The value of specialist services collaborating with schools

This week, ACC has announced an $18.4 million investment to roll out its Mates and Dates programme across New Zealand secondary schools. The programme, which has been run in some schools since 2014, is delivered by specialist providers, based externally from the school. Trained educators facilitate five one hour sessions across five weeks, in each year level of high school, totalling 25 hours for each student by the end of Year 13. The announcement of further investment has sparked criticism about why the programme is facilitated by outside providers and not by teachers. Sexual Abuse Prevention Network (SAPN) specialises in delivering consent and sexual violence prevention education programmes to young people in and out of schools and is currently the Wellington, Porirua and Kāpiti provider of Mates and Dates. As General Manager at SAPN, I’d like to share the perspective of my agency on the value of engaging outside providers to do this crucial work, and how collaboration between schools and specialists in sexual harm prevention ensures the best sharing of knowledge, skills, and educational outcomes for students.

Sexual violence is a global problem and an issue that affects all of us, with New Zealand having the highest rate of sexual violence among OECD countries. Sexual violence is too big an issue to be solved in five, or even 25 lessons. Effective culture change requires a sustained long-term approach, which addresses the problem in multiple ways, including the reinforcement of positive messages across our lifetimes.

The relationship between external providers and schools goes far beyond five lessons in each year group, and the collaboration and different expertise of those involved is a strength of this model. Health teachers have a huge amount to offer with their skills as trained teachers, their knowledge of a broad range of health topics and their relationship with students. They play an important role in supporting the programme, including working with the educators to plan programme delivery, reinforcing the messages in the classroom, and providing follow up support to students if questions or disclosures arise after completion of the programme. Our work in schools has included training staff on receiving disclosures of sexual abuse, educating parents and guardians about having difficult conversations with their young people, referring students to specialist support, providing advice and support in response to incidents, co-delivery of consent education with teachers and supporting student-led initiatives – such as events, journalism and art projects.

There is a strong body of evidence that recommends that this education is undertaken by specialist educators, external to the school. The evidence includes international academic research but most importantly, it is what current New Zealand secondary school students have asked for.

When ACC was developing the Mates and Dates programme they surveyed secondary school students. The results showed that the students wanted outside providers to deliver the programme, and for their teachers to be there in the room supporting it. That is the model that is used across the country for Mates and Dates, and it is the model we use at Sexual Abuse Prevention Network for our own ‘Who are You?’ programme.

This work is happening in a society in which rape culture is rife, where harmful attitudes towards sex, sexuality and gender are pervasive and where harmful behaviours, including abuse of power is commonplace. Most people don’t do sexual harm and most agree that it’s wrong in its more extreme occurrences. However insidious behaviors are, by their nature, hard to identify – particularly for the person they are directed at. To communicate the nuances of sexual harm is challenging and requires educators experienced in articulating the complexity of the topic, and who stand strong against mainstream attitudes and beliefs to promote a perspective that is often new or at odds with that of those in the room. Specialist educators are trained to facilitate conversations with groups that may comprise of people who have never spoken openly about sex, sexuality or abuse before, people who are hostile towards the content, people who have experienced sexual harm firsthand and people who have done sexual harm. Often the educators will need to manage a room with all these different perspectives at once and guide the group towards a consensus that promotes respect and consent.

Providing effective sexual violence prevention education requires educators to have an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of sexual abuse, and an ability to communicate these clearly. They need to be trained to receive disclosures of sexual abuse and to know how to refer these on to appropriate support. When our educators receive a disclosure of abuse, our organisation works closely with the school to ensure that student is getting the support they need and to minimise the risk of further harm to the student or anyone else and to consider the needs of the person who did the harm.

Consent education is something that current secondary school students feel strongly about. In 2017, Wellington students marched to Parliament to demand compulsory consent education in all schools. Additionally, a Wellington student started a petition through Action Station, which called for the Mates and Dates programme to be made compulsory in all schools in New Zealand. The petition was signed by 6000 people. This year, Hamilton Girls High School students have launched a campaign to ask the government for compulsory consent education in high schools.

It is fantastic that ACC has responded to these calls from young people by moving towards making a comprehensive programme that focuses on respectful relationships and consent available to all young people in schools. Along with listening to their calls for consent education, we also need to listen to the way in which they are asking for this education to be delivered. The education is, after all, about safety and respect.

This is the unabridged version of an opinion piece published on on the 9th August 2018.