Safe Schools Program: new research evidence highlights how much it is needed in our schools

By Debbie Ollis

The attacks on the Safe Schools program illustrate how far removed some politicians are from the reality of what young people in our schools want to learn about. I make this observation as a member of a research team that, last week, released a report, It is not all about Sex, detailing young people’s views of Sexuality and Relationships Education in schools.

I am here to tell you all about our research, which provides evidence that programs such as Safe Schools are vital for our children in 2016. But first I want to comment on the recent changes to the program that limits it to high school students and takes away links to community support.

Changes to the Safe Schools Program

I believe the changes to the Safe Schools Program are nothing short of moral panic. Many young people are harassed and bullied in primary schools because of perceived difference on the basis of sexual and gender diversity. To suggest that we begin such education in secondary schools, is naïve and ignores this pain and invisibility and does little to provide sexuality and relationships education that is developmental and sequential.

The aim of the program is inclusion and the elimination of all forms of harassment and violence. The review (instigated by concerns from some members of parliament and carried out by University of Western Australia Emeritus Professor Bill Louden) found the content to be generally ‘suitable, educationally sound and age appropriate for schools’. However the changes remove access to important resources that support sexually and gender diverse young people, such as minus 18. This potentially removes safe and reliable community resources and could put young people at risk as they try to find some connectedness. Moreover, only including mental health links ( as the changes demand) positions sexually and gender diverse young people as though they somehow have something wrong with them, subjecting them to yet another form of discrimination.

Our research backs up the approaches used by the original Safe Schools program.

It is not all about sex report is the first phase of a major research project being undertaken by the University of South Australia, Deakin University and SHine SA.

What young people think about sex education in schools

 My colleagues and I surveyed the views of 2325 students between ages 13–16 from 14 state government schools in South Australia and 17 in Victoria. In this Stage 1 report we focussed on students’ views on the following:

  • Most used and trusted sources of information on sexuality and relationships
  • Discussing sexuality and relationships issues
  • What is taught in sexuality and relationships education
  • Teaching and learning activities
  • Feelings during sexuality and relationships education
  • The ‘best teachers’ of sexuality and relationships education
  • What should be taught in greater depth, and
  • Ideas to improve sexuality and relationships education

School programs are the most used and trusted

Although students’ views about school based Sexuality and Relationships Education (SRE) were equivocal, overall they did see it as playing an important role in educating students about sexuality and relationships. School programs were the most used source of information and featured highly as the most trusted.

But there are gaps

Previous research has identified a gap between what is taught in SRE and what students would like to learn about. This gap is also evident in our research and points to the importance of asking students’ what they want and need in order to develop responsive and relevant curriculum and pedagogical approaches.

What students want to know is not what teachers are most comfortable teaching

Contemporary issues such as gender diversity, staying safe online, and building safer relationships were identified as issues of concern to the students in our study. Topics such as puberty, reproductive systems, STIs and contraception did not appear in the top 10 topics that students wanted to learn in more depth. However the latter appeared in the top ten most taught topics reported in our survey. This is consistent with previous research that indicates that teachers are comfortable with teaching more ‘factual’ information and less comfortable teaching issues deemed to be controversial.

Strengths-based approach

The move to a strengths-based approach in Health and Physical Education in the new Australian curriculum presents a unique opportunity to build on what students know, and to explore positive aspects of sexuality such as love, sexual pleasure and gender diversity. These were all identified by students as needing to be taught in greater depth.

There are challenges in adopting this approach, as well as opportunities. The need for students to acquire the knowledge and skills to keep themselves healthy requires some focus on health risks. However, for too long, risk discourses have formed the bedrock in SRE resulting in students often feeling disempowered, victimised and alienated. Getting the balance right is difficult but necessary.

Differences between boys and girls when it comes to sex education

More girls than boys felt uncomfortable embarrassed or annoyed during SRE. Despite some significant gender differences the topics they nominated that caused them discomfort were similar: talking about masturbation, sexual practices, pornography, learning in mixed sex classes and other students’ attitudes were the top five nominated.

Both girls and boys often cited boys’ joking or disruptive behaviour as a cause of discomfort and girls were much more uncomfortable than boys about learning in a mixed-sex environment. Students expressed discomfort when topics such as masturbation and other controversial issues were covered in class. Again, girls were more uncomfortable than boys on every topic that was named in the top 10. However, these feelings were not always seen as a bad thing if what was taught was viewed as relevant and necessary.

There were marked differences of opinion between girls and boys about what should be taught in greater depth. More girls than boys wanted ‘violent relationships’, ‘gender diversity’, ‘staying safe online’, ‘ending a relationship’ and ‘love’ taught in greater depth. Boys wanted more depth on ‘how to have sex’, ‘different sexual acts’, ‘sexual pleasure’, ‘masturbation’ and ‘pornography’. This despite the fact that talking about sexual practices was second in the top 10 topics that made students feel embarrassed.

Students want to be heard about what and how they learn about sex

Significant numbers of participants expressed their desire to be consulted about the content and teaching approaches used in SRE. Girls and boys responses were similar although their prioritising of these was different. It is clear however that they do want their voices heard and, as discussed above are very clear about what they want to learn about and how. Love and all facets of safe and pleasurable relationships, gender diversity and staying safe online, were all prioritised by students. Learning more about sexual pleasure and how to have sex were also of importance.

Education and the Safe Schools Coalition

These findings have obvious implications for curriculum development in SRE. Our research comes at a time when there is increased emphasis on the role that education can play in promoting respectful relationships and addressing the misconceptions in the media about the Safe Schools Coalition.

The Safe Schools Coalition has developed an evidenced based approach to addressing the violence and discrimination that sexually and gender diverse young people experience in schools. An effective anti-bullying approach must be whole school and inclusive. It is naïve to think that punishing someone, for example, for verbally assaulting a young person will be effective without developing knowledge and understanding of the impact of invisibility and silence. An effective approach must look at language and build empathy and inclusion. Fifteen years of research has shown if schools take a whole school, inclusive approach such as Safe Schools, young people feel supported, valued and they are less likely to self harm. Issues of gender and sexual diversity and violence in relationships are key issues identified by students for students.

Further research will add to our knowledge and help build new resources

We are currently conducting the second phase of our Stage 1 research, which involves smaller groups of students from two schools in each state interrogating and responding to some of the significant survey findings and working with us to discuss and explain some of the contradictions we have discovered in our data.

Stage 2 will involve these same students in research methodology workshops with us taking on the role of ‘research allies’.

In the final stage students will be involved in the creation and application of new sexuality education resources and teaching approaches, using innovative research methods such as photovoice.

I believe we need to listen to young people when it comes to sexuality and relationships education, to build on what they know and to use evidence based approaches for developing quality teaching resources ( such as the Safe Schools program) for them


Here is a link to the full report It’s not all about sex


160080-d-ollis-008Debbie Ollis is senior lecturer at Deakin University where she teaches and researches in the area of sexuality education. Debbie has worked in the sexuality education field for over 30 years as a secondary school teacher, policy officer, curriculum consultant, curriculum writer, teacher educator and researcher. She has co-authored two national frameworks in the area and written curriculum resources for state and federal governments. Most recently she has written a respectful relationships curriculum for Victorian secondary schools and coauthored a sexuality education monograph for Universities. Her research is focused on capacity building in sexuality education, teacher education, gender and violence education and young people’s experience of school based sexuality education. Debbie is currently involved in number of projects in these areas, including an ARC linkage project researching young people’s experience and voice in sexuality education


For more information about the research project please contact

Bruce Johnson;

Lyn Harrison;

Debbie Ollis;

One thought on “Safe Schools Program: new research evidence highlights how much it is needed in our schools

  1. Michael Mazur says:

    __My colleagues and I surveyed the views of 2325 students between ages 13–16 from 14 state government schools in South Australia and 17 in Victoria.__

    Why weren’t the views of Islamic and Jewish students surveyed in their respective schools ?

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