Mates and Dates programme: Listen to the students

8:47 pm on 9 August 2018

By Fiona McNamara*.

Opinion - Teaching students about sexual harm is challenging and requires outside educators who are experienced in articulating the complexity of the topic.

Wellington students marching to Parliament in 2017 to demand compulsory consent education in all schools.

Wellington students marching to Parliament in 2017 to demand compulsory consent education in all schools. Photo: Supplied to RNZ

This week, ACC announced an $18.4 million investment to roll out its Mates and Dates programme, which has been running in some schools since 2014, across New Zealand secondary schools. The programme is delivered by experts from outside of the school. Trained educators facilitate five one-hour sessions across five weeks, in each year level of high school, totalling 25 hours for each student by the end of Year 13.

The announcement of further investment has sparked criticism about why the programme is facilitated by outside providers and not by teachers.

New Zealand has the highest rate of sexual violence among OECD countries and it is too big an issue to be solved in five, or even 25 lessons. Effective culture change requires a sustained long-term approach, which addresses the problem in multiple ways, including the reinforcement of positive messages across our lifetimes.

The relationship between external providers and schools goes far beyond five lessons in each year group, and the collaboration and different expertise of those involved is a strength of this model. When specialist providers deliver these programmes in schools it can also include training staff on receiving disclosures of sexual abuse, educating parents and guardians about having difficult conversations with their young people, referring students to specialist support, providing advice in response to incidents and supporting student-led initiatives - such as events, journalism and art projects.

While health teachers play an important role in supporting the programme, there's a strong body of evidence that recommends that the lessons themselves are facilitated by specialist educators, external to the school. It is also what current New Zealand secondary school students have asked for.

When ACC was developing the Mates and Dates programme they surveyed secondary school students who said they wanted outside providers to deliver the programme, and for their teachers to be there in the room supporting it.

Russell Smith - Mates and Dates

Photo: Supplied

This work is happening in a society in which rape culture is rife, where harmful attitudes towards sex, sexuality and gender are pervasive and where harmful behaviours, including abuse of power, is commonplace. To communicate the nuances of sexual harm is challenging and requires educators experienced in articulating the complexity of the topic.

Specialist educators are trained to facilitate conversations with groups that may comprise of people who have never spoken openly about sex, sexuality or abuse before, people who are hostile towards the content, people who have experienced sexual harm first-hand and people who have done sexual harm. Often the educators will need to manage a room with all these different perspectives at once and guide the group towards a consensus that promotes respect and consent.

Providing effective sexual violence prevention education requires educators to have an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of sexual abuse, and an ability to communicate these clearly. They need to be trained to receive disclosures of sexual abuse and to know how to refer these on to appropriate support.

Consent education is something that current secondary school students feel strongly about. In 2017, Wellington students marched to Parliament to demand compulsory consent education in all schools. Additionally, a Wellington student started a petition through Action Station, which called for the Mates and Dates programme to be made compulsory in all schools in New Zealand. The petition was signed by 6000 people. This year, Hamilton Girls' High School students have launched a campaign to ask the government for compulsory consent education in high schools.

It is fantastic that ACC has responded to these calls from young people. But along with listening to their calls for consent education, we also need to listen to the way in which they are asking for this education to be delivered.

The education is, after all, about respect.

* Fiona McNamara is General Manger at Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, a service that provides consultancy services, education and training aimed at ending sexual abuse. The network is currently the Wellington, Porirua and Kāpiti provider of Mates and Dates.