SINGAPORE: For many who have been through Singapore's education system, sexuality classes involved workshops with external counsellors, social workers or healthcare professionals, where students were given lessons on how to build healthy relationships and steer clear of sexually transmitted infections.
However, that approach has changed in recent years with a dwindling number of schools engaging external entities to provide supplementary sexuality education classes for their students. Instead, schools have been opting to stick with the Ministry of Education's (MOE) programme.
Replying to a parliamentary question in 2015, then-Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah said just seven schools engaged four approved external providers in 2014 at a cost of S$20,000 to conduct sexuality education programmes for students.
Since 2009, schools spent about S$460,000 on such supplementary programmes, or an average of S$8 per student, she added.
The small number of schools engaging external providers for supplementary sexuality education programmes has since dropped to zero.
According to the MOE, schools have not engaged them since 2017.
“This is largely because schools feel that the MOE sexuality education programme is able to meet the developmental needs of students,” said Mdm Choy Wai Yin, director of the guidance branch under the student development curriculum division of MOE, in response to reporters queries.
“Since students these days are increasingly likely to turn to and confide in their teachers – even on sensitive or personal matters – teachers are better able to support them and help manage their concerns, including on sexuality issues,” she added.
Associate Professor Jason Tan of the National Institute of Education (NIE) Department of Policy and Leadership Studies said he thinks schools have stopped engaging external providers because they “are harder to control”.
External sexuality education vendors were last in the spotlight in 2014, when a Hwa Chong Institution student wrote a letter to her principal to criticise a Focus on the Family (FOTF) Singapore programme for being sexist and for perpetuating gender stereotypes.
The incident spurred former Hwa Chong students to start a petition, calling on the school to suspend the workshop immediately.
MOE eventually clarified that the workshop on relationships did not fall under the ministry's sexuality education programme, even though FOTF Singapore had been approved by MOE to run sexuality education programmes in schools.
MOE said FOTF Singapore was appointed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development for this workshop, and also announced that the programme would "cease its run" by the end of 2014.
In 2010, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) pulled its Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme out of schools.
According to media reports at the time, the instructor's guide for CSE had lines that condoned homosexuality, and stated that anal sex was 'healthy' if consensual and done with a condom.
Complaints from concerned parents prompted the ministry to suspend all programmes run by external vendors in 2009, and start vetting these groups.
Before the incident, schools used to have the autonomy to hire external vendors of sexuality education programmes.
Prior to the 2009 suspension, the organisations that provided external programmes to schools included AWARE, the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, Family Life Society, Fei Yue Community Services and Focus on the Family Singapore.
MOE declined to provide an updated list of approved external sexuality education vendors.
According to MOE’s website, for an external provider of supplementary sexuality education programmes to be approved, they have to meet various criteria.
For example, the external provider should not advocate “any religious stands” in the programmes, and the content of the proposed programme should avoid “touching on any sensitivities related to any ethnicity, gender or religion”.
The external provider should also have “in-depth knowledge” of sexuality-related matters and trainers should have relevant working experience in the field of social services, health, education or counselling.
“Teachers and MOE-approved external trainers should respect that they are in a position of trust with respect to students and ensure that schools are not used as arenas for advocacy on controversial issues,” read the website.
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In the past, some sexuality education providers have had a religious affiliation. Dr Tan suggested that most schools would now prefer to opt for a secular approach.
“And then of course, you’re not allowed to have providers that provide contrarian messages, that’s stated very clearly in the guidelines. It’s an easier option for the schools to stick largely to the MOE-designed curriculum,” he added.
FOTF Singapore confirmed that its programme on pornography and addiction is one of the approved MOE supplementary programmes.
“We equip parents to be the primary educators and role-models of healthy sexuality and relationships - and part of that includes teaching on boundaries and body safety, as well as respect for self and others,” said Ms Judith Alagirisamy, a family life strategist at FOTF Singapore.
SEX ED CURRICULUM REGULARLY REVIEWED
Mdm Choy said MOE conducts “regular reviews” of the sexuality education curriculum to “ensure that lessons remain current and relevant to emerging trends”.
“Lesson scenarios and real-life case-studies have been updated to cover online risks such as social networking dangers and sexual grooming,” she added.
Mdm Mohana Ratnam, a senior character and citizenship education (CCE) officer with MOE who taught sexuality education in schools for about 15 years before being posted to MOE headquarters, said the sexuality education curriculum is “nimble and flexible”, and that it “responds to the changing needs of society”.
She explained that the programme has three main areas - to help students learn social and emotional skills to understand themselves and build healthy relationships, to integrate these skills with accurate, current and age-appropriate knowledge on human sexuality, and to establish that parents play a primary role in sexuality education.
Although the three key messages are “evergreen”, Mdm Mohana said MOE is aware of the changing environment around teens, and in particular, the influence of social media.
“We acknowledge that students are on social media networks and they are hearing and seeing things. We want to make sure that accurate information is being presented to them,” she said.
“These discussions do happen in the classroom, on the influence of these technologies and media on self-image, esteem, friendships and relationships. This is a very good conversation piece in the classroom for them to hear perspectives on what presents as beauty, for example.”
According to Mdm Mohana, teachers are “quite professional” and able to respond quickly to news circulating on social media during character and citizenship education (CCE) classes, which includes the sexuality education syllabus.
Estimating that it could take teachers anywhere between a few days to a week to respond to current events in class, she explained that teachers receive bi-weekly news updates, and they can then make use of these resources to come up with lesson packages.
Dr Tan said school programmes need to engage in “an honest and extended discussion” about alternative sources of information on human sexuality.
“The Internet is so pervasive in teenagers’ lives that you can’t pretend they don’t consult the Internet. Of course, you have no idea at all what they see, what information they are consulting for, and what they do with that information,” he added.
FOCUS ON ABSTINENCE
Mdm Mohana also stressed that the sexuality education syllabus is consistent across teachers and schools because the teachers undergo training and are guided by the syllabus.
“For sexuality education in particular, school leaders will select the teachers, and then they are specially trained so that they are comfortable, they are confident, and they are convinced that this is something that is necessary and important to bring to the classroom,” she added.
In terms of content, according to MOE’s website, the ministry believes that “abstinence before marriage is the best course of action for teenagers”, and the programme teaches students the possible consequences of sexual activity and that pre-marital sex is not desirable as there are inherent risks.
“A practical approach is adopted” to reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies among youths, said the website.
“Sexuality Education teaches students facts about contraception, repercussions of casual sex, and the prevention of diseases from a health perspective. This is in addition to teaching teenagers about building healthy relationships and how to say “no” to sexual advances.”
According to the website, the syllabus also teaches students what homosexuality is, and the current legal provisions concerning homosexual acts in Singapore.
Associate Professor Jude Chua, head of policy and leadership studies at NIE said focusing on the health benefits of abstinence is a “sensible approach”, because “the desire to avoid disease is a compelling reason that can be appreciated by any sound-thinking person, and has good reach”.
“At the same time, parents can do their part to inform their children, and they may themselves be informed by religious or cultural considerations that their own children are also attuned to,” he added.
“The latter may also help children understand that sexual restraint is not just about avoiding harms, but can be a more effective way to secure some goods are best enjoyed with trust, exclusivity, security, dedication and responsibility.”
Yvonne (not her real name) said she found that the most effective way to dissuade her students from sexual activity was to illustrate how much it costs to be responsible.
“When they have a grand scope of how much it costs to get pregnant and to deal with it, it is often a very sobering piece of knowledge for mature students,” she added.
“And unfortunately that is not addressed. My students don’t know where they can get contraception from, they don’t know what the options are, or they think contraception maybe only lies in the hands of the guy and not the girl.”
"IT DEPENDS A LOT ON THE TEACHER"
Teachers that reporters spoke to also shared that within the classroom, the content and quality of sexuality education remains largely dependent on the facilitation skills of the member of staff involved rather than the syllabus.
Yvonne told reporters that the CCE team at her school found that for a lot of the topics addressed in sexuality education, the quality of the classroom discussion depended on whether the teacher “was comfortable talking to students about it”.
She explained that many classes involved scenario-based learning, and materials from MOE highlighted “what was perceived as pertinent points between a boy and a girl”.
“We would go through points like how does a guy show interest, how should a girl reciprocate, what happens when a guy makes his advances, how a girl should respond,” she said.
Teachers would then offer up talking points to students, and ask them how they would respond if they were in the different situations, said Yvonne.
“How would you let him down nicely, or how would you respond to somebody who rejects your advances? Again, this is actually quite nuanced and the outcome of it depends a lot on the person who is facilitating the discussion, which obviously does not always work out,” she added.
Janet (not her real name) told reporters that there is an element of the teacher’s own experience in every lesson. “So most of it comes from the teacher’s own perspective sometimes, rather than what is shown on the screen,” she said.
“There are some teachers who just stick to the slides because they are afraid of sharing too much. It can become a personal topic when the students are very interested in your own experience, and some teachers might not be ready to share these things,” she added.
"At the same time, there are some teachers who are very open to sharing, and then it can become quite a vibrant discussion. I think it depends a lot on the teacher and the dynamics of the students, and how mature they are.”