10 Jan 2024

Government accused of 'conspiracy' thinking in changes to sex ed

10:30 am on 10 January 2024

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The union representing primary school teachers says there still has not been any consultation or guidance from the government over planned changes to the sex education curriculum, a few weeks out from the school year starting.

As part of National's coalition agreement with New Zealand First, the curriculum will be refocused on "academic achievement and not ideology, including the removal and replacement of the gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education guidelines".

The guidelines were introduced in 2020 by then-associate education minister Tracey Martin, who was a New Zealand First MP.

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Mark Potter said they had been developed by specialists in that area, as well as educational professionals, and were designed to be age-appropriate for each stage of children's growth.

New Zealand Educational Institute president Mark Potter.

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Mark Potter. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"We're very worried that they seem to think there's something that needs to be changed. And we're not seeing what they're trying to fix at this stage. We don't understand why they need to do this," he said.

Potter said schools already consulted with communities on sex education on an annual or biannual basis, and some parents who were uncomfortable speaking to their own children about sexuality education were happy to leave it to schools.

"They just want to know what is being said to the children. So if something is said to a child, at least the parent knows when the child follows up with a question to their parents when they get home.

"Most commonly, what schools do is if the child asks a question that's actually really one we'd be expecting older children to be looking into or exploring, that's where teachers will say 'that's something you need to ask your parents about'. Because at that stage, the school is not ready to talk to a child at that age about that area."

He believed the change was coming from some areas of the community who were putting pressure on schools and the ministry.

"A lot of it is very conspiracy-based thinking, and lots of claims about what schools are supposed to be doing that they just aren't. Some very untrue statements being made about what children being taught. So we are wondering, who are they pandering to with this kind of move?"

During the election campaign, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters campaigned against 'woke ideology' in schools, while National leader Christopher Luxon said sexuality issues should be dealt with in the home, by parents.

In December, after becoming Prime Minister, Luxon revised his answer, saying the guidelines had been variously interpreted by schools, which had parents concerned.

"All we're asking for is, because we've been caught between curriculum, we want a well defined curriculum agreed to by experts that actually makes sure that the content is age-appropriate, that parents have been consulted, and importantly that parents have an ability to withdraw from the education as well," he said.

Labour's education spokesperson Jan Tinetti said parents already had the option to withdraw their children from classes.

Education minister Jan Tinetti

Labour's education spokesperson Jan Tinetti. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

But she said the removal of the guidelines, particularly on issues like consent and relationships, was a concern and risked damaging young people.

"We already know that in that area, that young people are facing some serious challenges. There's way more access to pornography through the internet now than what has ever happened before. And young people get their understanding of sex sometimes, sadly, from those sources."

She said the government's reasoning was "dangerously close" to culture war rhetoric.

"I was really concerned during the election campaign, that I was told by a candidate that we're just trying to 'trans-ify' kids. What on earth does that even mean? I hadn't even heard of the 'woke gender curriculum', I had to look it up, and saw that it was something that was an imported culture war. That really concerns me. Our kids are beyond that.

"We have a really good curriculum in this country. The guidelines are not the curriculum, they are adding to how we can make sure the curriculum is taught well. They are not compulsory, but they are absolutely superb."

Both Potter and Tinetti said schools have already developed their curricula for 2024, which would have been developed with their communities.

But schools would need time to make the changes, and consult with parents in time for 2025. The sex education changes did not make it into the government's 100-day plan.

Potter said so far, there had been very little indication from the government on what it wants changed in the guidelines, given the coalition agreement also called for a replacement.

"We will be expecting a grown up conversation around what is needed. We want to make sure that politicians don't interfere with the curriculum where they don't belong. And what we'll be looking to see is that there'll be supporting professionals and developing an inclusive education system for all children," Potter said.

Education Minister Erica Stanford said she was taking advice on what was in the coalition agreement to remove and replace the guidelines.

"In the meantime, schools should continue to implement the current Health and PE curriculum as they have been doing - noting the guidelines are separate to the curriculum and are not compulsory," she said.

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