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Removing relationship and sexuality education ‘takes us back in time’

5 December, 2023

Interview by Beth Torrance-Hetherington and Lou Morris, adapted by Joel Armstrong

President of Abortion Rights Aotearoa (ALRANZ), Ella Shepherd, New Zealand’s longest-running pro-choice organisation, says the government is “legislating with reactionary ideology" by removing relationship and sexuality education (RSE) from schools. 

Coalition negotiations between National, ACT, and NZ First have resulted in relationship and sexuality education (RSE) being removed from schools. 

The latest RSE guidelines were implemented in 2020 by former NZ First MP, Tracey Martin, as part of health education under the New Zealand school curriculum and provide young people with education about consent, healthy relationships, sexuality, and bodily autonomy.

Currently schools teach RSE up until the end of Year 10, with parents and caregivers having the option to withdraw their child from RSE if they choose. 

But NZ First Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, has since revised his party's policy, claiming schools should not promote an ‘ideological’ curriculum.

Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, Katie Fitzpatrick, told 95bFM’s The Wire, that the guidelines were in response to calls from rangatahi. 

“We saw three petitions to parliament from 2017 onwards asking for better relationship, consent and sexuality education."  

She highlights the necessity of RSE in the digital age, where pornography and dating apps are easily accessible, and TikTok and Instagram are key sites for information about body image and identity.

"The move to remove RSE in schools is a direct move against what young people want."

"Young people are really angry about it. They feel like it's a betrayal of hard-fought work for better RSE." 

President of Abortion Rights Aotearoa (ALRANZ), a pro-choice advocacy group that has petitioned for RSE education, Ella Shepherd, told The Wire that removing RSE in schools means students will miss out on a “core part of education”.

“It's incredibly important, because it helps students know what healthy relationships are, and by extension, what unhealthy relationships are.”

Shepherd says most parents understand what RSE is and are supportive of it being taught to their children. 

She credits RSE for improving adolescent’s understanding about consent, reducing sexual violence among young people, and helping them form healthy relationships with each other and their sexuality.

She says the government is removing a “safe forum” for young people to explore their own identities. 

“Schools should be a place where students can go and learn, challenge themselves, ask questions, and debate things in a positive and respectful way with each other.”

“It’s quite concerning seeing this government taking a reactionary and fundamentalist view that is out of line with evidence-based research.”

“It takes us back in time.”

Shepherd stresses that taking away RSE will lead young people to seek information from unreliable sources, which can negatively contribute to their understanding about sexual health. 

She encourages those who want to keep RSE in schools to write to local MPs and school boards. 

Listen to the full interview with Katie Fitzpatrick

Listen to the full interview with Ella Shepherd

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air