Catholic Education, made up all the stakeholders in the Catholic education system (teachers, principals and director). The Bishops are represented there too. We work with ICE on the development of their curriculum. They will make some components of the curriculum part of their family life course.
Catholic trustees, teachers, principals and directors have all been quite supportive of the curriculum.
Question: Are there any plans to have a Health and Physical Education specialist teacher at each school to ensure the new curriculum is implemented and executed well?
Liz Sandals: In an elementary school, whether or not there's an actual health and phys ed specialist would be a) up to the local school board and its staffing practices, and b) very much dependent on the size of the school, because the larger the school, the more likely you are to have a subject specialist. So that's going to be a local decision, dependent to a large degree on school population.
One of the reasons it was so important to us to get the curriculum out now—our target was always to publish the curriculum at the end of February—is that gives us March, April, May, June to do professional development with principals and teachers. In fact, my ministry already has a roll-out plan for professional development. My ministry officials, my curriculum specialists, will work with a team from each board, and then that team will go back and work with the teachers and principals at each board.
Question: Will parents be aware ahead of time exactly what and how the sex ed curriculum will be taught?
Liz Sandals: It will vary from board to board, and even from school to school. Again, it will depend a bit on the culture of the school and, quite frankly, how big an issue it is with the parent community in the school. So the best thing for parents to do is to check with their own teachers and principals and ask, 'How do I find out what's being taught when?'
The parent guides—which may be split out a bit further so that they contain more detail—are intended to make it easy for schools to provide information on what's being taught in each grade, when your child starts at the beginning of the year in September. The teacher may send a note home asking whether parents want their children withdrawn when they get around to this particular subject. As I say, the details will vary from school to school and from board to board, so it really is a conversation parents need to have with local teachers and principals if they're concerned.
But we do want to make the information available—in the parent guides—in ways parents can figure out, so that they have a sense of what's being taught and they have the opportunity to layer on discussions around their own values.
Question: Is adding this to an already packed curriculum going to cut into other areas of learning?
Liz Sandals: No, it shouldn't. This is a replacement for the 1998 curriculum. We haven't added a new subject—it just updates the existing curriculum. And it isn't that the curriculum has dramatically grown. The new document's way bigger than the old document, but it's bigger because it has more prompt examples to provide teachers with more background, more suggestions on how to handle sensitive questions. It's just that there's more teacher support in it, not that there's actually more stuff.
Another thing to note is that sometimes you'll find things can be combined. For example, some of the information about healthy, respectful relationships might be combined with something a teacher is already covering in a language course where they're looking at a story about relationships, for example. Or information about body changes might be integrated into a science lesson. Teachers will often combine some of the expectations for one subject with the expectations of another subject into one lesson plan.
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