Today's kids are less healthy and are facing greater health risks than generations before. We've heard this message before and we know that we all have a role to play in helping our youth lead healthy lives. Ontario students, however, are at a distinct disadvantage: The provincial school curriculum that should help build the skills and understanding they need to make healthy choices now and into the future is well out of date.
Today, Ophea (Ontario Physical and Health Education Association) along with 50 provincial and national organizations are calling upon the Kathleen Wynne government to update the health and physical education curriculum that was originally written in 1998. Revisions to this provincial curriculum were released in 2010, but three months after the revisions the McGuinty government shelved key parts of the elementary curriculum and the entire secondary curriculum after misinformation was used to attack the human development and sexual health section. Ever since, teachers and students have had only a 15-year old-curriculum that was written well before important issues like cyberbullying, sexting and child and youth mental health were on most people's radar.
Ontario's curriculum is the oldest in Canada and has significant limitations which have left students to fill in some important gaps on their own. Students need the knowledge and skills to make informed choices about their health and well-being. The health topic areas that are addressed as part of the health and physical education curriculum included physical activity, healthy eating, substance use and misuse, life skills, mental health and sexual health.
It is our position that students have a right to receive the necessary educational opportunities to enable them to avoid preventable health problems. Parents are the primary educators of their children and their education is a shared responsibility between parents/guardians and schools. The health and physical education curriculum is the most logical and appropriate place to provide health information, including sexual health education, because schools are the only formal educational institution to have meaningful contact with all students.
A survey by Environics, commissioned by Ophea for today's report, revealed that 87 per cent of Ontario parents support sexual health education in schools and nine in 10 parents are comfortable with their children receiving information about sexual health from a school curriculum. Almost all Ontario parents (93 per cent) are calling for an updated sexual health component to the health and physical education curriculum for elementary and secondary-school students to replace the existing curriculum written 15 years ago.
Furthermore, Ontario parents think that topics such as self-esteem; sexually-transmitted infections; communication and decision-making skills; puberty; skills for healthy relationships; contraception methods; abstinence and delaying sexual activity; reproduction; sexual orientation; and, media literacy about sexual content should be addressed in schools.
In case anyone is wondering, Ontario students also think it is time for them to learn from a curriculum written in the 21st century. For the first time ever, students had input into the development of this important curriculum and they are part of the group demanding the Ontario government take action now. The development of the 2010 health and physical education curriculum was the result of a comprehensive two-year process that involved gathering evidence from around the world and consultations with thousands of experts, parents and students. The result was an innovative approach to give students the knowledge and skills to be healthy today and in the future. However, those voices have been silenced in a curriculum being held up because of politics and misinformation.
Ontario has been a leader in policies such as Accepting Schools, Bullying Prevention, Safe Schools, Equity and Inclusion and students think their curriculum should also reflect and be informed by the principles of non-discrimination and respect for others. So much so that they have created a movement, #OurRightToLearn and a student voice video (www.OurRightToLearn.ca) demonstrating how the curriculum is missing their voice.
Ontario students deserve and need a current, research-based curriculum that provides them with the skills they need in today's complex and ever-changing world. The health and wellbeing of 2.1 million children and youth in Ontario is at stake and they have waited long enough – it's time to take action and to finalize and implement this important curriculum.
Dr. James Mandigo is President, Ophea Board of Directors and Associate Dean, Undergraduate Studies, Brock University, Faculty of Applied Health Studies. Chris Markham is Executive Director and CEO, Ophea.