While Life Orientation is aimed at teaching children and young adults about important skills and values to be used throughout life, it is abundantly clear that in its current form, it is grossly agreeable and lacking current thinking on sex education and self-care. It has become a somewhat meaningless exercise for many school learners who miss out on invaluable opportunities to participate in safe spaces that encourage comprehensive and progressive learning. The Department of Education announced that compulsory health and relationship education is to be rolled out in English primary schools. In secondary schools, the new rollout will also include an updated sex education subject. Children in primary school will learn about relationships inclusive of LGBTQI, online safety, and the importance of mental and physical health and how they can intersect safety. Coming to this decision was a long-fought battle but based on evidence-based thinking and inclusive values. The Department of Basic Education in South Africa has indicated that the UNESCO International technical guidance on sexuality education will be used to guide their new programme. With technical guidance on sexuality education, it will help improve the inadequacy of the current Life Orientation programme by properly addressing issues relating to LGBTQI, sexual and reproductive health, mental health and emotional well-being.
If such a comprehensive rollout was to be implemented and taken seriously, there must be open lines of communication between the Department of Basic Education, teachers and students. Students must be engaged in what they think is lacking in Life Orientation. Safe spaces for dialogue, where we can hear stories from youth about where and how they need more support, can easily be facilitated. I have seen how safe spaces can empower young people to voice their concerns and needs in a passionate and constructive manner. For example, approaching the issue of consent can help young men in secondary school to be taught about the importance of feminism and how movements like #MeToo and #TotalShutdown can fight against sexual violence, toxic masculinity and gender inequality. Engaging young men on these issues can show the hardships women face in daily life as well as the intersectionality between love, compassion and respect with improved mental health and relationship outcomes.
The benefits of children and young adults learning about empathy, emotions, anxiety, mental health, recognising anxiety in others, and much more cannot be overstated. There is a clear crisis in young people experiencing mental health challenges, with many unable or unwilling to talk about it, much to the detriment of their personal well-being. Mental illnesses are deeply complex, but we can better inform children and young adults to recognise damaging feelings in themselves and others as well as teaching them mechanisms on how to mitigate effects and access professional care.