Guest post by Dr. Christopher DiCarlo
Dr. Christopher DiCarlo is a philosopher, educator, and author. He currently teaches in the Faculties of Human Biology and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is also a lifetime member of Humanist Canada and an Expert Advisor for the Centre for Inquiry Canada. Dr. DiCarlo is the Principal and Founder of Critical Thinking Solutions, a consulting business for individuals, corporations, and not-for-profits in both the private and public sectors. Dr. DiCarlo facilitates with the CMHA WW Ethics Committee to work through ethical issues, addressing conflicts of interest, and making decisions. The CMHA WW Ethical Framework includes codes of conduct, guidelines, processes, and values to help guide decision-making about service provision and proposed research activities.
The views expressed in this post are his own.
With recent developments in Ontario politics, the Progressive Conservative party has won a majority government and the new Premier, Doug Ford, has, as his first order of business, cancelled the Sex Education Curriculum of 2015 thereby adopting the 1998 version with the “intention of updating it”. Those who work within the field of mental health must now wonder how such a decision might affect young adults in dealing with and understanding various aspects of sexual identity, digital technologies, homophobia, transphobia, and other related issues which were never covered in the 1998 Sex Ed Curriculum. As with any young adult passing through puberty and into adolescence, a multitude of questions arise. If these are not dealt with properly within the education system, and the child has nowhere else to turn, this could lead to considerable confusion, misinformation, and the possibility of psychological and physical harm as a result of such inadequacies.
History of Sex Ed Curriculum in Ontario:
For those who might not remember, there is a bit of a history behind the Sex Ed Curriculum in Ontario. In 2010, when Dalton McGinty was Premier, his then Education Minister, Kathleen Wynne, had proposed what was considered by some Christian groups, to be a fairly radical revision of the 1998 Sex Ed Curriculum. And so Premier McGinty retracted the proposal and had the Curriculum revised due largely from pressure from rural, fundamentalist Christians led by Rev. Charles McVety.
In a Globe and Mail article from April 22, 2010 we learn that:
Bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education did not brief the Premier about the new curriculum, according to senior government sources. While he is not usually given details of curriculum changes, such a politically sensitive topic as sex education should have been brought to his attention, one of the sources said.
“I think there was a little bit of a failure in the system,” he said.
With parents inundating government MPPs and opposition members with complaints, Mr. McGuinty decided to admit that his government got it wrong, said one of the sources.
Alex McKay, research co-ordinator for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, said he was “disappointed” that the province bowed to loud critics who misrepresented what was actually going to be taught in Ontario classrooms.
‘I think if people examine the curriculum closely, they will find it far less controversial than the highly charged discussion over the last few days suggested it was,” he said.
Consultation on the new curriculum began in 2007, when Kathleen Wynne was Education Minister. The Institute for Catholic Education, which works with the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops in tailoring the ministry’s curriculum for observant classrooms, was involved throughout that consultation.
“We had an agreement right from the beginning that we would be aligning their expectations with the Fully Alive family life program,” said Sister Joan Cronin, executive director of ICE, referring to a 20-year-old church-endorsed version of sex-health education.
A first draft was released near the end of 2008.
Ministry spokesperson Michelle Despault said bureaucrats knew the changes would be controversial and, as a result, they did more extensive consultations than usual.
How extensive were these consultations? The information in the new curriculum was based on a two-year consultation with 700 students, 70 organizations and more than 2,000 individuals.
Now, I urge anyone interested in this very important topic to look carefully at the 2015 Sex Ed Curriculum and decide for themselves if they believe the information to be age-appropriate.
An overview of the Sex Ed Curriculum document can be viewed here:
The entire document for Grades 1 – 8 can be viewed here:
And the entire document for Grades 9 – 12 can be viewed here:
Keep in mind, as well, that with all versions of the Sex Ed Curriculum, parents were informed that they could pull their children out of class if they believed the material was not age-appropriate or compromising to their religious values.
So here, we are faced with a unique situation within our culture – one which has led us to a crossroads between responsible education and parental control. But this does not have to be a false dichotomy i.e. where either side is chosen. It can be both. That is, the 2015 curriculum could still stand but allow parents who consider the material too excessive and/or infringing upon their rights to control their children’s exposure to such material to have their kids opt out.
At least, this is how things were done up and until just a few weeks ago. Now, there is no apparent choice other than adopting a 20-year-old curriculum which, in many ways, is simply out of touch with current realities regarding human sexuality. And this returns us to our central concern: How will this recent political decision affect the mental health of those most in need of responsibly-attained information regarding such an important part of their lives?
And this will now force the hands of educators and others to decide whether or not they wish to ideologically break from Doug Ford’s cancellation of the 2015 Sex Ed Curriculum and continue to teach it or comply with his removal which will leave many questions and issues untouched:
Meanwhile, a group of teachers have started an online pledge form, urging fellow educators to sign up and promise to continue to teach the updated version of the curriculum in their classrooms this fall.
Kate Curtis, speaking for the group who created the pledge, said the teachers are acting out of a sense of moral and ethical duty to their students.
“We as teachers know that we have a professional and ethical obligation to make sure that our students are safe, that they feel included both in our classrooms and also that they’re reflected in the curriculum.”
Curtis said the 1998 curriculum does not reflect the reality of a teenager’s life in 2018 and does not accurately reference cyber safety, consent or gender identity. “The world has changed immensely in the last 20 years,” she said. “Students are reflecting that change at school … we really have to reflect that.”
Some educators like Vanessa Oliver, an associate professor of Youth and Children’s Studies at Laurier, said she hopes that Ontario teachers will continue to teach the curriculum introduced in 2015:
“I know that it is really important to teachers,” Oliver said. “There are some who are really passionate about it and think of it more as a human-rights issue and I think will do their best to try and keep teaching it.”
Students are increasingly navigating their sexuality and sexual health through technology, says Oliver, and the modernized curriculum helps students do just that.
“Because of a lot of misinformation that was passed around, some parents and maybe some politicians, are under the impression it’s a how-to manual. It’s of course, not that,” Oliver said. “In 1998 we barely even had Google, let alone Instagram, Snapchat, Grindr, Tinder, and Bumble.”
“Kids are living in a different whole world now and we need to support them by keeping up with them.”
And let us never lose sight of the very mission of the Health and Physical Education Curriculum:
The revised health and physical education curriculum is based on the vision that the knowledge and skills students acquire in the program will benefit them throughout their lives and enable them to thrive in an ever-changing world by helping them develop physical and health literacy as well as the comprehension, capacity, and commitment they will need to lead healthy, active lives and promote healthy, active living.
Limiting information by adopting the 1998 version of the Sex Ed Curriculum may force parents to deal with information and material that they may not wish to discuss with their children which, in turn, may force students to search for answers online where they may be exposed to false or misleading information. Overall, there may be a considerable trickle down or backlashing effect where those adolescents already faced with mental health issues will have these exacerbated by the fact that their main source for information has been silenced. Because of the gradual effect of such policies, we may not know the effects of such poor legislative decision-making on the mental health of young people for years to come.