Working together to strengthen consent education

Latest news on the steps the Department is taking to strengthen consent education and resources available to parents to have conversations at home.

Image: Three students in front of a school building.

Past and present students across the state have called for improved consent education. This was sparked by a petition by former student Chanel Contos, which led to thousands of young people sharing their stories of witnessing or experiencing sexual harassment, abuse and violence amongst young people.

In March 2021, the heads of the NSW Department of Education, Catholic Schools NSW and Association for Independent Schools NSW signed a Statement of Intent, outlining the role of schools in strengthening students’ understanding of consent and preventing sexual violence among young people.

The Statement is a commitment to work together, in partnership with key government agencies. It is a commitment to strengthen students’ understanding of consent: both through what they learn at school and what they learn and experience outside the school gates. It is also a commitment to support parent and community engagement in discussions about consent education.

The Statement acknowledges the central role of parents and carers as the primary and continuing educators of their children. The NSW Department of Education has partnered with the Federation of Parents and Citizens of NSW (P&C) to engage parents and carers as critical partners.

In June 2021, the Department and the P&C co-hosted the first of a series of webinars on consent education. It was an opportunity hear about steps the Department is taking to strengthen consent education in NSW and how parents can be involved. Webinar hosts also addressed a number of questions submitted by parents and carers.

P&C Federation and NSW Department of Education: webinar video

Duration 35:14

The resources shared in this presentation is for your interest only. References to resources, material or links to external websites in this presentation does not constitute and should not be taken as endorsement by the Department.

Strengthening consent education

Tim Spencer 0:01

All right. Good evening, everyone. Welcome to this joint presentation between the Department of Education and P&C Federation on working together to strengthen consent education. Can I firstly acknowledge the traditional custodians on the various parts of country on which we all meet, and pay our respects to their elders past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

My name is Tim Spencer, and I'm the President of the Federation of Parents and Citizens of New South Wales. I'll be acting as a facilitator for this evening's event. Just a little bit of housekeeping before we start. We will be recording the webinar, and it will be uploaded to the P&C Federation website within about a week. So, if you do miss out on this, in some part, or you know people that were unable to attend, they will be able to view the webinar at a later date.

Unfortunately, because of the tight time format we have tonight, we won't be doing a Q&A in the traditional sense. We will have opportunities for doing that at a later date. We will, however, be taking and answering some questions that you have submitted prior to the webinar as part of this event. You can turn closed captions off if they become distracting this evening. I think that I'm not an expert in turning those off, but it's not a hard thing to try and figure out if they become distracting.

Tim Spencer 1:44

Why are we here tonight? Well, basically following the recent signing of a Statement of Intent on consent by the heads of the three education sectors. Recently, the Department of Education approached and has partnered with P&C Federation to help highlight the Statement of Intent to inform parents about the current consent education that exists within schools at the moment. So, this webinar is the first step in that partnership. And we are planning and hoping to do a subsequent webinar beyond this one.

In Term Three, the Department of Education will invite P&C members and other representative parent groups to participate in a survey. The idea being to learn more about what parents understand about consent and the kinds of supports parents would like to see as helpful. Both the Department of Education and the P&C Federation see this work as vital in supporting the collective effort to best help our young people build healthy and respectful relationships.

So, with that, I'd like to introduce our guest presenters this evening. Firstly, is Gillian White. Gillian is the Executive Director, Early Childhood Education and Schools Policy in the Department of Education. If you can give a wave, Gillian, for those people who can't see your name. Gillian has been involved for many years at different levels in the Department. She is a lawyer by training and we won't hold that against her, but has previously worked at the Department of Premier and Cabinet as well, in executive and policy advisory roles, so she comes with a wealth of experience in this area.

Renee West, if you can throw your hand up too Renee, is a PDHPE advisor, Secondary 7 to 12, with the New South Wales Department of Education. A teacher with more than 20 years of experience within the Department and she delivers targeted programs and services to support schools in implementing the PDHPE curriculum. Again, a wealth of knowledge in this area and we've invited Renee along to talk specifically and to help answer the questions that have been asked by our attendees this evening. So, without further ado, I'd like to hand over to Gillian.

Gillian White 4:16

Thanks very much, Tim, and thank you to everyone who joined us on a Thursday evening. It's always difficult to get to the end of working and or kid wrangling day and join us online. So, we really appreciate your time and also to those who are watching later of the recording. I'd like to also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land I'm joining you from which is the lands of the Cammeraygal people. I acknowledge their custodianship of this land and pay respects to elder's past, present and emerging, and to the traditional owners of the lands you were on which I know are far and wide. I also pay respects to any Aboriginal people that are here with us tonight.

So, thank you, Tim, for the introduction. As you may have read in the P&C’s e-bulletin and in other places, we are really pleased to have developed a strong, foundational relationship with the P&C across many issues, but particularly tonight on the issue of consent. The foundation of that relationship is about strengthening our students understanding of consent, both through what they learn at school and what they learn and experience outside of the school gate. We're very conscious of the dynamics both in and outside the school gate, and how sometimes that's a bit of a false dichotomy for students. We have really committed to working and walking alongside parents and carers on this important topic, because we know that parents and carers are the most important and continuing educators of children, and education is a shared endeavour in everything that we do.

As Tim mentioned, this webinar is the first major step in the reach out discussion that we want to have after that signing of the Statement of Intent on consent, and we're very keen on many more opportunities through webinars, through newsletters and communications through schools directly. And we're also really open to hearing from you, on what would help and how to get the messages out, and how to continue to have that dialogue. So, as you've submitted questions this evening, we're also really open and interested in all the ways that we can engage with parents in your schools and through P&C associations.

Thank you to ever who submitted questions in advance, they were excellent. Most of them are going Renee's way as our curriculum expert and so she'll weave those into the discussion today. But also some of those questions are those big ticket things that I think are the things that we need to keep coming back to. They’re about ongoing dialogue and conversation. If we don't get to them all tonight or you don't feel like they were answered, we're also happy to hear that and continue that conversation and think about the content of future webinars. As Tim alerted you too, and some of you may have read it, the heads of the three education sectors, including our Secretary at the time, Mark Scott, signed a Statement of Intent with Catholic Schools New South Wales and the AIS. We saw it as really important that there was a shared leadership position across all schools and that, that was an important signal, and also a really important basis for us to continuing to collaborate with the Catholic sector and the Independent sector on that shared responsibility and obligation.

The Statement, as you may be aware, responded to calls from young people to improve the consent education they were getting, and students had an important hand in shaping the content. We consulted directly with multiple student groups to inform the words on the page and the thinking about what was next. One of the things that those young people told us loud and clear was that education about consent and problematic sexual behaviours was a definite shared responsibility between schools, parents, other government agencies and broader society, and hence the reason why we're here tonight.

I'm going to do a little tiny bit of a summary of the key themes of that Statement, and obviously you can take a look on the website to dive into the detail. The Statement highlights the important role of the education sector in equipping young people with the skills and knowledge to build positive relationships, to treat others with respect at all times, and to navigate challenging and dangerous situations that can, and do, arise, usually often when students are not in school. As more than 6000 testimonies of young people highlighted in the Chanel Contos survey that you will have heard about in the media, too often these situations can lead to sexual harassment and or sexual violence. So, the Statement recognises that addressing sexual violence and sexual assault amongst young people requires that whole of society response. But it also identifies key areas in which we think the education systems and schools themselves can lead meaningful change.

They are, firstly, promoting student voice and agency. Secondly, working as equal partners with parents and carers and thirdly, providing quality curriculum and the supports around that, to teachers and school leaders. One of the questions we receive prior to the webinar tonight was about the provision of resources for parents to assist in supporting students. That's an excellent question, we're really grateful to receive it. Through the Statement we have committed to providing greater support and resources for parents to continue the conversations with their children, but we need your help to do this, and do this in a meaningful way.

So as Tim foreshadowed, we will actually next month be running a short survey that we'd love for you to complete. This will help guide our future work, and what we cover in the next webinars and the ways we interact. Other important steps we're taking in the education cluster to achieve the goals of the Statement are a bit of a list, but an important list. Firstly, we're developing a suite of curriculum-aligned teaching and learning respectful relationship resources, which for the non-teachers in the audience, which includes me, can sound like a lot of words in a row. Basically, it's about resources that help teachers make sure that they're teaching the right stuff. They're going to be available for all teachers on the Department's Learning Resources Hub. So, it's a bit of a one stop shop, and Renee, the kind of content that she'll cover today goes to what are those key things that teachers are teaching at the different stages and how these resources will assist.

We're also updating the mandatory Child Protection Professional Learning with a strengthened focus on harmful and problematic sexual behaviours, and this is fundamental to all teachers and all staff at Department of Education. We're going to be providing more guidance to schools about high quality third-party programs. So, you might be aware that your children's schools or schools that you're involved in, will sometimes bring other organisations in to supplement the teaching of the class teacher and we want to make sure that the advice to schools is really sound on what good practice looks like, and what kind of third-party assistance may be useful in strengthening respectful relationships education. The final kind of key piece of the puzzle that we're working on is, many of you would be aware that NESA, our partner agency, are embarking on a large-scale curriculum reform and that will include updating the PDHPE curriculum itself where consent is taught and which Renee is going to speak to. So, we think that there's a lot of strength in that curriculum already and this is just another opportunity to shine a spotlight and make sure we've got that absolutely right with the NESA work, and then to make sure that we’re communicating that really effectively to teachers and to parents. So that's another body of work that's going on.

So, I'm going to stop talking now and hand back to Tim and then Renee, but I just wanted to echo, thank you for making time this evening. Thank you for leaning in to what is often a really difficult topic to embrace, and to talk about, but so important for our young people. We look forward to this being the start of many different forms of conversation. This one's a little bit more one sided with a Q&A’s, but we're very interested in ways that we can ensure that we're incorporating parent and carer voice into all the work that we do, So, thank you Tim. Back to you.

Tim Spencer 13:40

Thanks Gillian. I think it's important to reiterate what Gillian said there, that this is our first step. Tonight, is really an information session for all our attendees to understand what the Statement of Intent is all about and understand a little bit about what's in the curriculum already on consent. We will be taking more steps, we hope, in collaborative partnership with the Department to look at it in more detail and to get more feedback and an opportunity for you guys to ask questions as well.

So, our next presenter is Renee West, and Renee will be answering, as best she can, the questions posed by our attendees prior to the webinar. So, I'll be asking the questions of you Renee, and if you could answer them to the best of your ability for our attendees that would be greatly appreciated.

So, one of the key things asked by have our attendees, is where does consent education actually fit into the current curriculum in New South Wales?

Renee West 14:47

Thanks, Tim. Good evening everyone. Just want to echo thanks for giving up your time. Just before we start, I’m presenting off Dharawal land this evening. My deepest respect to the custodians of the land and to any Aboriginal people that are with us today.

So, good question, where does consent education fit in the curriculum? Well, consent is a concept that's embedded within what's called Child Protection education. Child Protection education is part of broader respectful friendships education in NSW public schools. Consent is also addressed through sexuality education programs that are reflective of our PDHPE Kindergarten to Year 10 syllabus and explicitly in the secondary school years, the concept of consent actually turns into sexual consent, as students are exploring those wide variety of relationships that they might experience in their lifetime.

So, the curriculum is really focused on developing the knowledge and the skills that we know our students need to be able to develop and enhance respectful relationships and that includes understanding and negotiating consent. Just keep in mind that the types of learning would be exposure to different situations that students will find themselves in, and that is online and offline environments.

Tim Spencer 16:13

Thanks. The changes to the curriculum are being proposed for primary and high schools?

Renee West 16:22

The learning about consent was strengthened when the new Kindergarten to Year 10 PDHPE syllabus was developed, and that's after extensive consultation with academics and community and teachers and students. That syllabus, what we're currently teaching in schools, was implemented from Kindergarten to Year 10 in 2020. So, the current new and strengthened syllabus does focus on respectful and positive relationships and the clear and age appropriate teaching of consent, and those changes are reflected in primary school and high school content.

Additional to that, the resources that are developed by the Department to support that learning have been updated last year in 2020 and updated again this year in 2021, to make sure that the resources are reflecting changes within syllabus and that's for primary schools and high schools as well.

As mentioned before, further review of these resources will continue into 2021 and particularly because we've just had legislative changes to affirmative consent laws that that will require reflection and review of our resources and probably reflection or review the current syllabus.

Tim Spencer 17:32

And presumably with the current review that NESA’s undertaking with the curriculum, there'll be a change to that within the next few years as well.

Renee West 17:40

Agreed. Yes, absolutely.

Tim Spencer 17:43

So, do students actually learn this in single-sex or co-educational classes?

Renee West 17:50

Yes, that’s a good question. The decision like that is made at a local school level, and it's actually a question that pops up quite a bit. There's not really a clear-cut answer. Keep in mind that teachers would use a mix of single sex and mixed sex groupings in a classroom for this learning but at any stage parents, carers or students could express any concerns to the teacher with those groupings.

Interestingly, girls and boys who express preference to learn in single sex classes usually express that mixed sex classes feel uncomfortable. So, in some instances girls get worried about feeling judged if they ask questions or if they share, and for boys they express preference for single sex classes because sometimes they find it difficult to ask questions in front of girls or they might consider certain topics embarrassing to cover with girls in the classroom. So, in saying that, that reflects what the evidence tells us about effective, respectful relationship education and that one of the main ingredients for effective learning is having a safe and supportive learning environment.

Also, a teacher who is not just knowledgeable but also is confident and supportive. When surveyed, students usually identify the best characteristic for a teacher and for learning this content is a sense of humour within the classroom because it creates comfort. But if we think of the other side of the coin, students who have preference for co-educational classes prefer it because interacting with the other sex in the classroom is necessary, especially to feel confident when communicating with the opposite sex in real life. They indicate that when they share their views with the other sex, it allows them to learn about and understand each other better. And also, they feel they miss out when the opposite sex is given a talk in single sex group.

So, when we go back to our students and ask them what they prefer, those are the considerations that our teachers would have in their mind as they're making those decisions at school level.

Tim Spencer 20:06

Fantastic. So, a fairly big question to answer is what does consent education look like in primary versus high school, and what do students actually learn at each stage?

Renee West 20:20

Yes, the million-dollar question. What are they actually doing in our classrooms? So, I’m going to refer to my notes a bit on this one but it's good to outline what the learning about the concept of consent explicitly looks like. But it's worth knowing upfront, we would never teach consent in isolation.

So, the concept is integrated with things like decision making, influences on decision making, such as pressure, alcohol and other drugs. Other factors we'll be learning and teaching about are problem solving skills, ethical behaviour, learning about the body and bodily autonomy and any other relevant content and issues that overlaps would be embedded within teaching about consent. So, any activity that was used regardless of whether it's Kindergarten through to Year 12 within our classrooms really relies on a positive, strong trust relationship between the teacher and the children in the class, as well as really positive relationships with parents and carers. Even though our syllabuses in New South Wales gives what is evidence Based age appropriate content for what our students learn, teachers are best placed to be able to make decisions about the timing of delivery, the timing, the emphasis that's given teaching the syllabus content that's reflective of the needs of the students in the classroom. So, that’s some things put up front in terms of considerations.

All right, so let's think about kids at different ages so students at different ages and what they're learning. So, at the beginning of primary school when they're in Kindergarten, or what we call Stage One in New South Wales which is Years One and Two, the syllabus allows opportunities for students to learn about things like the body's reaction to a range of situations, including safe and unsafe situations. They learn about parts of the body which are private and the concept of privacy. They learn how people have the right to give consent and tell others not to touch their body when they don't want to be touched. They learn they have a right to say yes or no to affection, including things like tickles, hugs and kisses. They learn about appropriate touch and they learn how to respond to inappropriate touch, and they learn about people that can help them in different situations. So, you know, when they’re hurt, upset or sad and they learn about ways of seeking help in different situations. So that might be calling Triple Zero in an emergency or use a strategy used in New South Wales called ‘No, Go, Tell’ when they feel unsafe. So that's the foundational learning.

When they go Stage Two, so they're in Years Three and Four and they’re nine or ten years old, then they build on what I've just unpacked for you. They learn more about rights and responsibilities in relationships. They start learning about types of abuse, and more about power in relationships and how they can protect themselves. So, the resources that would be used by teachers would really help students to have opportunities to practice responses and strategies to promote personal safety in unsafe situations, which might include assertively communicating messages. They might do that through role plays, and they might explore a range of situations and scenarios and identify and describe differences between accident and abuse, so starting to see deliberate action.

When they get to Stage Three, Years Five and Six, so they're eleven and twelve years old, then they really start extending their learning and understanding of consent, and rights and responsibilities. So, they start learning the skills and strategies to be able to develop new relationships and also maintain respectful relationships. And again, they most often would do this through role play situations and rehearsal activities where they can identify where consent has been given or where rights and responsibilities were respected. They might also describe how to respond into a situation where a person doesn't respect their rights. They might describe strategies to resist coercion, for instance. So, by the end of primary school that's the point that they're at.

When they come into high school and they’re in Years Seven and Eight, and they’re twelve to fourteen, then the focus moves to understanding the laws that are related to consent and the age of consent in New South Wales. They start understanding the concept of consent and the importance of it as part of a respectful relationship and start focusing on intimate and sexual relationships. They also have more opportunities to demonstrate assertive communication and would explicitly practice asking for and receiving consent in a range of situations.

And then in the last year where they study PDHPE, so Year Nine and Ten, they’re fourteen to sixteen, and the focus then moves to practicing negotiating boundaries. So, they might be given different situations, they’d work together to predict potential problems and as a group, they would develop solutions to overcome barriers to negotiating consent or to giving consent clearly. They'd also be again, practicing the use of personal skills to communicate those boundaries and to give and receive consent in different situations and it might move at this stage to beyond just the offline environment and moving to things like refusing requests from people to send sexual images and videos, so we start moving to explicit online material as well and the link then comes in the concept of consent to ethical behaviour. So really clear understanding about ethical behaviour online and offline.

The other thing I just wanted to clarify was students for students in Years Seven to Ten with a disability, particularly with an intellectual disability, if they are unable to access the regular PDHPE outcomes and content through adjustments, they can undertake the PDHPE Life Skills outcomes and content and embedded in the Life Skills outcomes and content, the same opportunities for students to be able to build understanding and negotiate consent, so still building those knowledge and skills.

And then Tim, the last bit for us, which doesn't occur in other states and territories, is that we have a mandatory course in Year 11 and 12, to be able to build on this learning, and it's called Life Ready. It's a mandatory 25-hour course and schools create a school-based program and it's really focused on promoting safety, equality and respect in relationships and again, there's opportunities within that to negotiate consent as part of safe and ethical behaviour. So, you can see this is quite a progression from Kindergarten to Year 12.

Tim Spencer 27:17

Yes, absolutely. quite comprehensive. So how often would students actually learn about this?

Renee West 27:25

Again, a school-based decision but one thing that we know from the research around effective respectful relationships is that one of the lessons aren’t sufficient. So, we need to offer our students opportunities to revisit the content and to be able to build understanding and practise skills over time. We also know from the research that our program should be focused on skill development and they need to be interactive. And you've heard in that last answer, what that interactivity could look like within the classroom. So, the content needs to be explicitly programmed or scheduled, so we call it programming as teachers, to make sure there's regular touch points across a term, across a year, or the two years which we call a stage of learning, to make sure there's consolidation and development. And this learning is best developed with discussions at home. So, you know, schools are encouraged to address this content each year. The emphasis and the time that's allocated is really determined by the teacher in terms of mixing it with other concepts, but you know it works best at school and then consolidated at home and vice versa.

Tim Spencer 28:37

So how as a parent would I know when my child is actually learning about this content at school?

Renee West 28:44

Yes, question I get asked the most, I think in my role, particularly from parents. So, one thing that the Department knows is that members of the community, including students may find some aspects of what we're teaching in PDHPE and Life Ready as confronting or sensitive, maybe even controversial. So, things like abuse, consent, violence, drugs and alcohol or sexual behaviours that content sits within our syllabus, and it could be considered sensitive. So, the Department has a ‘Controversial Issues in Schools’ policy which provides guidance for the management of these issues in schools and schools are advised to work with parents to inform them of the specific details of the program, whether it's a PDHPE program or a wellbeing program and that allows parents and carers to be able to make an informed decision if they need to withdraw their child from a particular session. It also opens opportunities to have a conversation with the teacher or a school executive around what the learning looks like, and that has to be done before the learning begins, and schools are aware of that. Details are usually put in information letters or information sessions, but for parents and carers, they can access the Department's Child Protection Education website. We have some fact sheets on there that clearly outline what learning looks like and the PDHPE syllabus is also publicly available on the New South Wales Education Standard’s Authority websites. So, a quick Google search for Child Protection Education would bring up an outline of what the learning looks like.

Tim Spencer 30:20

And then I suppose to finish up tonight, one of the questions a lot of people will be asking is, how do parents actually assist in teaching consent?

Renee West 30:30

Yes. So, it's a tough question and we're offering, Gill just talked about how much support we’re offering for our teachers because they need support and parents and families need equal amounts of support; because we know that families have that strong role of teaching values and attitudes towards relationships, consent and sexuality; and then laying those foundations for well-adjusted and confident and healthy children and that's what we all want. We all want our students experiencing respectful relationships.

So, I think the first thing is accessing reliable and accurate information about a wide range of relationships, sexuality, and sexual health issues that children and young people will go through to be able to have those discussions at home. Working in partnership with the school is going to maximize the outcomes for our students, for each child.

So, two great resources that parents can access right now and I'll say the names of them and we can follow up with some details on them if people want them. These resources will support parents with discussions around consent and any aspects of relationships or sexuality. The first one is called ‘Talk Soon, Talk Often,’ it’s a guide for parents talking to their kids about sex. Basically, it's a free resource, developed by Western Australian government. It's developed to help parents and carers to initiate what they say are ‘relaxed conversations’ about relationships and sexuality. I know those conversations aren't always feeling relaxed, but it gives the ins and outs of how to have those conversations, and it's a really strong evidence-based guide to be able to use.

The other resource that's really helpful and I don't leave home without it at the moment, it’s probably my favourite resource at the moment, is a book called ‘Welcome to Consent!’ It's an illustrated book, it's written as part of a series by Yumi Styne's and Dr. Melissa Kang. Yumi Styne's is a well-known media person and Dr. Melissa Kang was the ‘Dolly Doctor’ for those who remember Dolly magazine for more than 20 years, and it's a great book that addresses the principles of consent. It's really reassuring. It uses great humour and it's really beautifully written and illustrated. It's designed for eleven to fourteen-year olds and it's also designed for parents and carers.

So, two really easy to access resources that you could pick up, that book sells for about $20 at most stores that would guide some conversations at home at the moment.

Tim Spencer 33:04

Thanks for that Renee. That's a wealth of information there. We might try and make those two resources available either through Federation or some other mechanism at the moment. If anyone's interested, drop us a line at Federation and we'll give you the details about where to find them.

Gillian White 33:22

Tim it’s Gill. I’m just going to pop in there. I think it's really helpful that people will be able to press play on this webinar at home. But those questions are so clear and so helpful and we hope that Renee's explanations are equally really helpful. So, we might just do some sort of dot point summaries and make sure that as we send around these links here also, you know that you can refer back to that and get those links to the resources and the different websites. Because we try as hard as possible to put the all in the same space and be clear on our websites but it's always such a huge amount of information and when you come at something at a particular angle. So, we will work with Tim to bring that together and make sure that we distribute it through P&C channels so that you've got ready reckoners of the really great questions that we've had today.

Tim Spencer 34:20

Absolutely, thanks Gillian. We've come to the end of the webinar for this evening. Can I thank our presenters Gillian White and Renee West for taking the time out this evening to educate us. All of our attendees will receive a short survey in your inbox as part of the registration. We’d actually really appreciate you giving your feedback on tonight’s webinar.

As mentioned previously, we are recording the webinar that will be available in about a week on the P&C Federation website. Watch for communication regarding the consent survey in Term Three and for a possible follow up webinar on this issue sometime later this year. So, thank you all for joining us this evening. Goodnight and enjoy the rest of your night.

[End of transcript]

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