Not long ago, on this blog, I called for the Ontario PCs to change the nature of the conversation the party is having with Ontarians. Some months later, the Tories super charged the rhetoric, won an election, and gave Ontarians its ‘government for the people.’ A populist revolt worked wonders during the election, and it did certainly fuel the desire for change. In that blog, I argued for a kind of change in approach that would show a more intelligent side of our party. And now that the party has formed an impressive majority government, its focus should be on sustaining and even growing its support. This is precisely why I see this sex-ed curriculum reform issue as a decisive one for what direction the PC government is going to take.
Let’s start by recognizing certain truths. Kids in grade 5 or 6 can figure out how to film, edit, and post videos online with a few clicks and little effort. We are becoming less acquainted with who are children are seeing and talking with. Our kids are not only engaging in sexual activity at a younger age, but they don’t have the maturity to understand the possible consequences of the decisions they are making. In addition, kids have access to all sorts of information, good and bad, the moment they have a smart phone or tablet. Any conversations the have, they are keeping far away from parents. Oh, and those chats on video games are priceless specimens of immature swearing and cussing and interacting with Lord knows who. Most parents, I suspect, would be shocked to learn about what their kids are doing and at what age. Many kids will be exposed to sexual things before they learn about it in their health class. The government cannot ignore these truths, and we need to admit that parents don’t know half of what their kids are doing.
The other truth that cannot be ignored is that it will take a long time for the Ontario PCs to build trust among the voting public regarding education policy. Right or wrong, the party has been tarnished by what is perceived to be neglect of an important file. Nobody wants to trust a group of people to reform an education system that is in desperate need of reform when they think the party is out of touch with reality. The sad thing is that there are legions of parents out there who need a party to speak to them on education, and these parents are counting on the PCs to be that party. We cannot let them down. These parents are concerned about things like protecting extracurricular activities, supervision on the school yard, and better parent-teacher communication, in addition to what and how kids are learning in the classroom. Parents are concerned about Ontario students falling behind other countries in math, and they are even more concerned that their child is not going to be prepared for higher education once he or she gets to that age. Parents are also tired of the fact that the previous government seemed to only pay attention to special interests in education to the detriment of their child’s academic progress. The Tories can be the party that corrects the course on this one too. However, you cannot do so by replacing one special interest with another. The Tories need to unapologetically be about student success rather than any other special interest, and they should choose issues that reinforce that message. Sex ed reform can be “an” example, perhaps, that could have been used among a whole bunch of better ones, but it should never be “the” example of what reforms need to happen in education and how the Tories will tackle such reforms. The stars do not align for a passionate and forceful ‘for the students’ message on sex-ed.
Now that sex-ed is front and centre on the agenda, it’s hard to undo and retract. However, the government still has hope to strike a better tone. First, don’t get into the weeds on the content. If somebody asks ‘will the new curriculum talk about cyber sexting’, the answer must always be ‘we will modernize health and physical education to meet 21st century realities.’ Instead of talking about content, speak in emotive terms. Talk about the safety of kids. Speak to a modernization that promotes inclusion and student success for every child. Talk about how parents and teachers are concerned about cramming too many things into a school year, and one might well wonder what might not be taught in order for the health and physical education curriculum to be taught, given the limits of the instructional day in our schools and such. We have a unique environment in Ontario where we add curriculum but reduce instructional time. Start explaining this to people! Use it to pivot to subjects where you actually want reform, such as math, that are better examples of a ‘for the students’ message.
There is a way to talk about these issues without getting into a debate about the appropriate time, if ever, to talk about sex in schools. Nobody will ever agree on the timing of when kids should learn about sex. There has never been agreement, and that’s why the current/old curriculum hasn’t been changed in 20 years. The risk of discussing the disagreement for any prolonged period of time is not getting the better ‘for the students’ message out, and that won’t help the party or government.