It takes a village: Community connections in relationships and sexuality education

Dr Rachael Dixon (University of Canterbury)

He waka eke noa | We are all in this together

Relationships and sexuality education (RSE) is a key area of learning with the Health and Physical Education learning area of The New Zealand Curriculum. In most schools, RSE is connected to health education, and as such the Education and Training Act 2020 requires schools to consult with their community at least every two years about its delivery. The idea of “consultation” implies not only a one-way transfer of information from school to home, but the opening of a conversation in which a range of people’s viewpoints can be shared and listened to. The outcome of this consultation is the adoption of a statement of delivery for health education by the board in a (state or state-integrated) school.

This ultimately raises questions such as whose views are being heard, and whose voices remain silent? How can dissenting voices and perspectives be meaningfully accommodated? What happens when community views do not reflect aspects of education policy (such as The New Zealand Curriculum, the RSE guide for schools, the National Education and Learning Priorities (NELP)) or wider laws (such as Human Rights Act 1993 and New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990)? Grappling with these questions can be a difficult tightrope to walk, particularly against the landscape of intense media interest and pushback from conservative groups about RSE in schools.

It is in context of this socio-cultural environment that we explored teachers’ and school leaders’ perspectives of teaching RSE in primary schools through a nationwide online survey and multiple case study in three primary schools. To produce data in the case study phase, we conducted face-to-face hui in three primary schools, with teachers and/or senior leaders present. A key finding of the case study phase of our research was the importance, for effective and meaningful RSE in practice, of partnerships between various people in the school community. Not limited to the two-yearly community consultation process, these partnerships are on-going, and can inform RSE in primary (and secondary) schools iteratively over time.

The importance of community connections

Variety of connections

We found a range of connections and conversations between a wide variety of people and organisations that had critical roles to play in relation to RSE both inside and outside the classroom. Planning and teaching RSE involved: Schools and teachers working in partnership with colleagues within and across schools, connections with whānau, and access to wider supports and services. In combination, these partnerships, although presenting challenges at times, offered our participants the guidance and reassurance that they needed to plan and teach RSE that was responsive to learners’ needs.


Participants in our case study schools recognised the importance of collegiality and having opportunities to learn from and with more experienced colleagues. This was particularly the case for teachers of younger learners, who in the past had not taught RSE at the lower levels of the curriculum. Collegiality was also discussed in relation to teachers’ differing comfort levels with RSE. Teachers bring different levels of experience and comfort to their role as a teacher of RSE, and a supportive school environment is needed to enable teachers to provide quality RSE.

Kāhui Ako connections

Connections across schools were also discussed as being valuable when planning for learning in RSE. The Kāhui Ako model presents a valuable opportunity for schools in similar geographical locations or with shared special characters to work in partnership in areas such as RSE to enable robust learning pathways and to share knowledge and expertise, including around connecting to whānau in the community.


Regular and transparent communication with whānau around matters to do with RSE were discussed extensively across the interviews with the case study schools. For example, informing parents and whānau, seeking their input on RSE learning, and the challenges that arose periodically with whānau views and understandings around RSE. When informing parents about RSE in their school, teacher participants were often ready to receive negative feedback and withdrawals from class, but more often than not, this did not transpire. Participants across the three hui discussed how they front-footed communications to whānau about upcoming RSE learning. This helped reassure teachers that whānau supported what was being taught and enhanced the opportunity to initiate conversations at home with their children to reinforce learning at school.

Communication with whānau was seen as valuable for overcoming whānau concerns about RSE. Some of the challenges relating to communicating with whānau are navigating different cultural attitudes and values, and dispelling misunderstandings of RSE. Comments raised within our hui in the case study schools support the idea that whānau from diverse cultural backgrounds welcome opportunities to hear and ask questions about the RSE programme.

Senior leadership

Support and guidance from senior leadership or the board was seen as important to ensure that the mandated community consultation was conducted two yearly as required, and was seen as a valuable and valued process. This was also found by the Education Review Office who asserted that leaders have a crucial role in ensuring effective stewardship in a school.

Support services

An array of wider supports and services are used to support leaders and teachers to develop their capability. For the case study schools, supports that they accessed reflected the nature and character of their context. For example, external supports were used to enhance teacher capability to teach RSE and to embed a safe and inclusive environment. Another layer of support are external providers who teach part or all of RSE in primary schools, but these were not extensively used by the teacher participants.  

Closing thoughts

I am reminded of the whakataukī he waka eke noa — we are all in this together. However, as the critical posthuman feminist thinker, Rosi Braidotti adds to this sentiment — we are all in this together, but we are not one and the same. It is incumbent upon school board members, senior leaders, teachers in their everyday work to develop relationships and connections between people with a wide range of beliefs and views. In relation to the mandated community consultation for health education (and RSE within), for some people it might seem curious that the health education as a subject in the curriculum is singled out as needing to be consulted upon. However, the process of consultation, when done well, provides an opportunity for schools to partner with whānau to plan and teach RSE in ways that respond to children and young people’s learning needs. This means that learners with their whānau can be at the centre of education, which is NELP objective 1, priority 2, which is not without its challenges, given the heterogeneity of attitudes, values, and perspectives within any school community in our country.

Some questions for school leaders and teachers to reflect on their RSE consultation process

  • How can we balance the viewpoints and perspectives of different members of our school community in relation to RSE and health education?
  • What consultation methods and strategies will support the inclusion of diverse voices within the school community?
  • What partnerships do we have with colleagues and community members, and how can we strengthen these, or forge new ones, in order to enhance RSE and meet the needs of our learners? 
  • What contribution can community consultation and the forging of partnerships within the school community make towards the vision for young people of Te Mātaiaho, as conceived by young people: “We are connected to community, curious about learning, and confident in ourselves”?

Dr Rachael Dixon is a senior lecturer in The Faculty of Health at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury where she teaches into the Bachelor of Health Sciences as well as initial teacher education. An ex-secondary school teacher and PLD facilitator in the health and physical education learning area, Rachael has worked extensively with teachers to support quality teaching and learning. She stays connected to the health teaching profession through her involvement in the NZHEA.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s