Consultation on sex-ed is something else

School Magazine  – 2018-11-07

Doug Ford has done really well from the sexual education curriculum. His promise to cancel it went a long way to help him get elected as PC Party leader. He used it as a cudgel during the provincial election, complaining that “For too long the Liberals have ignored Ontario parents. They have introduced the sex curriculum based on ideology.”

Way back in July, Ford outlined how he was going to change things: “We’re going to go around to every single riding in the province, all 124, sit down with the parents and get their opinion.” He called this “the biggest consultation in Ontario’s history, when it comes to education.”

It sounded like a “for the people” kind of move. Sitting down with people all across Ontario would be a massive task, but the kind of thing a populist-sounding government might want to do: reach out to people and talk to them. It’s an important image to get into people’s heads – that the Ford government is going to be about the individual people of the province, worried about their children’s education – specifically their sexual education.

Now let’s consider reality.

The Biggest Consultation Ever

This is the consultation that was supposed to be about sexual education in the 2015 Health and Physical Education Curriculum, supported by all three parties in the Ontario Legislature. That was the one that included teaching about issues like consent, cyberbullying, sexting and same-sex relationships until Ford scrapped it and decided to return to the one from 1998. Parent groups have sued the government over the move. The 83 000-strong Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), opposes the flip-flop. Over 40 000 students across the province walked out of school to support the 2015 curriculum. Imagine that!

You’d think it might give Ford and his Ministry of Education pause.

Not so much. It just made them shift their strategy. If you visit the Ministry’s For the Parent website, you find out pretty quickly that the consultation is about a lot of topics besides sexual education:

  • Improving student performance in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM subjects)
  • Preparing students with needed job skills like “skilled trades and coding”
  • Improving provincial standardized testing
  • Ensuring students graduate with important life skills, including financial literacy
  • Managing the use of technology in the classrooms such as cell phones
  • Developing the first ever Parents’ Bill of Rights.

Tucked away in the list is “building a new age-appropriate Heath and Physical Education curriculum that includes subjects like mental health, sexual health education and the legalization of cannabis.”

It is very important to consider what the Ford government is assuming here. It’s not asking the question: “Do you think we should carry on with the 2015 curriculum or not?” That curriculum already addressed mental health, sexual health education and drug use. This question assumes that the curriculum will be something different and asks participants to say what they think ought to be in it – within limits.

Ford’s consultation on the sexual education curriculum is buried under a pile of items that have received little if any attention lately and certainly need some explanation. How many people out there know how much is currently taught about coding for instance? What’s the current state of financial literacy among our students? What does a Parents’ Bill of Rights even mean? It’s like your doctor coming to you out of the blue and asking “What do you think about medical training?”

If you decide to offer your opinion, you go to the For the Parents website and choose from three options. You may make what it calls an “open submission”, take part in one of many “Town Hall” telephone forums and/or fill out a questionnaire.

The open submission and telephone town hall forums are open-ended and ask questions like: “How should we improve student performance in disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)?” or “What measures can be taken to improve provincial standardized testing?” The questions aren’t explained and there’s no background about any issues that might be related. For example, participants aren’t told about any concerns regarding the STEM subjects or what worries schools have about standardized provincial testing also known as the EQAO.

So, answers predictably, will be all over the map. In one town hall forum, a caller said that STEM subjects are important because many high school students are falling behind. Another person called for more teacher training and another said that students need to learn more critical thinking.

During the Job Skills discussion, one caller suggested that students learn to repair damaged household items that could be brought into school; another called for more integration between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities; another called for more practical education and a reintroduction of streaming. It was all far too broad to be of much use.

This was only one of many call-ins. How on earth are surveyors supposed to code and tabulate all of this random information? Can we have any idea how meaningful it will be or how it represents the people of Ontario? School Magazine put this question to Ministry of Education Staff and is waiting for an answer.

You also have to know about the survey to take part. It is not well-advertised. There’s nothing about it on the Ministry website. The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB)and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) both have links to For the Parent site. NDP Education critic, Marit Stiles said that the consultation was announced quietly and not promoted. People with a particular interest in education will likely seek it out. But that’s not sitting down with the parents – other educators aren’t even mentioned in Ford’s promise – across all 124 ridings in the province

And before we forget, this consultation was supposed to be about sexual education. That topic is covered in the telephone town halls and the written submission and it makes an appearance in the much more specific survey. In one section, participants are asked to

Answer “yes” or “no” to whether the following topics should be taught at all and then at what age:

  • Online safety, (making good decisions, guarding against predators, sexting, cyberbullying etc)
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • The role of love and commitment in intimacy
  • Sexual orientation
  • The physical, emotional, and social changes that occur at puberty
  • Medical terms for body parts
  • Various forms of family structures
  • Consent (understanding that yes means yes, and no means no)
  • Sexual, physical and emotional abuse and how to seek support services if they occur
  • Contraceptive options

This is the core of the 2015 sexual education curriculum that the Ford government axed in July. If the people who participate in the consultation represent Ontarians, the answers and responses are going to be as diverse as those in the rest of the consultation. How do you develop a curriculum based on random and varied opinions? Wouldn’t it be better to have educators and related experts up with a curriculum that’s reasonable and ask people across the province what they think of it?

That’s already been done and Ford didn’t like it.

So, what is the point of this consultation? It’s not really about cancelling the 2015 sexual education curriculum. There’s nothing there about the arts, history, culture, English literature or reinstating the curriculum writing team for Aboriginal peoples’ history. God knows, there’s no interest in what people think about their school’s state of repair. It reads more like a long policy announcement than a consultation: “Sure, we’re for the people so we want to hear about just these topics, because we already know where education is headed under the Ford government.”

Marit Stiles is skeptical about the consultation. She questions whether the Ministry is just “setting out an agenda”, that researchers “will pick and choose the comments they want” to support what the Ministry has already decided to do.

That could be anything from introducing semi-private charter schools, punishing teachers for low Math scores to gutting the liberal arts in order to make room for more opportunities to learn coding.