This week's news about Wellington College students' discussions on Facebook raises yet again issues of rape culture, sexism and young people. The subsequent commentary about what the school should or should not do, and where fault lies, seems to almost entirely miss the point.

Schools are not to blame for student discussions on Facebook and it is unfair to hold a single principal to account for what young people do in their private lives and discussions. This is especially so when the attitudes expressed are a reflection of how women are represented in other online forums, in pornography and in television and film.

The real issue is societal-wide attitudes to women and we all need to take responsibility.
There is, however, an opportunity at school for young people to engage with studying, critiquing and challenging how intimate relationships, sex and sexuality are being presented to them, and for them to learn relationship skills.

This opportunity is in health education classes. It is not up to (or possible for) schools to solve all societal problems. However, there is a specific place in the New Zealand curriculum for students to study, learn about and develop relationship skills.


As a part of health education, students learn about sexuality, including issues of consent, intimate relationships, legalities, and strategies for safety. They learn about societal issues such as rape culture, sexism, and discrimination.

They have opportunities to develop knowledge about, as well as discuss, debate and question these kinds of societal problems.

Some schools have excellent health education and sexuality education programmes but many do not. Problematically, the Ministry of Education does not require schools to teach sexuality education.

While they published a current guide for sexuality education in schools in 2015, there has been no meaningful professional development or support for teachers, and no extra resources to support this work.

The Education Review Office last reviewed sexuality education in schools in 2007. That report showed that it is given little time or support in many schools. They highlighted that quality programmes should have 12-15 hours of sexuality education a year.

This means health education should be timetabled in high schools at least 2 hours a week. In many schools, however, health education is not timetabled at all.

Critics of sexuality education in schools, such as the fringe lobby group Family First, argue that schools should not be engaged in educating young people about sexuality and relationships.

Such an argument ignores the official status that health education has had in the New Zealand Curriculum since 1987 and the inclusion of health education as a subject of study in the NCEA.


Such arguments also seek to keep young people ignorant about the very issues that fundamentally affect their lives. Health and sexuality education are subjects of study, which lead both to increased knowledge and also to meaningful careers.

Lastly, one key thing that has been missed in the analysis of the Wellington College students is that the discussions have come to light despite occurring in a private Facebook page. This means at least one person involved in the discussion decided to challenge the attitudes being aired there and do something about it.

Many young people are just as concerned with - and perhaps even more willing to challenge - these kinds of attitudes than adults are.

We need to stop treating young people as problematic and wayward "naughty" kids, and start ensuring that they are able to engage in meaningful learning and discussion about these kinds of issues.

It is not the role of schools to solve this societal problem but schools do have a role in engaging young people with learning about it: this begins in health education and sexuality education classes.

It's time to get this subject some priority in the school timetable, as well as more serious resourcing and professional development support from the Ministry of Education for schools and teachers.

• Associate Professor Katie Fitzpatrick teaches and researches in health education in the faculty of education and social work at the University of Auckland.

She is also a Rutherford Discovery Fellow and her research is funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

She was the lead writer on the document Sexuality Education: A Guide for Principals, Boards of Trustees and Teachers (2015).