Liz Sandals defends her government’s new sex-ed curriculum

Today’s Parent put reader questions to Ontario’s minister of education.

Liz Sandals

Galit Rodan/CP

Ontario’s parents are grappling with a new sex ed curriculum in their kids’ public schools. Adrian Lee wrote that the most galling fact about the outgoing curriculum, last amended in 1998, is its age. Emma Teitel wrote that nothing makes sex unsexy quite like a school teacher talking about “the dangers of dick pics” when the new curriculum rolls out in September. But many parents still have questions, and Today’s Parent, where this Q&A first appeared, took reader queries straight to the education minister.

Nothing seems to polarize parents quite like sex ed, and we get it—this is a sensitive subject and everyone is going to have different opinions on the curriculum as a whole or specific aspects of it.

Since Ontario released its updated Health and Physical Education curriculum on Feb. 23, parents have been asking a lot of questions about what their kids will learn and when they’ll learn it. So we went to the source, education minister Liz Sandals, to get you answers.

Question: The updated sex ed curriculum is available to parents, and I think the fact sheets are a great overview of the changes. However, it seems that many people are having trouble understanding the difference between the specific expectations in the document versus teacher prompts. Could you please clarify the difference for non-teachers?

Liz Sandals: The actual curriculum is the expectations—so whenever it says “expectations,” that’s what the student needs to learn as part of the curriculum. And then things that are labelled “teacher prompt” or “student response” aren’t actually a mandatory part of the curriculum—they’re more an example. In some cases, the teacher might use the prompt to start a discussion, or (if) you ask a question and you don’t get much of a response from the kids, how do you move the discussion along? It might be examples in the prompts. The bottom line is the prompts are background material, or they’re conversation-starters, or they’re ways to appropriately answer questions. The actual expectations are the curriculum.

How is learning about anal sex and oral sex age-appropriate in grade seven?

Liz Sandals: This is where some data’s important. We know from public health data in Ontario that the teen pregnancy rate has dropped by 50 percent since ’96 or ’97. At the same time, the rate of sexually transmitted infections that are reported in teenagers has gone up. We said about 40 to 60 percent, but if you look at the reported rate of chlamydia infection in teenagers, it’s actually gone up 80 percent.

The other thing that you need as background is kids are starting to go through puberty when they’re eight, nine, 10 years old, which is why we talk about puberty in grades four, five and six. By the time they get to grades nine and 10—again, this is public health data—about 22 percent of grade nine and 10 kids will actually admit that they’ve had sexual intercourse. So grade seven and eight becomes this sort of window where the kids are actually mature enough to talk about actual sexual activity, and when you’re hopefully going to hit them before they do something stupid.

There’s information about contraception in the current curriculum. If the teen pregnancy rate has dropped, the kids are understanding ‘How do you get pregnant? How do you avoid getting pregnant?’ They clearly don’t understand how sexually transmitted infections are transmitted. Many students understand you should avoid having intercourse to avoid having pregnancy, and then they turn to other forms of sexual activity—particularly oral sex—and think, ‘Well that’s OK, I avoid being pregnant.’

But what they haven’t actually understood is that’s how you transmit sexually transmitted infections. So we actually have to give them the whole story: It isn’t just about avoiding pregnancy—we also don’t want want you to get a sexually transmitted infection.

Many parents have told us that they feel it should be up to parents to teach their kids about sex, and that they should decide when their child is ready. What would you say to parents who feel this way?

Liz Sandals: We want parents to be involved in the conversation, but we also have to pay attention to what the public health data says. So if the public health data says that kids in the junior grades—grades four to six—are going through puberty, or beginning to go through puberty, then that’s when we need to talk to them about puberty. We just talked about a lot of the other data; if that’s what the public health data tells us, then it’s the public health data that’s defining age-appropriateness.

Our decisions about what to put in the health curriculum when is actually based on public health data. For example, with this whole issue of when does puberty start, it’s been dropping a year about every decade. So we actually have started the discussion of puberty one grade earlier than in the existing curriculum because the existing curriculum was developed prior to 1998, and age of the onset of puberty has continued to drop since then, so we’ve lowered the grade by one year at which we introduce the topic of puberty. I think a lot of parents don’t actually realize what’s already in the curriculum.

Part of the reason that we are developing the guides and the tip sheets for parents (available here) is because we actually want parents to know what their kids are learning, because we actually think that this is a partnership, that it isn’t an either or—that it isn’t either the school or the parent—we think it’s both. So we want the parents to know what’s being taught in the school, and then the parent can have the conversation about what are my religious beliefs, what are our cultural traditions, what are our ethical and moral values. We actually want the parents to be having that values conversation with their (kids).

How will this new curriculum impact what is taught in Catholic schools?

Liz Sandals: The curriculum is the same in public schools and Catholic schools—this is the Ontario curriculum. In the case of the Catholic schools, they also do a lot of curriculum development through an organization called ICE, which is the Institute for Catholic Education, and that’s the Catholic teachers, the Catholic principals, the Catholic directors—it’s all the stakeholders in the Catholic education system. The Bishops are represented there too. So we work with ICE on the development of their curriculum. They will make some components of the curriculum part of their family life course.

In terms of (what) your parents would want to know, the Catholic trustees, the Catholic teachers, the Catholic principals, the Catholic directors have all been quite supportive of the curriculum.

Are there any plans to have a Health and Physical Education specialist teacher at each school to ensure the new curriculum is implemented and executed well?

Liz Sandals: In an elementary school, whether or not there’s an actual health and phys ed specialist would be a) up to the local school board and its staffing practices, and b) very much dependent on the size of the school, because the larger the school, the more likely you are to have a subject specialist. So that’s going to be a local decision, and it will be dependent on school population to a large degree.

One of the reasons that it was so important to us to get the curriculum out now—and our target date has always been to get the curriculum published at the end of February—is because that gives us March, April, May, June to do professional development with the principals and the teachers. In fact, my ministry already has a rollout plan for professional development. So my ministry officials, my curriculum specialists will work with a team from each board, and then the team from each board will be able to go back to the board and work with the teachers and principals at each board.

Will parents be aware ahead of time exactly what and how the sex ed curriculum will be taught?

Liz Sandals: Different boards will handle it a little bit differently, and it may actually be handled differently from school to school—again, it will depend a little bit upon the culture of the school and, quite frankly, how big an issue it is with the parent community in the school. So the best thing for parents to do is to check with their own teachers and principals and say, ‘How do I find out what’s being taught when?’

One of the reasons that we are developing the parent guides—and we may split it out a little bit further so that we’ve broken it down into a little bit more detail, even—but one of the reasons we did that was to make it easy for boards to, when your child starts, let’s say in September, the information you get from the school at the beginning of the year would (include) what’s being taught in this division, or in this grade. Sometimes the teacher will send that home and say, ‘Let me know whether you want your child withdrawn when we get around to teaching this particular subject.’ As I say, the details will vary from school to school and from board to board, so it really is a conversation that parents need to have with local teachers and principals if they’re concerned.

But we do want to make the information available in ways that parents can figure out, like the parent guide, so that parents have a sense of what’s being taught, so that parents can then have the opportunity to, as I said before, add on their own values to the discussions that are going on at school.

Is adding this to an already packed curriculum going to cut into other areas of learning?

Liz Sandals: No, it shouldn’t. This is a replacement curriculum, so it replaces the 1998 curriculum. It isn’t like we’ve added a new subject—it just updates the existing curriculum. And it isn’t that the curriculum has dramatically grown. The new document’s way bigger than the old document, but (it’s) bigger because it’s got more teacher prompt examples to give teachers more background, more suggestions on how to handle sensitive questions. It’s just that there’s more teacher support in it, not that there’s actually more stuff.

The other thing I would say, too, is that sometimes you’ll find that there can be things that can be combined. So, for example, some of the information about healthy, respectful relationships might be combined with something that you’re doing in the language course where you’re looking at a story—if the story demonstrated relationships, you could actually work (in) some of the teaching, you can combine subjects. Teachers often will take some of the expectations for this subject and some of the expectations for that subject and combine it into one lesson plan. You can see how you might be able to combine science and some of the information about how does your body change.

Ontario’s updated Health and Physical Education curriculum for grades one to eight is available here.

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