Sexual Health Education Programs in Ontario and Quebec: A Passing Grade or Flunking Out?

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In 2015, Ontario and Quebec introduced new sexual health education programs in elementary and secondary schools. Formal evaluations on the effectiveness of these education programs have yet to be conducted. For now, however, we can pose some preliminary questions: What are their similarities and differences between the two curricula? How comprehensive are they? What do they bring that is novel? Could we give each of them a passing grade?

In 2015, the Ministry of Education introduced the highly controversial sexual health education program, “Physical and Health Education Curriculum”, in all Ontario schools (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2015a). This program represented the most comprehensive sexual health curriculum that had ever been introduced in the province. The program planned to discuss various topics related to sexual health and human development from kindergarten to grade 12, with different dimensions of sexual health presented gradually in each grade. For example, body parts in grade 1, initiation of puberty and developmental changes in grade 4, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as of grade 7, and aspects of reproductive health and sexual orientation throughout high school (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2015a). Changes to the sexual health curriculum were long overdue; the last time Ontario made changes to its sexual health curriculum was in 1998, a curriculum which had been developed only for high school students (Ophea, 2016). The roll-out of the program was accompanied by significant disagreement from parents, who felt that it was intrusive to teach children about sexual health and sexuality in school and at such an early age (CBC, 2015).

In Quebec, also in 2015, a 2-year pilot sexual health education program was introduced in 19 schools (Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement Supérieur, 2015). Although the program’s breadth and comprehensiveness were similar to that of their western neighbour’s, it still fell short. This could be attributed to the fact that a mere 5 to 15 hours per year were allocated to sexual health education in elementary and secondary school. Additionally, these hours would be distributed sporadically among different teachers and different classes. In the case of Quebec, most of the resistance to the program was led by teachers who felt they had not been consulted with regards to the mode of delivery of the courses and had not received adequate training to teach the material (Parent, 2017). Just as in Ontario, changes to Quebec’s sexual health curriculum were long overdue; in 2005, the province’s sexual health education program was abolished (Formation personnelle et sociale [FPS]), meaning students had not received formal sexual health education in over 10 years (Caza, 2016).  It is anticipated that once an evaluation of the pilot project is completed, a provincial policy will be implemented.

Many experts in sexual health and child education, such as Francine Duquet from the Université du Québec à Montréal and Deborah Soh from York University, have welcomed the introduction of these new programs, highlighting how sexual health education programs improve sexual health practices in youth. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that sexual health education programs do not encourage sexual activity, but rather delay it, namely the age of first intercourse (Grunseit and Kippax, 1997), in addition to decreasing rates of teenage pregnancies and STIs at an aggregate level (Kirby, 2002). Such consistent evidence thus eliminates suggestions that these programs would entice sexual behaviours and risk-taking.

A number of experts, including sexual health clinicians I have spoken to in the context of my own research, have suggested that due to the previous lack of sexual health education, online pornography has represented a means by which youth develop ideas and an understanding of sex and sexuality. As the Internet is widely available to youth, some of their first encounters with sex may be through these online platforms, although these platforms provide an incomplete depiction of sex and sexuality.

The need for sexual health education was reaffirmed in a recent study conducted with youth, from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. Youth shared their dissatisfaction with their sexual health education experience in school, stating that the education they received did not equip them with an understanding of the complexity of sexual health or prepare them for real life encounters (Byers, Hamilton & Fisher, 2010). This dissatisfaction was especially emphasized by the young women of the sample of students.

Not only will these new sexual health education programs offer basic information to youth on sexual health, filling the information void, they will also provide comprehensive sexual health education and ensure the development of life-long skills.

To the first point, these two programs address important relational aspects of sexual health (e.g., communication, consent, decision-making) and openness towards gender identity and sexual orientation that sexual health education programs are often missing. For example, Ontario’s program includes topics such as gender identity and decision-making regarding intimacy and contraception, thus expanding the scope of more traditional sexual health education. A key element is also the conversation around consent discussed with students as of grade 6. Sexual health education focusing on clinical outcomes, as had been the case in the former curriculum (e.g. prevention of STIs), is limited in scope and prescriptive in nature.

Additionally, the development of life-long skills is ensured through these programs. The idea of life-long skills developed through sexual health education is especially emphasized in Ontario’s curriculum, whose overarching purpose is to improve “knowledge and skills needed to make sound decisions about matters affecting youth health and well-being before they experience real-life situations in which decisions have to be made” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2015b, 42). This approach suggests that the skills developed in these programs are applicable in other spheres of health and well-being over the life course. Indeed, concerns for sexual health during adolescence usually represent the first time that youth take on the responsibility of their health and well-being, independently of their parents’ guidance and help. As such, youth learn autonomy, independence, and decision-making, which are not only useful in terms of their sexual health, but also their long-term overall health.

These two programs have yet to be evaluated and it will be interesting to see if they will have positive effects on sexual health practices, knowledge, and overall well-being. Because the programs are more comprehensive, the expectation is that these evaluations will take into account the various dimensions of sexual health in their measurement outcomes.

References

Byers, E. S., Hamilton, L. D., & Fisher, B. (2017). Emerging adults’ experiences of middle and high school sexual health education in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality.

Caza, P. (2016). Éduquer à la sexualité. Actualités UQAM.   https://www.actualites.uqam.ca/2016/projet-pilote-mieux-encadrer-education-sexualite

CBC News (2015). Ontario sex-ed protest ‘unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,’ principal says.

Kirby, D. (2002). The impact of schools and school programs upon adolescent sexual behavior. Journal of sex research39(1), 27-33.

Gouvernement du Québec (2015). Éducation à la sexualité.   http://www.education.gouv.qc.ca/enseignants/dossiers/education-a-la-sexualite/

Grunseit, A., & Kippax, S. (1997). Impact of HIV and sexual health education on the sexual behaviour of young people: a review update. [Geneva, Switzerland], Joint United Nations Programme on HIV / AIDS [UNAIDS], 1997. 63 p. (UNAIDS/97.4)

Ophea (2016). Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities.

https://www.ophea.net/sites/default/files/pdfs/advocacy/ADV_SexEdReportFINAL_31MY   13.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education (2015a). Sex education in Ontario. Government of Ontario. from https://www.ontario.ca/page/sex-education-ontario

Ontario Ministry of Education (2015a). The Ontario Curriculum Grades 9 to 12: Health and Physical Education

Parent, S. (2017). Éducation sexuelle des Québécois: quand la pornographie prend le dessus. Radio Canada. http://www.rcinet.ca/fr/2017/04/18/cours-educations-sexuelle-jeunes-quebecois-pornographie/

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