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Schools teach relationship skills

Gisborne secondary school students are learning how to treat romance with respect through programmes designed to learn from high-profile cases of violence. Sophie Rishworth explores how teenagers here are learning a better way to date . . .

During the Grace Millane murder trial, a Gisborne Boys' High School student came home and told his mum he was learning about dating etiquette and healthy relationships at school.

The mother of the teenager was heartened young people were being taught about respect, and healthy relationships — especially as the whole country was hearing how 22-year-old Grace Millane was murdered on a first date in Auckland while visiting this country.

Teenagers get more than the nuts-and-bolts sex talk at high school these days. Programmes delivered by the Police and ACC include conversations around respectful behaviour in relationships, violence in relationships, problem-solving in complex situations, and how to stay safe.

Gisborne Boys' High School (GBHS) and Lytton High School (LHS) both deliver the Mates & Dates programme.

Gisborne Girls' High School and LHS also run the Loves Me Not programme, which tells the story of Sophie Elliott who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2008.

They talk about whether Sophie, who was also 22, could tell, or not tell, she had been in an abusive relationship, to give today's students the red flags to look for.

“We've been doing Loves Me Not for a long time and we love it,” said GGHS head of hauora faculty Shelley Hunt.

Each programme has appropriate content based on the ages of the students it is being delivered to.

Ms Hunt said the important thing was that they all carried the same message.

The message from police, teachers, the programmes and even psychologist and author Nigel Latta said the same things about respect, about wellbeing related to sexual activity, building friendships, relationships, dealing with influences, pressures, and the risks involved.

Police also visit the schools to reiterate the legal age for sex (16 or over).

Other conversations held during the lessons include how do you ask someone out, and how to break up in a respectful way . . . not by text or Instagram, if anyone was wondering.

They also cover the traditional safety tools like condoms and keeping yourself safe from Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), but these were the quick lessons. The focus was on being in a healthy relationship and knowing if you were not in one.

GBHS teacher Simon Murphy said there were some “cool discussions” at the lessons.

Overall, it made him feel good about the job they were doing.

The sex education stuff was generally easy to teach. It was something the students were quite interested in anyway, and humour was used in an atmosphere that made students feel safe to share their opinions, he said.

Ms Hunt said from Year 9, GGHS students get taught about social responsibility. In Year 10, the curriculum extends to what is a healthy relationship, and what is an unhealthy relationship.

The students are taught assertive skills to use in a relationship, and decision-making skills around sexuality.

GGHS is also visited each year by THETA, a theatre company with an agreement with the Ministry of Health to deliver Sexwise, a theatre production followed by a workshop. It is run by rangatahi (youth) who are university students. The topics raised, and the discussions that follow, are relevant for their age.

THETA Sexwise programme artistic director and director Evan Hastings said participant reaction had been extremely positive as they identified with the characters and issues arising in the performance.

“After the performance, students in small groups have the opportunity to interact and interview the characters, reflect on their behaviour, and offer advice. This process allows participants to direct the learning, making for a very engaging experience.

“Our post-workshop surveys show they are left feeling far more confident about speaking to and seeking advice from professional health services,” said Mr Hastings.

“We do that as a back-up — it is another voice saying the same thing again,” said Ms Hunt.

There was also a lot of work around gender in sport. Questions raised have included, “why do the girls' volleyball teams wear such skimpy outfits?”

Ms Hunt said they taught about accepting diversity, and this year there was also a big focus on transgender.

In Year 11 the one-day Loves Me Not programme is run by the police.

It used to be a Year 12 programme, but feedback from the Year 12s suggested it would have been a better fit in Year 11.

The Mates & Dates programme, funded by ACC at a cost of $18.4 million, was rolled out across New Zealand high schools from 2016 to 2020.

It has had a mixed reaction around the country, mostly because of how much it cost and that it took delivery of the lessons away from the teachers and to the facilitators funded to take the lessons.

But GBHS's Mr Murphy said it had worked well, and he intended to run it next year as well.

Mates & Dates carried on nicely from the long relationship GBHS had with Family Planning, and in particular Geoff Meade.

Mr Murphy said when a damning Education Review Office report came out last year about teaching sexuality in New Zealand schools, it was pleasing to see GBHS ticked all the right boxes.

“That was all down to Geoff,” said Mr Murphy.

“He did a great job of using a broad-brush approach to sexual matters.

“It wasn't just the nuts and bolts like when I was a student.”

Topics the students discussed included gender, influences from the media, relationships, attitude to pornography, how pornography affects people's ideas about women, and how it can be so unhealthy. A focus was put on healthy relationships, and what made them work.

For years Mr Meade worked beside teachers to deliver these classes. A change in Family Planning's policy meant Mr Meade could no longer deliver these.

Around the same time the ACC initiative Mates & Dates came in to the curriculum, and was picked up by GBHS and Lytton.

Mates & Dates is a healthy relationships programme for secondary school students, taught to Year 9s in their health classes over a term, with one class a week for 10 weeks.

The Year 10s have it delivered through their Tu Tane programme.

Mates & Dates picked up from where Mr Meade left off, said Mr Murphy.

Mates & Dates: Today's teenagers get more than the nuts and bolts sex talk at high school . . . . Programmes delivered by the Police and ACC — including the Mates & Dates initiative that this image is part of — include conversations around respectful behaviour in relationships, violence in relationships, problem-solving in complex situations, and how to stay safe. Pictures supplied
THETA artistic director and director of the Sexwise programme Evan Hastings.