Relationships and sexuality education in today’s world - Education Matters
Expert Contributors, Health and Wellness

Relationships and sexuality education in today’s world


Dr Sharyn Burns from Curtin University discusses the complex nature of relationships and sexuality education and the need for ongoing training and professional development opportunities within this space.

Today school-aged children and adolescents face a broad range of relationships and sexuality issues including contemporary issues such as gender diversity, bullying, harassment and discrimination, violence, respectful relationships, pornography and the use of social media.

While the Western Australian and Australian Health and Physical Education curriculum includes learning outcomes focusing on relationships and sexuality education, our research has found many teachers feel ill-prepared and lack confidence teaching in this area. Teachers involved in our research are enthusiastic and committed educators yet our formative research found many feel they have limited skills to deliver contemporary relationships and sexuality education and expressed a specific need for training around sensitive issues such as sexual abuse, violence, gender diversity and sexual preference, along with contemporary issues related to social media. Teachers also identified a need for training to facilitate relationships and sexuality education (RSE) with groups such as children and adolescents with special needs. The formative research found the majority of teachers reported receiving minimal or no specific relationships and sexuality education training during their tertiary studies; and limited opportunity for ongoing training once they become practising teachers. Given the issues young people face today, opportunities to participate in ongoing professional development is imperative.

Since 2014 the Curtin RSE Project, funded by the Department of Health WA, and led by Associate Professor Sharyn Burns and Dr Jacqui Hendriks with Dr Lorel Mayberry, Dr Roanna Lobo and Professor Lina Pelliccione, provides a range of training opportunities for practicing and pre-service teachers including intensive professional development, symposiums and short face-to-face and online training. By the end of 2018 the project had trained over 1250 teachers and other school staff. Our focus is primarily on training teachers, however some training also provides opportunities for school nurses and other school staff. Recognising that relationships and sexuality is important throughout our lives, the training includes a focus on all school years and has attracted teachers with a broad range of experience and from a range of learning areas, highlighting the opportunities for cross-curricular implementation.

The size of WA represents a challenge. To-date the majority of the training has taken place in the Perth metropolitan area, however the Department of Health funding has provided travel for teachers from rural and remote schools. At least 25 per cent of attendees at intensive metropolitan trainings come from rural and remote areas and at least 50 per cent of teachers are teaching in areas of high need (low socio-economic areas, high proportion of Aboriginal students, and/or high proportion of culturally and linguistically diverse). More recently we have delivered intensive training in the Pilbara and Kimberly and plan a visit to the south west next year.

To support rural teachers we run additional webinars and at least one of our after school training sessions is delivered live and online each year. Trained teachers receive ongoing support through a web portal, via our Facebook site, and through the Department of Health WA’s Growing and Developing Healthy Relationships website.

Evaluation of the intensive two-day training has found significant improvements in teachers’ attitudes towards RSE and increased comfort in teaching RSE, facilitating discussion and facilitating skills and activities.

“Vastly improved and broader knowledge base, particularly on the topic of gender diversity/equality. Comfort or confidence with the subject area has also grown as I have increased awareness of all the wonderful organisations out there that are willing to assist schools in our delivery of RSE. Facilitation will improve through increased practice, but lots of great ideas from which to get started,” participant, 2018.

In recognition of the importance of training pre-service teachers we have developed a specific unit for pre-service teachers, embedded in the Curtin University School of Education curricular, making us one of only two universities in Australia to offer a specific RSE unit for teachers. This unit has also received excellent evaluations and trained 224 education students.

Since 2018, the RSE project has been working with purposively selected school communities to facilitate the provision of a whole school approach to RSE delivery. Four unique school communities are currently engaged in this case study: metropolitan primary school (K-6), metropolitan secondary school (7-12), metropolitan education support centre (7-12) and remote rural school with a high Indigenous population (K-12). The case study approach allows schools to implement strategies specific to their school communities and adopt the Health Promoting Schools framework which recognises the importance of a whole of school approach including strategies in Curriculum,

Teaching and Learning; School Organisation, Ethos and Environment; and Partnerships and Services. This approach also recognises the importance of RSE across all areas of the curriculum. While this is sometimes easier for primary teachers, involving the whole secondary staff in training offers a range of benefits in terms of whole school commitments and broader opportunities for integration into a range of subject areas. Our baseline research with students has found they are keen for a greater emphasis on

RSE and have identified similar issues as teachers. When asked what they would like included in their RSE curricular secondary students suggested: “Sexuality (straight or otherwise), sexting/nude photos (it is very common), sexual harassment, protection/importance, the legal age (extremely important), cyberbullying/unwanted pressure (regarding sexually revealing photos/forced actions, etc).”

The complexity of RSE along with emerging issues highlights the importance of pre-service training along with regular professional development for teachers. Teachers are enthusiastic, committed and eager for training to support facilitation of engaging and contemporary RSE.

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