A few months ago I invited Jan Sippel, educator at the Vancouver School Board, to complement historian Mona Gleason’s research. Mona, a professor at the Faculty of Education at UBC, with a keen interest in the history of education had generated some cool exploratory research for the Sex Talk in the City project. Mona’s work (more in a future post) had focused on the 1900-1960s period. Jan was to extend the storyline to the present.
I am not an historian, but I have very recently become one. As a member of the Sex Talk in the City Advisory Committee and the coordinator of sexual health education for the Vancouver School District, I had been asked to research the history of sex education in our schools over the past 50 years. I expected it to be fairly straightforward — reflect on the twenty-five years I have been in the district, check the VSB archives, talk with current and retired colleagues, and canvas schools for ‘artifacts’ (old films, videos, and teaching materials) that may be collecting dust in cupboards and closets.
It quickly became apparent that sex education teaching materials tend to be thrown out when they become obsolete and it is unknown how many of these resources existed in the first place. The School Board archives, which are maintained by the Vancouver School Board Heritage Committee, a dedicated group of retired teachers and school administrators, are somewhat limited in scope by the storage space available. The archives yielded very few sex education artifacts, likewise the request to schools.
Probably the most important thing I have learned from this exercise is that much of the history of sex education in our schools resides with a few individuals, many of whom are retired. My ‘key informants’ thus far been teachers, counsellors, and administrators who have, in the past, had leadership roles in the school district that included responsibility for sex education. All had the task of helping teachers implement the Ministry of Education health and guidance curriculum of the day. Some had been the Elementary Curriculum Consultants. Others had been members of the VSB Family Life Education Team formed in the late 1980s to support teachers of grades 7–12 with the provincial Family Life Education Curriculum, developed in response to the “Aids Crisis”.
I was surprised to learn that sex education, in some form, has had a place in the BC education curriculum since the 1950s. For many years, it was taught almost exclusively at the secondary level, often with no guidebook and teachers sharing what resources they had with one another. Secondary students may have received ‘sex ed’ classes from their school counsellor or from a teacher in science, home economics, or physical education classes. Historically, in the intermediate grades, sex education came under the topic of “body systems” in science and students learned about the reproductive systems of mammals. Although sex education has been part of the BC curriculum, a teacher‘s comfort level with the topic was often the determining factor in whether or not it was taught. In the 1960’s and 70’s, public health nurses and some private sexual health educators began to play a significant role in addressing this topic in our classrooms.
Delving into the documentation and interviewing key people in the field has also allowed me to see curricular patterns emerging, patterns that appear to have been driven by the societal concerns of the time. For example, in the mid-1980s child sexual abuse prevention first appeared in the BC health and guidance curriculum; by the late 1980s, sex education curriculum had a strong focus on the prevention of HIV /AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. The 1990s saw a greater emphasis on healthy relationships, which seemed to reflect an increase in public awareness and discussion of domestic violence. These social issues exerted a strong influence on the curriculum and in some cases, renewed interest in sex education in our schools. The last 10 or more years has seen a move to include themes of sexual diversity and inclusion, and recognition of the need for comprehensive sexual health education at both the elementary and secondary level.
Tracing the history of sex education in Vancouver schools has been daunting and discouraging, at times. The research I have done to date seems to have only scratched the surface! I’m hoping that some keen historians and grad students will continue the process of unveiling and recording how we have taught — and are teaching — this important subject in our schools. It says so much about who we are as a society, and we have much to learn from that history.