Lizzie Marvelly ponders whether she would've understood her sexuality earlier had she received more inclusive teaching in health class at school.

COMMENT

In 2007, I finished high school. Helen Clark was the Prime Minister. Evermore's song Light Surrounding You was the single of the year at the New Zealand Music Awards (then held at the Aotea Centre). Britney Spears shaved her head in the middle of a public meltdown. Lorde turned 11.

It was also the year when the current New Zealand curriculum was implemented.

A lot has changed since then. Same-sex marriage has been legalised. Online porn has exploded. The term revenge porn (unfortunately) has entered our vernacular. Sending nude photographs has become an entirely unremarkable part of many relationships (or flirtations). Unsolicited dick pics have become a (revolting) thing.

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The landscape that teens are negotiating when it comes to relationships, sex and sexuality is completely different to that older generations have navigated. And I include myself in that statement. I may be (just) south of 30, but I had a charmed, innocent, rose-tinted ride compared to my younger peers.

In the UK, there is some recognition of the fact that sexuality education, as prescribed by their current curriculum, is largely outdated. The British Government has recently released a new draft relationships and sex education curriculum. Consultation on the document has just closed, and it has drawn both vocal support and opposition from various quarters.

Talking to teenagers about sex is always a sensitive subject. It always inspires strong reactions. But it is too important a conversation to shy away from. The very first column I wrote for this newspaper was about sexuality education. Since then, I've co-produced a webseries on the subject and written a book that delved into the sexual landscape young people face, which included an investigation into the research around young people and porn. It's a subject close to my heart, because I know that our current sexuality education framework is failing a number of Kiwi students. I believe it's time that we followed Mother England's lead, and updated our own curriculum.

Why? Because the world has changed rather a lot since I was at school, and the curriculum hasn't kept pace. There is not one mention of LGBTQ+ (nor the words those letters denote) in the 2007 curriculum, for example. Nor is there a single mention of the word consent. The language used is broad and avoids anything even close to the dreaded compulsion. Legally, schools are given the scope to decide what they teach, which leaves open the option for avoiding controversial topics. Even if those same topics will be near impossible for teenagers to avoid in the real world.

The Ministry of Education has long held that the curriculum's openness to interpretation is a strength rather than a weakness, but in some areas – particularly sexuality education and the history of New Zealand – I would argue that it instead represents a failing of the education system. Under the current legislation, some schools are doing a wonderful job, but some are equally doing a terrible job, but well within the law.

It is true that there are supporting documents that go alongside the curriculum. One such text, released in 2016, provides guidance on teaching students about diverse sexualities and consent. It is a detailed resource that offers clear suggestions for what should be covered as part of Health teaching. Why then can't it be adapted, given legal clout, and merged into the curriculum proper?

None of this is meant to criticise health teachers. Most health teachers are doing a fantastic job, but there are those who either work in school environments where restrictive regimes hinder their ability to engage with particular areas of sexuality education, or whose own views interfere with the scope of teaching their students receive. Standardising the curriculum would remove those barriers and ensure greater quality control.

More time also needs to be devoted to health teaching. Currently, students are likely to spend an hour per week in health class compared to four to five in English and maths. Health teachers are not given anywhere near enough time to teach their students about vital topics. While literacy and numeracy are undoubtedly important, so is learning about relationships and wellbeing. While I've never used anything I learnt in maths from year 9 onwards, I use concepts and skills that I learnt in health almost everyday.

Unlike some of my peers at other schools, I was lucky to have great health teachers, but my health education still missed some crucial points. When I was at school, for example, there was little, if any, mention of same-sex attraction or relationships. The sexuality education I received was exclusively heterosexual. Statistics tell us there will have been LGBTQ+ students in my class. Indeed, though I didn't properly understand it at the time, I was one of them. I've often wondered whether I would've understood my sexuality earlier had I received more inclusive teaching.

Anecdotally, I've heard from students and parents that there are still schools in 2018 at which LGBTQ+ relationships and attractions are excluded from sexuality education teaching. And it's not only health classes that should be scrutinised. It is the responsibility of the whole school – every class, every teacher and every board of trustees – to create a safe and inclusive environment.

The problem isn't that health teachers are doing a bad job. It's that the standard varies considerably at each school. The system, as a whole, is fostering inequality in the quality of sexuality education that Kiwi students are receiving.

Which is, frankly, unsafe. Our young people are living in a more dangerous sexual landscape than their parents and grandparents. Between easily accessible violent online porn, instantaneous image-sharing technology, scandals like that involving Wellington College, the infamous Roast Busters, and some of the worst sexual violence statistics in the OECD, I'd have thought that we should be doing everything that we can to make sure that our young people are safe and happy.

It's time we put their safety before our pearl-clutching squeamishness. Because otherwise, our kids will continue to fall through the cracks.