Most young Australians receive sex education, many in primary school. Experts say they should learn about body parts and respectful relationships from a young age, both at home and at school.
The fifth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2013* found 86 per cent of Australian teenagers had received sex education at school. More than one in 10 (10.4 per cent) hadn’t and 3.6 per cent didn’t know.
Sexuality and relationship education is mostly taught by teachers (83 per cent), with people outside the school (34 per cent), and/or the school nurse (22 per cent) sometimes involved. School counsellors (10 per cent) or chaplains (four per cent) were less likely to be used.
While most schools teach it, the quality of sex education varies. Many have excellent programs but some offer the bare minimum.
It doesn’t hurt to ask your school what it is doing. If an outside group is providing the service, you may also want to check to ensure its values align with yours.
What the experts say
Good sex education starts at home from a very young age and continues at school with a comprehensive program covering all aspects of adolescence, relationships and diversity issues.
Sex Education Australia’s Jenny Ackland says a child’s early sexuality education has nothing to do with sex, but should involve using the correct names for body parts and understanding the concepts of public and private and appropriate and inappropriate touching.
She says children can ask questions from a very young age and parents and carers should answer them in an age-appropriate way.
It’s also important for very young children to understand “same” and “different”, basic ideas about gender, correct names for basic reproductive body parts and thinking about respectful friendships.
As children get older, Ackland says they should learn about reproduction, how babies are made and born, including the different ways they can join families such as adoption, IVF, surrogate, donor sperm and/or eggs and so on. “Being inclusive is important,” she says.
In late primary school, Ackland says sex education should cover the physical, mental and social changes of puberty and how to manage them. This can include key messages on sexting and sexually explicit material online.
“Friendships, managing social media, greater freedom and responsibility are all important topics,” she says.
Ackland says most children in years 5 and 6 know or have heard about sex. Some even younger students may have too.
“In sex education in school it’s good for them to have a simple, clear explanation to inform and clarify if what they might have heard before is untrue,” she says.
While it is important for primary and secondary schools to have comprehensive sex education programs, Ackland says
as their children’s primary carers, parents know them better than anyone else.
“Ideally sexuality education should also be covered at home,” she says. “Home is where individual values, beliefs and expectations can be shared, and it’s important that parents are available to answer questions and provide support.”
Some parents feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their kids. Ackland says this is OK, but if that’s the case you need to let them know this and show you are available to offer support.
“Reliable age-appropriate books are good to have in the house so young people can read these in private as well as referring them to quality websites,” she says.
What does a good sex education program cover?
A good school sex education program is nonjudgmental, with no hidden agenda. Information is accurate and up to date, inclusive and respectful of sexual diversity and different values and beliefs.
Diversity is crucial. LGBTIQ students should not feel invisible or that their needs are not being met or considered unimportant. Being inclusive can help reduce the feeling of isolation that some same-sex-attracted young people feel in schools. They experience higher rates of verbal and physical abuse than heterosexual peers and are at higher risk of depression, self-harm and suicide.
Sex Education Australia’s Jenny Ackland says a good school sex education program covers:
• The domains of sexuality, including sexual diversity, sexual stereotypes, same-sex attraction, respectful and healthy relationships, male and female sexual response, sexual decision-making, safer sex;
• STIs and contraception;
• Sex and the law;
• Sex and technology, including a detailed discussion about pornography and sexting;
• Where to go for help; and
• Explanation of doctor and patient confidentiality and the cost of medical visits.
Sex education in Victoria
In Victoria, it is compulsory for government schools to provide sexuality education within health and physical education, including assessment and reporting against the Australian curriculum.
The Education Department says the goal of sexuality education in Victorian schools is to build on knowledge, skills, and behaviours, enabling young people to make responsible and safe choices.
“Good sexuality education focuses on love, safer sex, abstinence, respect for others and oneself, diversity, personal rights and responsibilities, relationships and friendships, effective communication, decision-making and risk behaviours,” its website says.
The most effective sexuality education programs also take a whole-school learning approach. Good school-based sexuality education is:
• Driven by the school leader;
• Supported by the latest research;
• Ongoing and integrated into a student’s cross-curriculum learning;
• Assessed and reported against student achievement in the Victorian Essential Learning Standards; and
• Part of a student’s whole-school learning experience.
Catholic and independent schools are welcome to use the department’s policies, training and resources.
Parents and schools each have a role to play.
Most schools teach sexuality education, but parents and carers cannot assume that their child is learning enough to stay safe. Up to one in 10 teenagers receives no sex education at school. Less than four in 10 confide in their mother and only about two in ten approach their father about their sexual health. Some talk to friends, doctors and teachers. Almost half use the internet.
While a parent’s role is important, they should also ensure their child’s school has a comprehensive sexuality education program.
• Most students (86 per cent) have received sex education at school; about four per cent were uncertain. One in 10 students reported having no sex education.
• Most students are taught sexuality and relationship education in health and physical education classes (80 per cent) while 31 per cent learnt it in science and biology classes (Table 9.3). One in 10 (13 per cent) had sex education as part of a religious instruction program.
• Sexuality and relationship education was mainly taught between years 7 and 10 with 64 per cent taught in years 7-8 and 68 per cent in years 9-10.
Where young people go*
• Students most commonly consulted either their mother (36 per cent) or a female friend (41 per cent), the school sexual health program (43 per cent) or a website (44 per cent) for sexual health information.
• Doctors (29 per cent) and teachers (28 per cent) were also a common source of information.
• More young women than men gained sexual health advice from the school program (45 per cent vs 39 per cent), their doctor (32 per cent vs 25 per cent), websites (47 per cent vs 39 per cent), an older brother or sister (16 per cent vs 13 per cent), their mother (43 per cent vs 27 per cent), and a female friend (51 per cent vs 27 per cent).
• Young men were more likely to use their father (23 per cent vs 16 per cent), or have sought no advice (16 per cent vs 10 per cent).
* Source: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University: The fifth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2013.