‘We have to listen to students’: Consent education to become mandatory in state schools

Victorian state school students will be given mandatory and specific classes on consent from next month to address deficiencies in education programs amid a storm of criticism that current teaching is failing students.

Education Minister James Merlino will elevate the teaching of consent from what some high schools deliver as vague concepts, such as recognising personal boundaries, to expressly addressing matters of sexual consent.

Education Minister and Acting Premier James Merlino.Credit:Simon Schluter

The new directive would instead compel schools to teach elements of the government’s Respectful Relationships training that address the meaning of free agreement and its application in everyday life.

This could include learning about power imbalances, alcohol, age and whether or not a person may even understand what a sexual act is.

It comes amid a national reckoning about the treatment of women, most recently from past and present Wesley College students reporting disturbing testimonies of sexual assault, harassment, and misogyny.

The Respectful Relationships initiative, which is still being rolled out in all government schools, does include consent in its material, but the particulars of what and how it is delivered is a matter for schools and teachers.

An example of substandard lessons about consent, experts said, could be a teacher lecturing students about consent laws without deeper context, nuance or how they might apply to their lives.

Under the updated program for students in younger years, the teaching of consent may begin with mandated conversations about good and bad touching and appropriately asking permission to use a classmate’s toy.

Older students would examine more complex scenarios relating to sexual consent.

The Andrews government’s move will include more professional development opportunities for teachers, some of whom may have felt nervous or ill-equipped to discuss such sensitive matters.

“[Respectful Relationships] is proven to make a real difference and is a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Family Violence. It is a program that should be rolled out nationwide,” Mr Merlino said.

“But we have to listen to students, who say they want and need a greater focus on this issue in the classroom. It is why we will mandate the teaching of consent in all government schools in an age-appropriate way. This will ensure it is not just taught, but taught well right across the state.”

Victorian Student Representative Council chief executive Nina Laitala said the material in Respectful Relationships was “great” but not all teachers had the confidence or training to teach it comprehensively or in a way that empowered students.

“What we’ve heard is that [consent teaching] is inconsistent across schools and across areas, like most topics that are very personal,” she said.

Year 12 student Claire Lock said the only consent education her class received was a video in year 10 explaining the popular “cup of tea” analogy: that you wouldn’t force someone to drink a tea they didn’t want just because you made it for them.

“It’s a good analogy but when there’s no other education around it, it gets lost,” Ms Lock said.

Respectful Relationships has since been introduced into her rural school in north-east Victoria but she said she was yet to participate in a lesson.

Year 10 student Sienna Gladstone told The Age this month that consent was taught at her co-ed school in Warrnambool in one 45-minute class that was interspersed with schoolmates’ jokes.

Outgoing president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Sue Bell, said many schools were already well advanced in how they taught consent and issues of sexuality more generally.

But she said mandating the explicit instruction about consent in public schools would make it “a great focus” for all students.

She said the curriculum change could include schools deciding to revisit consent teaching in middle or later years if, for example, it was found that lessons delivered to students when they were in year eight had not been comprehensive.

“At the moment we’ve got a perfect opportunity to unearth something that has been an underlying problem in our Victorian society, but that people didn’t really understand the depths of,” Ms Bell said.

“We can bring it into the forefront and young people can have the confidence to have these conversations.”

The Education Department does not mandate teaching for non-government schools but they can choose to opt-in to programs. About a quarter of the 220-plus members of Independent Schools Victoria run Respectful Relationships.



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