Calls have been made for greater discussion on the syllabus content in the wake of convicted British paedophile Richard Huckle’s sexual abuse cases involving young Malaysian victims.
Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid recently said the ministry was pursuing steps to introduce a suitable sex education syllabus for preschoolers.
During the announcement of next year’s school curricula revamp, Education Director-General Tan Sri Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof said that the content of the Reproductive and Social Health Education (PEERS) currently taught in primary and secondary schools will be upgraded, too.
How much sex education should be provided to young people and in what context?
how much sex education should be provided to young people? What should it teach them and in what context?
Unfortunately, we have a million and one ways to avoid teaching or talking about sex and sexuality, a subject that is deemed a taboo.
I spent 11 years studying at all-girls schools, with the last five at a boarding school. It was hardly a topic discussed openly with the teachers, not even during biology lessons.
Of course, to be fair, the separation of us girls from the boys during the years of greatest personal and physical change in an already complicated mix of hormones and self-discovery had certainly removed one factor for the teachers to deal with in school.
Teaching “prevention”, I remember, involved the screening of all letters by the wardens that were sent to us and the practice of calling all males (unless they were teachers), Pakcik.
Any inappropriate content — as defined by them — would result in these letters (usually from boys) being displayed on the notice board, serving as a warning and guideline for the rest of us when dealing with the opposite sex.
In our country, elements of sex education under the Pendidikan Kesihatan subject, of which 75 per cent covers content on PEERS, 15 per cent on diet and 10 per cent on first aid, have only been taught at the secondary school level since 1989 and primary level since 1994.
Sex education is not a standalone subject with a specific curriculum. Students learn about them in Pendidikan Islam, Pendidikan Kesihatan and Science subjects.
This approach of incorporating the elements into existing subjects has worked out in some countries.
For instance, the Netherlands, which stands out as having one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the world (2.2 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 17) claimed that it was the result of high-quality sex education for both primary and secondary school students.
In 2011, a study by the Centre for General Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), on whether sex education or elements of it are being taught in Malaysian schools concluded that 90 per cent of the respondents agreed that sex education had not been taught in Malaysian schools.
The respondents were asked to compare what they had learned in school with the aspects of sex education based on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s 2009 curriculum guidelines.
According to them, what was taught in classes was a combination of two or three topics related to the physical development of children and adolescents, development of the reproductive and fertility system and sex within the Islamic context, which they said was needed to pass exams.
In another 2011 study by Universiti Malaya’s Department of Social Administration and Justice on the effectiveness of a school-based sexual abuse prevention curriculum, it was found that only 40 per cent of 9-year-old respondents said they knew what to do in instances of an adult stranger touching them in an inappropriate way — evidence that the sex education we currently have is not fit for the purpose.
In a lot of ways, sex education in our country is still stuck in the past and not really representative of the age we live in now. With the world moving too fast, we are way behind.
Today, we not only need a new sex education syllabus, but we need all schools to teach it.
Currently, schools embrace sex education with varying degrees of enthusiasm that, as a consequence, will make it almost impossible for the subject to be taught at a consistent level nationwide.
Educators experience a lot of anxiety and tension when faced with teaching young people about these issues. And, this tension can result in avoiding, or not effectively addressing, sex education.
At the same time, many teachers don’t feel adequately equipped or comfortable teaching it.
Most adults didn’t grow up with a lot of information on sex, so it makes sense that they don’t feel prepared to discuss it with young people.
The UKM study also found that teachers used metaphors and made jokes when teaching sex elements, which not only confused students but made the class irrelevant.
So, even with a new improved and updated national curriculum on this subject, there should not be a lack of consistency in the delivery of the programmes.
Teachers must be properly trained as approaching the subject is not easy and would require additional training and support.
If we’re going to teach sex education in schools, let’s do it properly.
Let’s not make it just another lesson in school in which a teacher walks in for a 45-minute Pendidikan Kesihatan class and says: “Sila buat kerja sendiri.” (Please do your own work).