Consent and coercion in sexual relationships to be part of national curriculum

By Lisa Visentin and Natassia Chrysanthos,  

The changes, which all education ministers have agreed to but are yet to sign off on, will see explicit references to teaching consent and respectful relationships adopted into the curriculum from foundation to year 10 in an age-appropriate way.

Activist Chanel Contos, who launched a campaign to improve consent education in Australia one year ago, addressed the ministers when they met earlier this month to discuss the curriculum.

Activist Chanel Contos, who launched a campaign to improve consent education in Australia one year ago, addressed the ministers when they met earlier this month to discuss the curriculum.CREDIT:LILIANA ZAHARIA

A summary of the proposed changes, obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, include revisions to the Health and Physical Education component of the curriculum to address the role of gender, power, coercion and disrespect in abusive or violent relationships.

From years 7 to 10, teaching of the concept of consent will be tied to sex education, while the broader concept of consent will be embedded across the health curriculum from foundation years.

Explicit outcomes in the new curriculum will require students to “describe strategies for seeking, giving or denying consent and rehearse how to communicate their intentions effectively and respectfully”.

They will also have to apply skills and strategies to “communicate assertively and respectfully” in regard to consent, and examine strategies to support the development of respectful sexual relationships.

The first draft version of the new curriculum released last April mandated the teaching of consent, but education experts said it could more explicitly link themes of consent and power to sexual relationships and gender-based violence.

Government sources who have seen the curriculum told the Herald and The Age that the major change in the final draft has involved making that content compulsory rather than optional.

Activist Chanel Contos, whose campaign to improve consent education in Australia was first reported by the Herald one year ago, addressed the ministers when they met earlier this month to discuss the curriculum.

“I spoke to them about the importance of consent education and the impact this could have on the culture of Australia, and future generations’ experience of relationships and sex,” she said.

Ms Contos was one stakeholder consulted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority on the final draft. Her organisation Teach Us Consent made a submission along with other women’s safety groups, and Ms Contos held a roundtable with ACARA, high-profile government representatives and sexual assault survivors to discuss the issue last September.

“I’m really satisfied. Individual schools and states can go above and beyond, but as an absolute minimum it’s comprehensive,” Ms Contos said. “I’m personally so proud of everyone involved in this movement for getting this over the line.”

NSW and Victoria have their own curriculums that include consent, but funding agreements with the Commonwealth require them to be aligned with the national curriculum. Other states, such as WA, only use the national curriculum. The unanimous agreement on the consent changes was confirmed by Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam at a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday.

“There was unanimous support from ministers to the consent content with the health and physical education curriculum, which had been strengthened significantly from the April consultation draft,” he said.

ACARA is preparing a final revised version of the curriculum for approval by the ministers at a meeting in April. Chief executive David de Carvalho told estimates that, assuming the curriculum was signed off in April, states and territories could begin implementing it from 2023. But he added some jurisdictions may take until 2024 to adopt it.

The Commonwealth has been locked in a stalemate with states and territories over the proposed new national curriculum for months, as it pushed for changes to the history component to increase focus on Western heritage. A special meeting of education ministers on February 4 failed to reach a consensus on all parts of the curriculum, with the April meeting the last opportunity before the election to resolve the impasse.

Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said his state had led the way on teaching age-appropriate consent in all schools from Prep to Year 12. “So it’s great to see similar consent education now agreed to by all education ministers across the country as part of the new Australian Curriculum,” Mr Merlino said.

“We look forward to the changes being resolved soon so all Australian schools can implement this vital education as soon as possible.”

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell also said her state had taken major steps by mandating consent education from kindergarten when it revised its health syllabus in 2018.

“In 2021, I called for a national conversation about consent education through ACARA’s review of the national curriculum. NSW provided a submission with recommendations regarding national reform to consent education,” she said.

“It’s great to see the Commonwealth take on this advice and implement mandatory consent education nationwide.”

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