Education experts say planned changes to the Australian curriculum mandating that students learn about consent and the role of power in relationships for the first time are a positive development but could more explicitly link those themes to sexual relationships and gender-based violence.
Guidance on teaching about respectful relationships, sexuality and consent has been strengthened in the proposed kindergarten to year 10 national health and physical education syllabus, released by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority on Thursday.
Chanel Contos has been campaigning for better sex and consent education in school curriculums.,Credit:Liliana Zaharia
Specific teachings around consent first come in years 7 and 8, where students will now be asked to examine how respect, consent, empathy and valuing diversity can influence the nature of relationships. In year 9 and 10, this is expanded to include the role of power and strategies for challenging disrespectful attitudes.
In a revised non-mandatory section, there are further examples of how teachers can deliver this content. For kindergarten to year 2 students, this includes suggestions on asking permission, negotiation, assertiveness skills and interpreting verbal cues and body language. In years 3 to 6, this might involve consent in the context of sharing information or images on social media and understanding the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching.
ACARA’s website said high school students could learn “how power imbalances within a relationship can create a dynamic where coercion, intimidation and manipulation can occur, leading to non-consensual or inappropriate behaviour”.
Phil Lambert, former general manager of the Australian curriculum and deputy chair of Our Watch, said the mandatory dot points on power and consent in secondary years were a positive development. But the curriculum was weaker than it could be as the more detailed examples were still optional.
Changes in the mandatory Health and Physical Education syllabus
- Year 7-8 original dot point: investigate the benefits of relationships and examine their impact on their own and others’ health and wellbeing
- New: examine the roles that respect, consent and empathy play in developing respectful relationships
- New: evaluate the influence of respect, empathy, power and consent on establishing and maintaining respectful relationships
“Each of those words [power and consent] are open to interpretation – we saw that clearly with the milkshake video. We don’t quite go to the explicitness that is needed, I believe. If you really want someone to teach something, you can use the word ‘including’: ‘including relating to sexual relationships’ or ‘including relating to gender-based violence’,” he said.
“There’s still a way to go. With these changes, does it mean all students will learn about sexual consent in relationships? The answer is no. It will be up to leaders at state and territory level and even in schools to make sure they’re addressed.”
Deakin University Associate Professor Debbie Ollis, a consent education expert who advised ACARA on the proposed changes, said there were limits to what a curriculum could achieve on its own and the challenge was now in ensuring teachers had access to support materials and training on how to teach consent in the context of sexual relationships.
“I would say [the proposed changes] are not enough without teacher professional development, I am absolutely adamant about that,” she said.
“The states and territories can prioritise this work. It’s about funding it. It’s about making a commitment to it like we do for literacy and numeracy.”
Researcher Katrina Marson agreed it was good to see an increased focus on consent as a topic but said it could not be separated from comprehensive education around sex, sexuality and relationships.
“That aspect could be more explicit,” she said. “But at the end of the day, ACARA doesn’t have a magic wand; they have a role to play in setting guidelines but implementation is just as crucial.”
Sex and consent education reform has been on the agenda since activist Chanel Contos led a petition earlier this year and thousands of young women shared stories of teenage sexual assault. ACARA curriculum director Janet Davey said last month consent content as it stood “may not be sufficient”.
On its website, ACARA said the review process had allowed it to strengthen its content with expert and academic input. “This content is explored at age-appropriate intervals across the school years from foundation to year 10,” it said.
The NSW PDHPE curriculum was revised in 2018 to include more explicit teachings on consent but is up for review again.
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