Katrina Marson

Why a good consent curriculum is about much more than yes please. Here’s what we need to do now

If, like me, you weren’t glued to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee proceedings recently, you might have missed the announcement that Ministers of Education around the country are supporting the latest version of the national curriculum.  In any other year this may have been unremarkable – but this year, one particular inclusion was of significant public and political interest.  Consent.

The new curriculum includes improved content about ‘consent’ in Health and Physical Education from foundation grades to year 10, and support for this inclusion was specifically mentioned in the Senate Committee.  The issue of ‘consent education’ has become increasingly politically relevant over the past year or so in Australia.  While young people and advocates have been clamouring for better comprehensive relationships and sexuality education (RSE) for decades, sounding the alarm that it is a key protective factor in safeguarding sexual wellbeing and preventing sexual violence, over the last year the wider community has become newly alive to the issue.

In early 2021, Chanel Contos (pictured in header) conducted a poll on her Instagram which asked whether her friends had experienced sexual violence.  The volume of replies in the affirmative was overwhelming, and it transformed into a petition for better ‘consent education’ – in recognition of the connection between the deficiency in their education and their experiences of sexual violence.  The media interest in the story meant the Australian public began discussing this issue at a national level, and the political pressure this generated did not dissipate.

Inclusion of consent in the curriculum was one of the express goals of Chanel Contos and her Teach Us Consent initiative, and for good reason.  Recognition that the stuff of RSE is a non-negotiable part of every Australian’s schooling life is a huge milestone, and the curriculum gives educators around the country an imprimatur to teach their students more about consent from an early age.  So can we, as a community, rest easy now?

Now more than ever, we must not lose momentum.  It will be a fatal blow to ensuring every young person is fully equipped with the information and education they need to safeguard their sexual wellbeing, if we were to sit back now and say: ‘job done’.  Quite the contrary: the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has done its job – now it’s time for all of us to do ours. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say what I have said many times before: a good curriculum is like a life-saving vaccine.  It could be a brilliant product, but without the means to store it, transport it and get it into people’s arms, it will spoil on the shelf.  This is where we have always stalled on sex-ed in Australia: implementation.  Australia has produced some of the best RSE researchers and providers in the world, and yet it has never crossed over into classrooms, into changed attitudes, into changed statistics about the rates of unwanted sex for young Australians.

This is what prompted me to go overseas on a Churchill Fellowship in 2019 in search of answers to the question of sex-ed implementation: traipsing across Europe and North America, I wanted to understand the secrets to success in sex-ed.  I learned that comprehensive RSE is a complex issue of implementation, expertise and oversight, and I identified six success factors: advocacy, institutional/government support, expertise, equipped educators, engaged parents, and evaluation.  Putting consent in the curriculum is only one small piece of the puzzle. 

First of all, framing this education through the lens of consent is dangerous: we must be teaching young people to expect sexual experiences that are not just free from violence, but far from violent.  It needs to be much more holistic, which is why advocates in the sector tend to use the language of relationships and sexuality education rather than zeroing in on the issue of consent.

Secondly, a new curriculum does not magically endow teachers with the expertise and confidence they need to deliver RSE effectively.  This really matters, because the nature of RSE is such that getting it wrong can be ineffective at best, and counter-productive at worst.  Subliminal messages that come through a teacher’s phrasing, their demeanour, their answers to the curly questions these lessons inevitably prompt, can actually serve to reinforce some of the attitudes that drive sexual violence and harassment.  For example, as someone in Canada said to me, even well-meaning teachers will find themselves resorting to abstinence only messaging because of the taboo around talking about sex.  I have spoken to many educators who worry they are not confident or expert enough to deliver what is a very nuanced subject, and they are right to identify this need for professional development.  We need to invest in ensuring teachers are equipped to deliver RSE effectively, and are truly supported by school leadership to do so.

So too, we know that these lessons can’t begin and end at the school gate.  This is a whole of community effort, and parents and caregivers are a key part of that.  In the Netherlands, it was described to me as a triangle: education of children, of teachers, of parents/caregivers.  Many parents want to understand what their young people will be learning in RSE and why, and more still wish for greater literacy and confidence in continuing the sex-ed conversation at home around the dinner table.  This new curriculum does not do that, either.

The new curriculum is something to celebrate.  It recognises that young people have a right to learn about this important issue from a young age – and it has not been easy to get here, for sex-ed has long been plagued by community and political apathy, ignorance and opposition (which will not have disappeared with this new announcement).  But if we want comprehensive RSE to reach its full potential, so that our young people can reach theirs, we cannot afford to stall again.

Katrina Marson practises as a criminal lawyer in the area of sexual offences.  She is the lead researcher for primary prevention at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, and the president of the Relationships and Sexuality Education Alliance ACT. She is a PhD candidate at Swinburne University, exploring whether there is a right to sex education through a human rights framework.