Come September, teachers across Ontario can sit down with their students with a revamped sexual-education curriculum that finally brings the province up to date with the rest of the country and no longer leaves them "in the dark.”
Ontario’s curriculum hadn’t been renewed since 1998, making it the oldest in Canada. Ontario is the only province that hadn’t made updates since the millennium.
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Alex McKay of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada said the new program is a "significant move” toward bringing Ontario in line with some of the other provinces in providing sexual-health education "that young people not only need, but have a right to have access to.”
"And because the new education curriculum is just being released now, in terms of its inclusion of currently relevant topics such as consent, sexting and so forth, it’ll be the most up-to-date curriculum in the country,” McKay said.
'Issues like gender identity, like lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans sexualities, sexual activity amongst young people — these are all hard conversations for all teachers to have.' - Jen Gilbert, of York University's faculty of education
Other key components of the new curriculum include education about sharing explicit content online, sexual orientation and gender identity.
"The curriculum is going to help teachers feel supported as they talk with young people about sexual health,” said Jen Gilbert, graduate program director at York University’s faculty of education.
"When the introduction of the new curriculum a few years ago was cancelled, I think that teachers have felt a little bit alone and in the dark about what they can and can’t talk about and also not feeling like they had a lot of resources to address the contemporary realities of young people’s lives,” she said.
Not just the 'plumbing' of sex
The new curriculum mandates that students in Grade 4 be taught the risks associated with communications technology, including sharing sexual photos or personal information and cyberbullying, and strategies to use the technologies safely.
Grade 5 students get a bit more in-depth on what’s appropriate in relationships. "Sharing private sexual photos or posting sexual comments online is unacceptable and also illegal," the curriculum says.
A rebooted sexual-education curriculum, however, may not necessarily make for easy teaching. Experts caution that there are still a number of hurdles.
Miriam Kaufman, a pediatrician and head of adolescent medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, said the broader aspects of sexual health are harder to teach than "the plumbing,” or mechanics of sexual intercourse.
"And we no longer have the resources in public health for every classroom to have a public health nurse come to do sex-health education, which is too bad because they have a lot of skill,” said Kaufman, who has also taught sexual health on a volunteer basis for Grade 5 and 6 classes in schools in Ontario.
Carolyn Temertzoglou, a health and physical education instructor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said "prompts,” or example dialogues between teachers and students, can guide an elementary generalist teacher who may have minimal training in the subject. As it stands, she said, the number of hours of teacher training for elementary health and physical education varies from 12 to 36 across the province.
"Clearly more time is needed to provide more comprehensive teacher training to prepare beginning teachers to teach these sensitive and challenging topics,” she wrote in an email to CBC News.
Balance with positive sex messaging
Novice teachers, yes, but York University’s Gilbert said current teachers need a chance to talk about the possibilities of the new curriculum as well — to broach worries and hesitations in a supportive, professional learning environment. That also helps teachers develop strategies among themselves, she said, before they’re asked to discuss the material with children and youth.
"Issues like gender identity, like lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans sexualities, sexual activity amongst young people — these are all hard conversations for all teachers to have,” she said.
'I have this absolute conviction that the vast majority, if not all, parents would like their children to grow up to be sexually healthy adults.' - Miriam Kaufman, pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children
Sex education has to be more than just a curriculum document, a single class or unit, Gilbert said, and actually become part of the conversation in schools with young people.
McKay, of the education council, wants sex education, which he said focuses on problem prevention, to take another step.
"We need to make sure that that’s balanced off with a positive message that recognizes that sexuality and sexual health are important, positive aspects of who we are as human beings and they are a central and positive aspect of good healthy relationships,” he said.
"People who are taught about that balance will be able to go forward in life feeling much more empowered to take action to promote their sexual health, as compared to someone who has only been bombarded with negative messages about all the problems associated with sexuality.”
Kids are ready
With the Institute of Catholic Education, which works on behalf of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, on board with the curriculum, and Education Minister Liz Sandals standing firm, the new program is here to stay — even in the face of rallies hosted by distressed parents and ardent opponents.
"People think about the kind of bad sex ed that they probably had in high school and they think about that being delivered to little children and obviously that’s not what’s going to happen,” said the Hospital for Sick Children’s Kaufman.
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"I have this absolute conviction that the vast majority, if not all, parents would like their children to grow up to be sexually healthy adults. They don’t want their kids to have all kinds of hang-ups and hate their bodies and expose themselves to risk because they don’t understand about sexuality. I really don’t think that’s what parents want.”
Perhaps what’s most important to keep in mind is that students are ready.
"Kids are asking all kinds of questions about their bodies, about gender, about what they see out there in the world,” said Kaufman.
"They will mainly respond positively. I think the kids who respond the most negatively are the ones who need it the most.”