So to hand a voice and agency back to students, Ollis, flanked by a team of researchers and experts in the field, has driven the Engaging Young People in Sexuality Education project.
“For a range of reasons – lack of comfort, lack of professional learning – what teachers are covering in sexuality education is not necessarily what young people want to learn about.
“So … the aim of the project was to come up with some data and strategies that could be used to develop sexuality education designed by young people, for young people,” the professor from Deakin University says.
Split over three stages, the researchers ran an “interactive” survey with 2500 children from Victorian and South Australian schools, seeking to unearth some raw reflections on their own sex education experiences.
The findings, according to Ollis, threw up some surprises.
“There was a contradiction between young people wanting more explicit information about sex and sexual practises, yet on the other hand feeling really quite embarrassed about that, so there was that real tension,” Ollis says.
“The other thing that we found was they wanted more information, particularly the males around issues like pornography…”
Violence and relationships, starting and ending relationships, gender and sexual diversity, intimacy and love were other areas students identified as being poorly covered at school.
The research clearly shows that Australian children require more than just a biology lesson, Ollis says.
“We had made this assumption that by Year 12 the students had had a comprehensive sexuality education, but they hadn’t [comprehensive] knowledge,” Ollis adds.
“They felt that their sexual education had only been about negative issues, so there had been no opportunities to explore things like sexual pleasure, gender – the ‘sex positive’ things that are really important.”
Armed with their stage one data, Ollis and her team launched into the second and third research phases.
A series of workshops coached students to develop their own strategies and approaches to teaching sexual education, urging the teenagers to delve into those issues they felt were most crucial today.
Ollis says the project intends to show policymakers and curriculum-shapers the need to listen more keenly to those they are educating.
“[Teenagers] are extremely inclusive, their knowledge around gender was enormous, and I think of the moral panic that is emerging at the moment around Safe Schools and the Respectful Relationships curriculum – we are completely out of touch with where young people are at…” Ollis asserts.
Reflecting on the findings, Ollis says teachers also need to align themselves as strong “allies” with their students as they tackle sexual education in class.
“I think that one of the key issues is there is a lot of talk at the moment about student engagement, and student voice and student participation, and I guess what the project showed is that this is really important.
“But young people still need adult allies to do this with … we found when the students went off to do this work, it was really difficult for them to do without adults.”