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Why sexuality education is important 

This section is intended to give boards, principals, and teachers a broader understanding of sexuality education. It overviews research in the area that may provide a valuable background against which to read and implement the information in the guide.

What sexuality education is

Sexuality education in New Zealand takes a positive view of sexual development as a natural part of growing up. It encompasses learning about physical development, including sexual and reproductive knowledge, gender identity, relationships, friendships, whānau and social issues. It sits within the broader area of relationship education, which also includes social and emotional learning (SEL), and violence prevention education.

In sexuality education young people learn about themselves and develop knowledge and skills that will help them to interact in positive, respectful, and supportive ways with others. Through learning about sexuality students also come to understand about the social and cultural influences that shape the way society views gender and sexuality.

Sexuality education starts at Level 1 of The New Zealand Curriculum and takes both an inclusive and developmentally appropriate approach.

All young people need access to information and opportunities to think about, question, and discuss issues related to relationships, gender, sexual identities, sexual orientation, sexual behaviour, sexual and reproductive health, and societal messages. Sexuality education provides a framework in which this can happen.

Sexuality education, as a part of health education, is vital for young people’s development, learning, and overall well-being. Learning in this area also contributes to academic success and positive mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

"Sex education" and "sexuality education" are different. This difference is explained in the Introduction.

Guidelines for schools implementing relationship education can be downloaded from the Policy guidelines section.

What the research says

Well-planned programmes

Holistic, well-planned sexuality education programmes, taught by informed and up-to-date teachers make a significant difference to the learning and overall sexual health of young people (Byers et al, 2013; Poobalan et al, 2009). 

Engaging with young people’s perspectives

Current issues that require attention in sexuality education programmes for adolescents include consent and coercion; the sexualisation of young people, particularly girls; the effects of pornography on young people's understanding of sexuality and relationships; and examining the bias that opposite sex relationships are normal (heteronormativity) (Quinlivan, 2006; Gavey, 2012; McGlashan, 2013). Teachers can best address current concerns by engaging with young people’s perspectives and views of what is relevant (Allen, 2011). 

Information rather than risk

Programmes should engage, empower, and inform young people rather than focus on risk (Fine & McClelland, 2006, Fitzpatrick, 2014). Research suggests that abstinence programmes make no difference in affecting sexual decision-making (Kirby, 2008; Poobalan et al, 2009) while programmes with a more holistic and comprehensive approach significantly reduce risk factors and risky behaviours (Kirby, 2008; Bearinger et al, 2007). 

Meaningful content

Students prefer programmes that connect with their lives, are relevant, interactive, and student-centred. Students should be involved in setting content and in contributing to pedagogical decisions (Allen, 2005, 2007a; Education Review Office, 2007b). 

Sexual identity

While social attitudes to sexual diversity are becoming more inclusive in New Zealand, young people who identify as non-heterosexual still face many challenges in schooling environments (Rossen et al, 2009; Quinlivan, 2006, Birkett et al, 2009). Young people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual often feel marginalised and isolated, and experience less inclusive environments in schools. Young people who are attracted to the same sex, or to both sexes, face greater barriers to accessing health care because of perceptions about sexual orientation, and they tend to feel less supported at school (Rossen et al, 2009). 

Gender identity

A nationally representative survey in 2012 (Clark et al, 2013) found that transgender students are a numerically small but important group. Over 8,000 secondary school students answered the question about whether they were transgender: 96 students reported being transgender (1.2%), and 202 reported not being sure (2.5%). 

Social and emotional learning

Social and emotional learning, as well as sexuality and relationship education, is vital for young people to be able to engage positively and critically in a fast-changing, technological, and global world (see Tasker, 2013; Families Commission, 2013, Durlak et al, 2009). Sexuality education offers a context where communication, assertiveness, problem solving, and decision-making within friendships, online, in intimate relationships, families, and wider communities can be explored. For example, recognising diversity in different family structures, examining gender roles and norms, and strategies that address online bullying and homophobic bullying. 


It is important to spend enough time on sexuality education programmes. Based on research with New Zealand adolescents about how sexuality education could be improved, Allen (2005) notes the main response was to spend more time on it..."spending more time" meant dedicating more hours to the subject and sustained exposure to programmes...” (Allen, 2005, p. 393). The Education Review Office identified that schools with effective programmes spent between 12–15 hours per year on sexuality education (ERO, 2007b), with significantly more time allocated in senior secondary programmes. 

  • 24.4% of New Zealand young people (13–17 years) have ever had sex
  • 18.8% of New Zealand young people (13–17 years) were sexually active in the last 3 months.

The following graph shows those who had ever had sex, and those who are currently sexually active by age: 

Significant to note here is that most New Zealand youth aged 17 and under have not ever had sex. Of those who were sexually active:

  • 82% had used condoms at least once
  • 53% used a condom to prevent sexually transmissible infections (STIs) last time they had sex 
  • 46% always use condoms to prevent STIs.

New Zealand continues to have a relatively high level of teenage pregnancy, third highest among high-income OECD countries, with 10% of all births being to women under 20 years of age. (Hutchison, 2013)

Health care and access

The Adolescent Health Research Group also found that:

  • 19% of young people in the survey reported being unable to access health care when needed in the last 12 months.

As this graph shows, youth in areas of high deprivation reported lower levels of access to health care. 

Changes in health and sexuality

  • The abortion rate for women aged 15–19 years has decreased – down from 27 per 1,000 in 2007 to 16 per 1000 in 2012 (Statistics New Zealand, 2013).
  • The percentage of sexually active students who always use contraception (to prevent pregnancy) has remained unchanged at about 60% since 2001 (Clark et al, 2013).
  • Most young people now look for information online (Gibson et al, 2013), and this includes information about health and about sexuality.
  • Pornography has become increasingly accessible and can be considered a significant cultural influence globally (Dines, 2010).
  • Social media, internet sites with sexual content, and sexual bullying via instant messaging and apps are new issues that need consideration. For example, some young people receive unwanted sexual material (e.g. pornographic images, videos, or words) on their mobile phone and/or on the internet (Clark et al, 2013).

Looking ahead

There is much evidence that young people who have well developed interpersonal skills and who are able to maintain positive relationships with friends, romantic partners, family, and teachers are more likely to make healthy choices and avoid problems in adolescence including violence. (Tasker, 2013, p.4; see also Clark et al, 2009)

Programmes in sexuality education need to be informed by holistic notions of health and be positive and supportive. Research shows that when sexuality programmes are linked with health services and access to resources, outcomes are likely to be better.

The report of the Health Committee states:

When girls and women have access to reproductive health services, contraception, and education, and are free from violence, they are more likely to stay at school and to choose to have fewer children later in life, less likely to contract an STI or have poor health, and more likely to be employed and to participate in society. (p. 31)

Quality sexuality education:

  • is vital for the overall well-being of young people
  • can increase abilities to make positive and health-enhancing decisions
  • can enable children and youth to think critically and act in socially just ways (Quinlivan, 2006; Fine & McClelland, 2006; Allen, 2007b):
  • can enable all New Zealand youth to thrive and become confident, connected, actively involved, life-long learners (The New Zealand Curriculum, 2007).