Why Leave Health Education to Chance?

Too often, a young person’s experience of school-based health education is left to chance.

By chance, is the young person living in a country in which health education is visible in the national (or regional/territorial) curriculum policy?

By chance, does the young person happen to attend a school in which the subject is valued, and where skilled, passionate and qualified health education teachers plan and teach a responsive health education programme?

By chance, does the young person happen to be in a class where their teacher views themselves as a health education teacher, and works to build a safe, supportive learning environment in which notions of health are explored through a socio-critical and democratic approach rather than a moralistic and fear-based one?

In Aotearoa New Zealand, I consider that we have a world-leading health education curriculum, which I described in a 2020 #slowchathealth blogpost. However, whenever I ask my tertiary students to reflect back on their health education experience when they were at school, the answers I receive are, well, interesting. The following are paraphrased but represent typical responses:

“It was crap. I don’t remember learning anything, except for how to put a condom on a wooden dildo and the dangers of STIs”.

“In primary school we had Harold the Giraffe who came to school in a bus to teach us about health. The puppet was pretty ridiculous”.

“My health teachers always showed us respect and gave us choice in our learning. We explored media messages with a critical eye and investigated health issues. I loved health at school and it is the reason that I am here at university studying health education”.

So, why is learning in health education being left to chance?

In Aotearoa, several features of educational policy and guidance mean that teachers have the freedom to design programmes of learning that are unique, and responsive to their learners’ needs.

First, the New Zealand Curriculum is a ‘framework’ curriculum, within which no specific learning contexts are prescribed. While Health and Physical Education (HPE) learning is mandated until the end of year 10, the structure of, and content covered in, HPE is completely flexible.

Second, the professional standards against which teachers in Aotearoa are registered require a flexible and responsive approach to planning for, and delivering, learning experiences.

Third, recent work has focused on the importance of developing and strengthening a local curriculum. Guidance in this area focuses on how schools can give effect to the national curriculum while connecting to the needs and aspirations of students in their community.

The freedom and flexibility described above is a double-edged sword when it comes to whether health education learning is being left to chance. For some schools and teachers, this freedom and flexibility enables them under-deliver on quality health education learning. But on the other hand, it allows schools and teachers to develop and teach truly responsive programmes of learning – something that I believe is essential in a subject such as health education.

So, given all of the above, what are my ideas for negotiating this space? How might we harness freedom and flexibility whilst ensuring health education learning is not left to chance?

· Assess health education planning, teaching and learning when schools are audited against effective practice measures.

· Develop local, national and international communities of practice (such as the #slowchathealth community) to network with others, advocate for the subject, and build capability.

· Develop and use supporting materials to enhance health education teaching and learning, and advocate for the subject in local contexts. For example in Aotearoa we have a government-produced ‘Relationships and Sexuality Education Guide’ which details effective practice.

· As teachers, continue to build our ability to critically reflect on our practice, including seeking and integrating student voice to inform planning. Don’t be afraid to ask learners what they want to learn – and be brave enough to see where this leads.

Young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world. Health education has such rich potential to go some way towards equipping young people with the skills, knowledges and understandings that will help them negotiate their world. They deserve a health education experience in which quality learning is not left to chance.


For a thought-provoking podcast on issues touched upon above (including a kick-ass reference list for further reading), I recommend Nathan Horne’s PhysEdcast ‘The Role of Health in Physical Education’.

This microblog post was a featured post in #slowchathealth’s #microblogmonth event. You can search for all of the featured posts here. Please do follow each of the outstanding contributors on social media (including Rachael Dixon, the author of this post) and consider writing a microblog post of your own to be shared with the global audience of slowchathealth.com

Pair this blog post with the following:

The Curious Case of Senior Secondary Health Education in Aotearoa New Zealand by Rachael Dixon

Te Whare Tapa Whā by Georgia Dougherty

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