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Relationships and sexuality education

Relationships and sexuality education is essential learning for all young people 

Relationships and sexuality education supports young people to gain knowledge and skills to make informed, confident decisions about their sexuality and sexual health, and to develop respectful, consensual relationships. Relationships and sexuality education is important for positive youth development and wellbeing. It supports young people to be healthy and safe, to feel confident in their own identities, and to be inclusive and respectful of others. 

Research shows that when young people have access to quality relationships and sexuality education and health services, they are more likely to delay having sex and use condoms and contraception.

Relationships and sexuality education is a required area of learning in The New Zealand Curriculum from Years 1 to 10. It covers a range of topics such as friendships, emotions, consent, healthy relationships, decision-making and personal skills, bodies and development, identity and diversity, sexual and reproductive health, digital safety, media literacy, personal wellbeing and self-esteem. It helps young people to develop critical thinking around social issues impacting health like gender roles and stereotypes.

Relationships and sexuality education in schools is most effective when delivered by trained teachers with the time, confidence and skills to develop programmes that meet student need across a range of ages, developmental stages, identities, and cultures. Learning should start in the early years, building year on year to expand and deepen understanding and knowledge.

In Aotearoa, relationships and sexuality education should include Te Ao Māori understanding of sexual and reproductive health and relationships and strengthen Māori identity including connections to mātauranga Māori, te reo Māori and tikanga Māori. Relationships and sexuality education should be relevant and inclusive of people who identify with a range of sexualities and genders. It should also be appropriate for and support learners with physical, learning or intellectual disabilities.

Young people today are immersed in digital environments, influencing their relationships and what they see and learn. They have easy access to online content including pornography. Most young people see pornography online, intentionally or by accident. Education about digital safety, pornography and other sexually explicit material helps young people to navigate their online experiences and critically assess what they are seeing. This teaching should be integrated with other relationships and sexuality education topics.

Relationships and sexuality education is a partnership between parents, whānau, teachers, schools and the community. Parents and caregivers are the first teachers for their children and important role models for relationship behaviours, gender roles and expectations. Effective relationships and sexuality education programmes should be part of a whole school approach, ensuring a safe learning environment and school culture, and linking with parents and whānau, and local social and health services.

Unfortunately, in Aotearoa, relationships and sexuality education is not consistently high quality for every learner. It is taught differently across schools and can also vary by teacher. While some schools and teachers deliver high quality relationships and sexuality education, the Education Review Office (ERO) found many schools struggle to teach this area of the curriculum. Young people have also reported that the relationships and sexuality education they experienced in school did not meet their needs, particularly Māori, Pacific and young people who identify with the rainbow community.

Family Planning advocates for teachers and school leaders, in traditional and alternative education, to have the time, resources, professional development and leadership support they need to effectively teach high quality relationships and sexuality education to every student in every school. This includes having the time necessary to plan and engage with students as well as dedicated, regular timetabled time to teach. It includes having the resources and support to meaningfully engage with the wider school community, including parents and whānau. While schools should engage parents and the wider school community about the health education curriculum, the rights and needs of young people to have access to the information and support they need to look after their developing identities, sexual wellbeing, and healthy relationships should be prioritised.

More information
Ministry of Education – relationships and sexuality education guidelines

Ministry of Education – guide for parents and whānau

Education Review Office – review of relationships and sexuality education

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – UN perspective on relationships
and sexuality education

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