An open letter is calling on the Government to keep the current relationship and sexuality education guidelines in schools and kura, despite coalition promises to do otherwise.

So, what are kids currently learning? And what changes does the coalition have in mind?

A coalition partner’s demand

The looming shake-up of the relationship and sexuality education (RSE) guidelines in schools is part of National’s coalition agreement with NZ First.

Neither National nor ACT campaigned on changes to these specific guidelines. National was focused on "teaching the basics brilliantly" while ACT was more concerned with "restoring balance" to history lessons and reviving the charter school model.

But NZ First did want changes to the RSE guidelines.

More specifically, its election manifesto promised to "remove gender ideology from the curriculum".

Gender ideology is a system of beliefs that challenges the traditional binary understanding of gender being solely based on biological sex.

That election promise was realised in NZ First’s negotiations with National following the election.

The coalition deal between the two parties agreed to: "Refocus the curriculum on academic achievement and not ideology, including the removal and replacement of the gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education guidelines."

The current RSE guidelines

The current relationship and sexuality education guidelines were released in 2020.

At the time, the Ministry of Education described the resource as "[focusing] strongly on consensual, healthy and respectful relationships as being essential to student wellbeing".

The guidelines followed a 2018 Education Review Office (ERO) report that found many schools had gaps in sexuality education, particularly around consent, digital technologies and relationships.

Sexuality education is not the same as sex education, which relates solely to the physical aspects of sexual and reproductive knowledge.

The government at the time said the updated RSE guidelines were informed by “changing family structures, shifting social norms in relation to gender and sexuality, the rise of social media, and the increased use of digital communications and devices”.

The guidelines are currently available in two volumes – one for Years 1-8 and another for Years 9-13.

The RSE guidelines are not compulsory.

Parents or caregivers are also allowed to write to their school principal to request that their child doesn’t take part in a particular element of the school’s sexuality education.

Different levels of learning

The RSE guidelines divide suggested subject matter over eight levels.

The Years 1-8 volume encompasses levels one to four. The Years 9-13 volume includes levels four to eight.

Some examples of learning across those levels include:

Level 1 – recognising body parts; knowing about appropriate touching; being able to accept and celebrate difference; and understanding the relationship between gender, identity and wellbeing.

Level 2 – understanding what consent means in a variety of contexts, including online; recognising other people’s feelings and respecting them; being able to identify gender stereotypes and understanding the difference between gender and sex.

Level 3 – knowing about pubertal changes; understanding different types of relationships; understanding consent, pressure, coercion and rights; being able to critique the ways in which people’s bodies, relationships and gender might be represented in the media and online.

Level 4 – further knowledge about pubertal changes and how they relate to social norms around gender and sexuality; understanding approaches to conception and contraception; learning to manage intimate relationships; understanding how to get help if needed.

Level 5 – knowledge about cultural approaches to gender and sexuality; gaining skills for enhancing relationships; analysing representations of sex, sexuality and relationships.

Level 6 – examining how gender and sexual identities can change over time; gaining knowledge about consent and safe sexual practices; critiquing heteronormative messages or practices in the community.

Level 7 – understanding physical changes across people’s lifespans; identifying risks in intimate relationships, both online and offline.

Level 8 – reflecting on their personal identity; exploring things like desire and attraction as interpersonal and ethical concepts; critically analysing issues that affect relationships, gender identity and sexuality.

Gender stereotypes and assumptions

The current RSE guidelines encourage schools to question gender and sexuality stereotypes.

The guidelines also ask schools to ensure inclusive environments for all students, including allowing students freedom of expression when it comes to their gender identity or sexual orientation, as well as the right to determine their own identity and name.

NZ First candidate and former Shortland Street actor Lee Donoghue attacked these part of the guidelines during the 2023 election campaign, using the TVNZ Young Voters' Debate to rail against what he said was woke “indoctrination” of New Zealand children.

National’s Erica Stanford responded to Donoghue’s concerns around inclusive bathrooms during that debate, saying the issue had not been raised during any of her regular visits to schools.

Donoghue failed to make it into Parliament at the election. But Stanford is now the Minister of Education and is tasked with upholding her coalition partner’s promise to overhaul the RSE guidelines.

What should schools expect in the new guidelines?

Stanford told 1News the coalition government will review and replace the current relationship and sexuality education guidelines during its first term.

“I emphasise the agreement to replace,” she said, adding that the current guidelines had important content she wished to keep.

While references to gender ideology are almost certainly on the chopping block given NZ First’s strong stance on the issue during its election campaign, Stanford said guidelines around consent and healthy relationships were “critical to retain”.

“It is important to note that these are only guidelines and schools are currently free to use them – or not – as they choose,” she said.

Calls to keep existing guidelines

Twenty-six mental health and rainbow organisations have written an open letter to the Government this week, asking it to retain the current RSE guidelines.

The letter said the guidelines were beneficial for schools and students.

“Good-quality RSE can help young people become responsible, healthy and productive citizens; reduce their chances of experiencing violence; empower them to make healthier choices in their interpersonal lives; and improve their academic performance,” it said.

It said changing the current guidelines “threatens to derail efforts to create safer and more inclusive school environments, especially for rainbow and takatāpui tauira (students)”.

Stanford told 1News she appreciated the concerns raised by the open letter.

“I agree that all children deserve to feel included, safe and respected at school,” she said.

The open letter is available online for people to co-sign until May 17.

More stories:

Period poverty: NZ company to supply period underwear in Gaza

“We have a space here to offer manaakitanga.”

Your social media posts can put your job at risk. Here’s what not to do

An employment lawyer explains why companies care what you post online.

A young homeless person answers your questions

“Every day is different.”