Many academics and policy advocates are heaving a sigh of relief following the release of the new sexual education curriculum by Ontario’s Progressive Conservative (PC) government Wednesday morning.
“I must say, I’m quite relieved. It’s way better than I thought it was going to be. To me, it doesn’t look like a tremendous departure from the 2015 curriculum,” said Sarah Flicker, associate dean of teaching and learning at York University.
The outline of the health and physical education curriculum for grades 1 through 8 is available on the Ontario website, though a comprehensive document has also been released. It will be implemented at the start of the school year in September 2019.
Prior to being elected premier of Ontario last October, Doug Ford campaigned on a promise to change the province’s sexual education curriculum — saying the the newly updated version released by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in 2015 was not “age-appropriate.”
He said in a news release in 2018 that under Wynne “schools have been turned into social laboratories and our kids into test subjects for whatever special interests and so-called experts that have captured Kathleen Wynne’s ear.”
Ford wouldn’t say what parts of the sex-ed curriculum he takes issue with, only that parents were not consulted enough.
While experts agree that the two curricula are largely similar, here is an overview of the differences:
Gender identity moved to Grade 8, sexual orientation moved to Grade 5
In the new elementary school curriculum, released Wednesday, sexual orientation will be a mandatory topic taught in Grade 5, earlier than in the Liberals’ 2015 curriculum, which had such material slated for Grade 6. Gender identity will be a mandatory topic in Grade 8 where it was previously mandatory in Grade 6.
Both topics were previously mentioned in the curriculum document for Grade 3, though they were not mandatory lessons.
Students had to describe how visible and invisible differences make each person unique, and examples given for invisible differences were “learning abilities, skills and talents, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, family background, personal preferences, allergies and sensitivities.”
WATCH: Ontario government says they listened to more than 72,000 on sex-ed curriculum changes (March 2019)
Jen Gilbert, an associate professor with the faculty of education at York University and author of the book Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education, explains why these changes might be problematic.
“There’s a quite detailed discussion of sexual orientation in Grade 5 but nothing about gender identity until Grade 8, even though it might be true that younger people might have a stronger sense of their differences in terms of gender, whereas sexual orientation might be a bit later,” explained Gilbert.
In addition, masturbation remains an optional teacher prompt in Grade 6, and anal sex continues to be first mentioned in Grade 7 in terms of delaying sexual activity until students are older.
Greater focus on online safety
In addition to adjusting the timing when certain subjects will be addressed in the classroom, Flicker was pleased to see a greater emphasis on online safety and security.
Cybersafety, bullying prevention and digital privacy are focused on in almost every grade, with an emphasis on the online component of relationships and the security of one’s personal devices.
“The other thing that I was actually really pleased about was an explicit mentioning of online safety, including around the challenges of accessing pornography, which was new, and it was something a lot of community groups had been advocating for,” Flicker explained.
The focus on digital safety begins in Grade 1, and students are expected to understand how to stay safe and avoid harmful behaviours on the internet. In Grade 2, students are expected to demonstrate practices for keeping themselves safe online.
Teacher prompts are included throughout the curriculum, as was the case with the curriculum released in 2015.
WATCH: Ontario Children’s Advocacy Coalition talks Ontario government’s new sex-ed curriculum
Detailed exemption procedure
Perhaps the most overt difference between the 2015 curriculum and the PCs’ updated curriculum is the inclusion of a detailed exemption procedure that allows parents to pull their children out of health education, should they so choose.
The memorandum, included in the curriculum document, requires school boards to develop a policy whereby students can be exempted from subjects related to human development and sexual health at the request of their parents.
Parents have always been able to exempt their children from sexual health education, Gilbert said, though she doesn’t believe parents should be allowed to pull their children out of these lessons.
“I don’t think parents should be able to pull their students their children out of school during lessons that concern human rights so that you will have to see how that works itself out as the school year starts,” Gilbert said.
WATCH: Showdown over Ontario sex-ed curriculum (January 2019)
While Flicker believes that the detailed communication around exemption policies are a good thing, she adds that singling out health education for exemption reinforces harmful taboos around the subject.
“The challenge I have with pulling out just the health pieces is it redefines this notion that this is material that is somehow different or stigmatized,” she explained.
“The ways in which we choose to teach math or history, and what we choose at different levels, also has huge impacts on student learning so why is it that we feel the need to send a letter home to say: ‘On Tuesday, we’re going to talk about menstruation’ versus ‘on Tuesday, we’re going to talk about fractions,'” she continued.
In addition, the curriculum also includes a number of minor changes.
The upgraded curriculum more thoroughly addresses mental health and social-emotional learning skills at each stage of development, includes modules on concussion causes and prevention and obtaining clear consent in physical relationships and also adds a section on the safe use of cannabis products.