The Curious Case of Senior Secondary Health Education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

I am delighted that this week’s blog post comes from a passionate health educator who has spent many years advocating for, and understanding the role of, health education within a wider context. Although written from a New Zealand perspective Rachael Dixon‘s writing will speak to a global audience of health educators.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa

My turangawaewae – the place I stand – is Aotearoa New Zealand, the land of the long white cloud.

I feel privileged to be part of the fabric of Health Education in my country. For me and for others who are equally as passionate about the subject, Health Education is a taonga – a treasure. I have been a teacher of the subject at high school, an advisor for teachers, and I am the co-chair of the professional organisation for Health Education teachers in the country; which often involves advocacy work on behalf of the profession and the subject itself.

In this blog, I will explain and justify my conviction about the value of Health Education (though, I suspect I am preaching to the converted in this readership). You can read my personal blogposts here for some additional context, but this post will explain the nature of Health Education in Aoteaora New Zealand and the voice I have collected that speaks to its potential and possibilities.

I have recently come full circle professionally, returning to the place I began my university (College) journey as an under-graduate student; and where I learned to teach health as a post-graduate student. There, I now teach Health Education to both under-grads who are interested in health and have been inspired by their high school health teachers, and post-grads who are training to become health and PE teachers.

Almost 20 years ago, the National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) established Health Education as a fully credentialed, academic course of study to the final year of schooling. Here you can find the current matrix of achievement standards (we have a standards-based assessment system); although from 2020 a major review of the standards is taking place (20 years is a long time in such as dynamic field as Health Education!). I am excited to be involved in the review process, and to see where we can take Health Education in our country.

Health Education is one of three subjects in the Health and Physical Education learning area (HPE) of the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). HPE is comprised of Health Education, Physical Education and Home Economics, and the three subjects share a conceptual base and achievement objectives (what students should learn/know at each of eight levels of schooling). The NCEA exists in year 11, 12 and 13 (the final three years of schooling); and each of the three subjects are typically optional for students, but may not be offered at all schools. Health Education, like all subjects in the NZC, is compulsory until the end of year 10.

We have what is described as a flexible national curriculum, which means specific content is not compulsory – as teachers we plan, design and assess programmes to meet our learner’s learning needs. Note that I use ‘learning’ first and foremost: Health Education outcomes being about learning (about health contexts, health-enhancing practices and skills); not health improvement (as teachers we can’t be accountable for that, given the complexity of the world and communities around us). HPE is socio-critical and salutogenic (strengths-based) rather than based on healthism (individual responsibility for health) or fear-based and moralistic. That said, the pedagogical practice of teachers is highly variable; and research suggests that Health Education can tend towards the moralistic and is generally ineffective. Do students switch off? Do they not relate to it? What’s going wrong?

When I began my PhD three years ago I set out to construct a piece of research that told an alternative story as compared with much of what had preceded it. I drew upon Louisa Allen, who asked “how far has critiquing sexuality education got us? (Allen, 2018). I suspected that there was much to discover about the positive experiences of Health Education in Aotearoa, so I went to the top – and interviewed people who had studied the subject all the way through to the end of high school; assuming that they had received a comprehensive, engaging and effective Health Education (otherwise they wouldn’t have continued with the subject to the end of school, right?).

Right. I wasn’t particularly surprised by what I found, but as it had not been documented in research anywhere, it was still a good yarn (that’s Kiwi for ‘story’). To communicate what I found through interviewing, I at times took a non-conventional path narratively by constructing stories (poetry, a ‘slice of life’ short story and a textbook extract), which pushed me creatively but added richness and novelty to my work. I think it also enabled me to think differently about my data and conditions of possibility in the realm of research. I found that:

  • Health Education continues to face issues such as misunderstandings about its role and purpose; not being taught socio-critically in the junior secondary years; being relegated to less-than-optimal learning spaces in a school (note that this was in schools that offered the subject to year 13 – so it made me wonder what I’d find in schools that didn’t have Health Education past year 10).
  • Health (and HPE) Education teachers were seen as being different from teachers of other subjects: more passionate, caring, flexible, empathetic and creative in pedagogies used to engage learners with the learning material.
  • Being able to study the subject at qualifications-level enabled Health Education an identity of its own; and a pathway through the NCEA years and into tertiary study in a wide range of health and social fields. Teachers used the flexibility of the NCEA to meet the diverse needs of their learners, including by offering choice in mode and topic for assessment, and engaging in authentic experiences for assessment, including overseas field trips.
  • Health Education (at NCEA level) was taught in socially-constructionist ways that enabled learners to learn from not only the teacher, but from peers, and from reflecting on the relevance of learning contexts to their own and others’ lives. Teachers brought the subject matter to life through a range of guest speakers and outside the classroom learning opportunities, and community connections were fostered through taking health promotion actions in spaces wider than the classroom or school. A strong sense of social justice, care for others and the ability to respect the diversity of perspectives held by people in society was prominent in both the way the subject was taught, but also in learning outcomes.
  • Other key learning outcomes were the ability to critically analyse and evaluate health-related issues and material in society, confidence in one’s ability to interact effectively with a wide range of people, understanding of the determinants of health and different lenses on wellbeing, and a rejection of simplistic ‘individual responsibility for health’ messages.

To conclude my PhD thesis, I wrote a heterotopia in the voice of Health Education (at the risk of anthropomorphising) to convey its desires for the future – filtered through my and my participants’ thoughts and words. As follows:


Health Education wants to be taken seriously. It wants to be recognised for its potential contribution to tertiary pathways, and a range of careers beyond school. At the same time, it wants to be recognised for the value it adds to the lives of young people who are still working out who they are, who they might become, and what they can offer to people around them – as well as their wider worlds. Health Education wants to strike a comfortable balance between hard and soft skills, which means capitalising upon its academic rigour, but simultaneously making the most of its potential to develop in its learners an appreciation for the diversity of perspectives held by people in our world, and the ability to interact positively with people from different walks of life.

Health Education wants to be celebrated for what it can or may bring to the lives of learners, teachers, and others who may cross its path. Its teachers will be trained, committed, passionate, and caring teachers. Teachers who care not only about young people and not only about Health Education, but who care about both. These are teachers who have the energy that is needed to be creative and inquiring, and – in true role modelling form – critical consumers and producers of knowledge. Health Education wants to take a central role in instilling in its learners political and social mobility, ready to deploy their skills, knowledge, and understanding to make their world(s) a safer, more equitable place.

Continually blurring the boundaries between the classroom/school/community, Health Education wants to bring the curriculum alive by extending the walls of its classroom into the local community and beyond. Whether in the confines of a classroom or learning space at school; or whether learning is taking place somewhere else, Health Education wants to offer learners a safe space in which to inquire. It wants to make its learning real and harness the realities of diverse people’s lives. Health Education wants learning and assessment of learning to be authentic, applicable, and personalised. It wants to draw upon the non-human resources and upon the human wisdom that learners, teachers, and community members have to offer.

Health Education wants be researched in different ways to previous traditions of critique. To be moved on, moved forward, and transformed so as to keep up with the dynamism of our twenty-first century world. But Health Education will remember its roots and where it has come from; never leaving this precious history behind in search of new ways of being and doing in the world. Health Education wants to take with it into the future these lessons and messages – whether negative or positive – that the past has taught Health Education about itself. It wants to offer current and future learners a number of promises and possibilities for learning, albeit keeping in mind that it wants to refrain from promising too much to too many people.

I want to end this post with voice from my participants – these are some of the quotations that most made me think, laugh or despair.

I think health is different because you are talking about quite intimate topics. Whereas maths, the teacher can stand there and teach, and not build relationships.

It’s hard not to remember the fear-based approach early … like this is what an STI is, here is a picture of it, and you are just like – I don’t want to be here.

It’s skills-based as well as knowledge-based. So you’d learn the knowledge and then you could put it into practice.

I think the skills I acquired through health have been invaluable in my life as a person, as well as in my studies and now career.

It’s not like you can get your answer out of a textbook like you can for bio. You’ve got to use your own wider thinking, you can’t just Google it and the answer is going to come up.

It takes a certain type of teacher – not just anyone could do it.

Whenever you went to health you felt that you were supported. It was a supportive and positive environment to be in.

I think that you finish school and sometimes you think you haven’t learned to be you yet. And that’s what health teaches you.

You get as much academic skills with the essay writing in health as you would from English, or any other academic subject.

I think (health) helps you to become a little more open-minded, a little bit more compassionate, I just don’t think I’m ignorant. And I like that.

Post-script: I felt strongly that I wanted to present my research in ways alternative to a PhD thesis, to increase accessibility for a practitioner (e.g. teacher) audience. This blogpost is one way of doing so. I also created two zines (handmade magazines) to communicate my findings. Version one, here, is a 25 page magazine-style summary of the thesis. Version two, here, is in a more typical zine style, in which I attempt a socio-political critique based on my findings.


My PhD thesis can be accessed here.


Allen, L. (2018). Sexuality education and new materialism: Queer things. London: Springer.

Ministry of Education (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Ministry of Education.


Social media is the best place to find amazing educators from across the world and I am a better teacher for following the practice of my peers in the souther hemisphere. If you aren’t already doing so I urge you to follow, and interact with the great health educators in New Zealand and Australia.

If you liked this blog post from Rachel, you might also like ‘Te Whare Tapa Whā’  from Georgia Dougherty and Love, Hope and Peace from Celia Fleck two other oustanding health educators from New Zealand.

One thought on “The Curious Case of Senior Secondary Health Education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

  1. Pingback: Why Leave Health Education to Chance? – #slowchathealth

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