While kids in Ontario are gearing up to head back to school, teachers are trying to figure out what sex-ed curriculum they are supposed to be teaching as part of the Health and Physical Education Curriculum (HPE).
In July, the provincial government announced that Ontario’s grade school teachers will be expected to revert to the 2014 curriculum—which was actually created back in 1998. The Toronto District School Board and Peel District School Board recently stated their high school students will continue to be taught the updated 2015 sex-ed curriculum. While the Toronto Catholic District School Board said they will continue teaching their ‘Fully Alive’ program, which is essentially the updated sex-ed curriculum with a Catholic lens.
Confused? So are we. And the confusion continued when on August 23, the Conservatives released the interim curriculum that's to be used until the government consults with parents and experts and releases a new version, hopefully in 2019 or 2020. This interim curriculum makes references to cellphones, the internet and gender identity, but otherwise is much the same as the 1998 curriculum, which doesn't talk about menstruation, consent or masturbation.
As school boards continue to figure out what sex-ed curriculum they will be teaching come September and their responsibilities to ensure all students feel safe and included in school communities under the Ontario Human Rights Code, we asked experts their thoughts on the importance of teaching children an up-to-date sex-ed curriculum.
Kimberly Rastin, a teacher with the London District Catholic School Board, remembers her days as a student in the 1980s and 1990s—and how very long ago that was. “I remember the AIDS crisis, the homophobia, the bullying,” she recalls. “The 1998 curriculum is literally the product of a bygone era. It was written five years before MySpace launched and seven years before marriage rights were equalized across Canada.”
Key parts of the 2015 curriculum have been removed, including teaching grade one students the proper name for body parts, grade two students that "no means no," and grade six students about masturbation.
“Forcing children to learn outdated information and refusing to properly educate them about their bodies and the society in which they live is irresponsible at best,” says Rastin. “It fosters a culture of ignorance and intolerance.”
Tara McKee, a registered psychotherapist and sex educator based in Toronto, already sees that ignorance in action. “I see people who don't know the correct names for their body parts,” she says. “Or they don’t know how to effectively communicate directly with regards to sex, understanding consent and establishing their own boundaries.
Of course, kids don't just get their sexual education in the classroom—but those outside sources can be problematic.
“We know that young people are exposed to sexual content through various forms of media and that many use the internet to obtain health information,” says Natasha Johnson, a paediatrician at McMaster Hospital. “Furthermore, they discuss topics among peers who may or may not have accurate information themselves.”
And now that kids will no longer be taught an updated sex-ed curriculum, McKee says that won't stop them from having questions, they'll just have fewer answers—if any at all. “Children want to know how the world works, how bodies work, what sex is and how different people express themselves,” she says. “They deserve the facts.”
The sex therapist adds that learning accurate names of body parts means children know how to speak about their own bodies, and not just in a sexual context. It's essential for telling parents or medical professionals when something may be wrong, or if they are experiencing a problem.
While the 1998 curriculum makes no mention of gender identity, the interim curriculum mentions it in the introduction and glossary—but not in the actual learning material provided to the teachers.
Youth who identify as LGBTQ+ generally have poorer outcomes as it relates to overall health. “This is thought to be related to exposure to discrimination and stigmatization,” says Johnson.
The 2015 curriculum introduced students to the gender spectrum in grade eight. An inclusive curriculum is one step towards addressing some of the numerous barriers faced by LGBTQ+ youth, says Johnson.
“And what about the child whose parents are part of the LGBTQ communities and feels they cannot speak about that at school?” asks McKee. “Or if a student is going through gender questioning themselves?” The interim curriculum no longer provides a safe space for students to learn about their community.
Another key concept not covered in the old curriculum is consent. “In the #metoo era, there is perhaps nothing more important to developing a safe and equitable society than the understanding of consent,” says Rastin. “Children need to understand that they have control over their bodies," she says. "This is not a matter of ideology; it is a matter of safety.”
Johnson explains that when armed with education, young people tend to wait to have sex and have fewer unplanned pregnancies and STIs. They also have a reduced risk of sexual abuse. “Comprehensive education about sexual and reproductive health is a basic human right that applies to all people, including children and youth,” she says.
Rastin has been a teacher for 18 years and believes that an updated, age-appropriate sex education builds understanding and empathy for all students. While she says she’ll deliver the curriculum provided by the Ministry of Education (Doug Ford has warned that teachers who teach the 2015 curriculum will face consequences), she will also continue to provide books to her students that highlight a variety of experiences not necessarily covered in the curriculum.
“For example, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase series, which feature same sex relationships and gender fluid characters,” she says. “I will also continue to explore the concept of consent as it comes up in different contexts throughout the day in my classroom.”
Even though it looks unlikely that she will be able to teach a current sex-ed curriculum this year, she believes it is essential for kids.
"As an educator and a parent, I think it’s vital that relevant, factual and current sex education be taught as part of the health curriculum in Ontario schools,” adds Rastin. “To me, it’s just common sense.”