The Ontario government’s newly released sexual-education curriculum is stirring up fresh confusion about what teachers can and cannot tell students when classes resume next month, experts said Thursday as school boards reviewed the document.
The lesson plan, meant to temporarily replace a now-repealed modernized version put in place by the former Liberal government in 2015, was delivered to school boards and posted online Wednesday after repeated requests from educators who sought clarity on the issue.
Some, however, said the document failed to answer key questions and raised several more.
The chair of Canada’s largest school board said Thursday the government should spell out the differences between the interim lesson plan and the one it is replacing.
Robin Pilkey, chair of the Toronto District School Board, said board staff are currently combing through the new document and the now-repealed modernized version to figure out how they compare – but notes the province had months to provide that information.
“The government would have to explain how what they released yesterday is different,” she said. “People want to know that because there are topics people know are in the 2015 curriculum and they want to be sure that is somehow being covered.”
When asked to clarify the differences, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said in an email that “beginning this September, all health and physical education programs for Grades 1 to 8 will be developed from the full curriculum last used in 2014.”
Experts, meanwhile, said the new document makes passing mention of modern concepts such as the internet and cellphones but largely reverts to the vague language and broad topic outlines used in the previous curriculum last updated in 1998.
“I think there’s a bit of mixed messaging going on in the document,” said Lauren Bialystok, an assistant professor of social justice education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
“Really key information that’s evidence-based and contemporary from the 2015 document is utterly missing here but there’s a bit of double-speak because the government is trying to have certain things both ways so that they can’t say it’s not at all modernized.”
As a result, teachers reading the document would likely be “confused as hell,” she said.
The Tory government’s plan to scrap the 2015 sex-ed curriculum was announced last month, fulfilling one of Premier Doug Ford’s key campaign promises. The document included warnings about online bullying and sexting, but opponents, especially social conservatives, objected to parts addressing same-sex relationships, gender identity and masturbation.
The province has said the interim curriculum will remain in place while it conducts public consultations on a final version, which is expected for the 2019-2020 school year. It will also seek parental feedback on issues that include math scores, cellphone use, financial literacy and how best to prepare students with needed job skills.
The main differences between the 2015 curriculum and the one now in place come down to specificity and breadth, Bialystok said, noting the former was several hundred pages longer because it laid out precise expectations for each grade.
Notably absent from the new document is the requirement for students to be able to name the parts of their body, something the 2015 version expected by the end of Grade 1, she said.
There is also no discussion of consent in relationships in the interim curriculum, though there is some mention of harm prevention, Bialystok said. While there is still debate on how to teach consent, the 2015 curriculum was a marked improvement over its predecessor, she said.
The temporary lesson plan does refer to gender identity and diversity in the introduction and glossary, though not in the actual learning material, she said.
Even puberty is discussed only in broad terms, without using the words “period” or “menstruation,” she said. “If kids get through the end of Grade 8 and no one has specifically been required to talk to them about something that fundamental, then they’re not learning about puberty,” she said.
The new document puts teachers in a “terrible position” by asking them to violate their professional responsibility and put their students at risk, she said.
Ford has warned this week that teachers who use the scrapped 2015 version would face consequences, and invited parents to anonymously report potential breaches to the province. The government also said it is launching a website where parents can file such complaints, which critics have described as a “snitch line.”
Vanessa Oliver, an associate professor of youth and children’s studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, said schools and school boards already have an administrative process to deal with parents’ concerns. It starts with parents approaching the teacher to discuss the issue and escalates to the principal and other supervisors if necessary, she said.
Oliver, who was consulted on the 2015 curriculum, is now conducting research on how it was received by teachers. She said teachers reported that talking to parents directly appeared to resolve much of the conflict over the document.
“A lot of the so-called controversy that was happening before was just about misinformation,” she said. “When we talked to teachers about parents that have pushed back or withdrawn kids from their classroom, almost across the board they’ve said (that) after they’ve met with parents and explained what’s actually in the curriculum, what they’re actually teaching... parents are generally much more supportive.”
The latest document is likely to spark a new wave of questions, she said. “People were already confused enough about what was in the 2015 curriculum, so now there’s sort of a new round of confusion.”
The government’s move is also being contested in court, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filing an injunction with the Ontario divisional court on Thursday in a bid to stop the government from replacing the 2015 curriculum.
Association executive director Michael Bryant, Ontario’s former attorney general, called the ministry directive issued yesterday to replace the curriculum discriminatory.
“This directive is a discriminatory misuse of government power,” Bryant said. “A ham-fisted dog whistle of bigotry, of homophobia, dressed up as a consultation fix. So, we are calling it out and taking it to court.”
The CCLA is filing the challenge on behalf of the Toronto-area family of Becky McFarlane, a queer parent whose 10-year-old daughter will be attending Grade 6 in the fall.
Bryant said McFarlane’s family feels excluded from the revised interim lesson plan.
“It’s as if Becky and her family don’t exist,” he said. “It’s as if they are the others, the unspoken others.”
Stuart Svonkin, a lawyer working with the CCLA on the court challenge, said they will argue the ministry directive violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Right’s Code and the province’s Education Act.
“We are asking the court on an urgent basis to set this directive aside and to order the government to maintain the sex-ed curriculum that has been taught for the last three years.”