Ākonga embrace important kaupapa of relationships and sexuality education

Issue: Volume 101, Number 8

Posted: 30 June 2022
Reference #: 1HAUow

Learning about healthy and happy relationships, and the diverse expressions of gender and sexuality is central to wellbeing, and it’s something many ākonga are passionate about. Education Gazette hears from two schools about how Relationships and Sexuality Education is meeting this passion and guiding important kōrero.

Rangatahi at Wellington High School are highly engaged during Relationships and Sexuality Education kōrero.

Rangatahi at Wellington High School are highly engaged during Relationships and Sexuality Education kōrero.

During Nat Bell’s Health classes at Wellington High School, no topic is off limits.

In a typical term, ākonga will traverse a range of thorny subjects such as pornography, consent, sexuality, and gender.

It’s heavy subject matter – and the students would not have it any other way. In fact, very often they elect the topic, and to observe them in discussion is a masterclass in courage and candour.

Take the issue of consent, for example. “Lately we’ve been talking about how it’s a lot easier to have sex than it is to talk about sex,” says one student.

“And when you think about it, most people are going to have sex in their life so why shouldn’t they learn about consent? Like, why isn’t that as important as maths and English? It should be mandatory. I remember in Year 9 being like, ‘Oh my god, this is so awkward.’ But now I don’t care, I just want to talk about it properly.”

Discussion about consent is not limited to sex, it includes everyday situations such as asking to borrow a pen or being invited to a party.

As another student says, “I find it really difficult to say no to lots of things. I try to come up with an excuse or I lie about it. And when I do say no, I feel so guilty. I know I’m not wrong, but the guilt is so woven into me that it feels wrong whenever I try to set a boundary.

“Health is helping me to realise this and work through it in a way that is healthy instead of constantly compromising my boundaries to make other people happy.”

At this point, a round of finger snapping breaks out as the students tautoko their classmate’s courage.

Students listen carefully to each other during discussion.

Students listen carefully to each other during discussion.

Learning centred on life

“You can see why I love teaching them,” says Nat.

“They’re so into it. It’s their life, they can all connect and add prior knowledge. And if we think about the new concepts of the curriculum around mana ōrite/interdependent relationships, which is students being able to bring their own learning in themselves into the curriculum, they can do that.

“Every person has relationships and every person has friendships. It’s how you interact with adults; it’s how you interact with your teachers. The students are engaged because it’s relevant for them and it matters that they know how to have functioning, healthy relationships.”

Exploring dynamics of relationships

This holistic approach to Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is based on te ao Māori philosophy of Te Whare Tapa Whā, acknowledging that all relationships have dimensions of taha hinengaro, taha wairua, taha tinana, and taha whānau.

Ākonga look critically at culturally based values and beliefs and how they affect individuals and society. They also learn how this affects how people learn about relationships and how they express gender and sexuality.

In this way, tamariki and rangatahi are enabled to show support for diversity and to work together against discrimination, both in and out of school. They can explore values and learn about respect and about care and concern for themselves and others. They also learn to examine how values are expressed in relationships and in different contexts allowing them to gain understanding of ethics, rights, and responsibilities.

Embracing diversity

Ākonga at Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto raise the Pride flag at their school.

Ākonga at Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto raise the Pride flag at their school.

At Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto in Ōtautahi Christchurch, RSE centres on diversity and inclusion. “We’ve made a real effort in our school to make sure that the books in our library reflect diversity,” says principal Sandy Hastings.

William’s Doll, Heather has two Mummies, they’re stories about normal people in our community. They reflect the diversity of our community too. And I think that making sure our children can pick up a book in the library and go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just how our community is,’ is really important.”

Sandy says the theme of inclusion is entwined with every aspect of school life.

“It’s the way we treat each other, the way we talk about our school values, the way we deal with conflict, friendship issues and problems around social media. All these things are addressed as part and parcel of the RSE.”

Inclusive conversations

Team leader for Years 7 and 8, Nicky Dunlop says the focus has shifted from teaching physical and emotional changes around puberty to being about relationships with other people.

“It was very binary. Now, instead of saying female bodies will do this and male bodies will do that, we use words like most and some so that if a child’s body is not doing that or if they identify differently to their sex, that they’re not being alienated from the discussion.

“In Years 7 and 8, we have boys who are tall and muscular developing hair on their faces and then sitting alongside them is their best friend who is the same age almost to the day, looks half their height with no sign of puberty happening. And that can be very tricky for them.”

Kaiako Jenny Diggle says one of the RSE activities tamariki enjoy most is using the school’s question box.

“They post anonymous questions into a box, and we review them, and then plan how we will answer them. Typically, we will get questions around vocabulary, something they’ve heard in the media or that a friend has said, and they haven’t had the confidence to ask what it means. They also ask things like, ‘Why would it not be OK to watch porn?’ and ‘What’s feminism all about?’

“A lot of questions are around ‘Is this normal?’ For Year 7 and 8, they mostly want to know that there’s nothing wrong with them, they are seeking reassurance. And while we try not to say what is and isn’t normal, we say that normal can look like so many different things.”

Kaiako Nicky Dunlop leads kōrero about diversity and inclusion.

Kaiako Nicky Dunlop leads kōrero about diversity and inclusion.

Developing a belief system

Sandy says tamariki can be “amazing advocates” for diversity and inclusion.

“They can be a real ally for people on the spectrum of sexuality or gender and at the same time they can also be quite mean. They haven’t yet realised that the belief system that they’re starting to develop is at odds with the language they use when they talk to each other.”

Sandy says a lot of work and discussion has gone into promoting positive and respectful language and vocabulary, including correct use of pronouns.

“We have a child in the school who is gender diverse and uses pronouns ‘they/ their’. Our parents are generally very accepting but some stumble with pronouns and the children say, ‘Mum, you just need to use the right pronoun.’ So, our children are educating our parents and they’re doing a really good job of it.”

Keeping it relevant

Back at Wellington High School, Nat reflects that RSE is “probably the most important and relevant” subject for young people.

Nat Bell says her students are very keen to develop healthy relationships.

Nat Bell says her students are very keen to develop healthy relationships.

“Relevance is key. I’ve been teaching here for 16 years, and it changes all the time depending on what the students need and what is relevant for them.

“We have been analysing sexuality in our community and our society. We’ve been looking at consent, music and videos. They went for a walk out into the community and took photos of ads. We’re looking at online gaming. We’re looking at pornography. We are looking at New Zealand culture and looking at how sexuality is portrayed in those different aspects. I’m trying to make it relevant to my students and what’s surrounding them.”

One of Nat’s students pipes up saying, “I don’t really view Health as a class. I feel like Ms Bell teaches us, but we also teach her. We tell her about what we go through in our age group, and she’ll be shocked and then she can alter whatever she’s teaching. We learn from each other.”

Building trust

Another student says the class has taught them the value of community.

Nat Bell’s classroom is cosy and welcoming, with clear messaging to support respectful relationships.

Nat Bell’s classroom is cosy and welcoming, with clear messaging to support respectful relationships.

“We’ve had the same group of people from Year 11 to Year 13, so I know all the people in my class pretty well and I trust all of them. We share very personal things. I remember at the beginning of Year 11 being like, ‘Oh, this is really weird’ and I couldn’t imagine being friends with these people but now I’m so sad that we’re going to have to leave at the end of the year.

“Forming the community was a skill and so was learning to trust each other and to share and be respectful because a community is not going to form itself, everyone has to put in the effort. It’s more like whānau than a class.”

For another student, the key takeaway from RSE has been self-care.

“I have learnt about the four dimensions of my wellbeing – taha hinengaro, taha wairua, taha tinana, and taha whānau – all being important. I had never considered that, and it’s changed the entire way I see the world and my life. It has really empowered me to make moves to make my life better.”

Creating a safe space for sharing


Building a safe and supportive culture is imperative before ākonga can delve into discussion about relationships and sexuality.

“You have to take your time, you can’t expect it to just happen,” says Nat. “You need to be patient and help students develop the ability to communicate thoughts and feelings in a respectful way.”

While teaching RSE, Nat explains that it’s important to role-model how to be active and respectful listeners in a way that empowers others to develop and share attitudes, values and beliefs. 

Fairy lights help to create a gentle vibe in Health classes.

Fairy lights help to create a gentle vibe in Health classes.

“We talk about needing a safe learning environment because of the content that we talk about, because of the activities that we run, like open kōrero.
“If students are going to share in front of 30 others, it’s really important we establish safe boundaries and guidelines in order for communication and learning to happen. We brainstorm as a class looking at what we need and want, and then that becomes our kaupapa.”

Consideration to the physical space is important, too. There are no screens in Nat’s classes – “they’re a barrier to communication and relationships” – and seating is arranged in a square so that no-one is sitting with their back to another.

“I’m happy for students to draw while they talk or think, but we often talk about it, and I will address it at the start. I’ll say, ‘This is what we’re talking about and if you feel uncomfortable, feel free to draw. That way, people will know that if you’re drawing, you’re not being disrespectful, you’re just having a bit of time out.’

“You need to create clear safety nets for students who don’t feel comfortable talking and that it’s not disrespectful, it’s a way of coping.”

Nat says many students will share, but a lot like to sit and listen first.
“My kids don’t have their phones out, they’re listening. They might say, ‘Oh, I really like that idea. Can I tag into that? So, no-one’s talking over anyone, everyone listens and they’re so respectful.” 

Students agreed a class kaupapa so everyone could feel safe.

Students agreed a class kaupapa so everyone could feel safe.

Curriculum resources

New resources have been designed within Te Poutāhū | Curriculum Centre to support wellbeing and the teaching and learning of relationships and sexuality education in schools and kura in ways that are effective, safe and inclusive. The resources support Relationships and Sexuality Education: A guide for teachers, leaders and boards of trustees, released in 2020.

These resources will assist educators and boards to implement the national curriculum, take a consistent approach to wellbeing, and meet community consultation requirements. Some are appropriate for primary and secondary schools and kura. Others apply more to one or the other.

The suite includes resources specifically designed for Māori medium and for English medium settings.

The new resources contain additional information on consent, the use of digital technologies, and healthy relationships. They will be helpful to know about for anyone working in wellbeing, health and physical education, pastoral care, and all staff looking to support LGBTQIA+ young people.

They showcase effective practice, support pedagogical knowledge development, include frequently queried topics and provide guidance on creating inclusive environments. A module providing educators with practical skills and evidence-based information to talk about the sensitive topic of pornography is included. Resources to make it easier for teachers to notice and respond to social and emotional learning using the Key Competencies are also part of the package.

Visit hpe.tki.org.nz(external link)

Te Ira Tangata

Te Ira Tangata is the Relationships and Sexuality Education programme developed by Māori sexual health organisation, Te Whāriki Takapou, for ākonga Māori in Years 8 to 10.

The programme comprises eight lesson plans designed to meet the needs of ākonga in Māori medium settings. One suite is for Years 7 and 8, the other for Years 9 and 10. All are written in te reo Māori and use Māori contexts, concepts, and knowledge. 

The programme for Years 7 and 8 draws upon mātauranga Māori understandings of te pūhuruhurutanga (puberty) and te tuakiri o te tamaiti (children or young people’s identity).

Topics covered in Years 9 and 10 explores ngā piringa whai mana and ngā haepapa a te taiohi.

The resources are intended to provide a general foundation of information for kaiako to build on and are designed for kura, whānau and kaiako to be able to adapt to the needs of their kura community. This includes, where appropriate, to add and adapt for differences in dialectal reo and iwi specific mātauranga.

Each programme is available free for download from Te Whāriki Takapou website, and includes links to public resources that support programme delivery. Hardcopies of Te Ira Tangata (Years 9 and 10) are also available.

Read more about Te Ira Tangata at gazette.education.govt.nz(external link)

At Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto in Ōtautahi Christchurch, RSE centres on diversity and inclusion.   

At Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto in Ōtautahi Christchurch, RSE centres on diversity and inclusion.  

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 10:07 AM, 30 June 2022

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