HIV in Canada: A primer for service providers

School-based education

Key Points

  • There is a high level of sexual risk-taking among Canadian youth.
  • Alarming rates of sexually transmitted infections among youth could be an early warning sign of sexual risk-taking that could lead to an increase in HIV infection.
  • Comprehensive school-based programs can reduce the behaviours that put youth at risk for sexually transmitted infections including HIV.
  • Most Canadian educational jurisdictions have developed “learning outcomes” for sexual health education but very few have developed curricula for school-based sexual health education.
  • School-based education that is age appropriate, evidence-based, and acknowledges differences in sexual orientation and gender diversity is essential.

The majority of Canadians are sexually active during the teenage years. Condom use among sexually active Canadian youth is relatively high. About 80% of sexually active 15 to 17 year olds report using a condom at last intercourse. However, there is also a trend for high rates of condom use among sexually active teens to decline as they get older. A study of Canadian university students found that less than half used a condom at last intercourse. Although HIV prevalence remains relatively low among youth, increases in the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections in recent years show an alarming trend of sexual risk-taking in this population. The prevalence of common sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and human papillomavirus is highest among youth and young adults. These infections are a marker of risky sexual behaviour, which could lead to an outbreak of HIV within this age group.

There is a large body of strong evidence showing that sexual health education can have a positive impact on sexual health behaviours. In Canada, the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) has been a leader in research and advocacy for comprehensive school-based sexual health education. Consistent with international evidence, SIECCAN has also found that comprehensive sexual health education can lead to delayed initiation of sex, a reduced number of sexual partners, increased condom and contraceptive use and reduced frequency of sex. Evidence has also shown that comprehensive HIV programming does not hasten the initiation of sex or increase the frequency of sex. By contrast, abstinence-only programs that intentionally do not teach young people the importance of consistent condom and contraceptive use do not delay the initiation of sex, increase the return to abstinence or reduce the number of sexual partners.

Given that schools are the only formal institutions that have contact with nearly every young person in Canada, they are uniquely positioned to provide youth with comprehensive sexual health education before sexual debut and during the teen years. School-based sexual health education can reach a wide range of potentially at-risk youth and play an important role in the primary prevention of HIV.

Despite the evidence for the efficacy of school-based sexual health education and an overwhelming level of support for the provision of HIV/AIDS education in schools by students, parents and teachers, there is much to be done to improve the availability and quality of sexual health and HIV education in schools. Although most Canadian educational jurisdictions have defined learning outcomes related to sexual health, very few have developed curricula to support teachers in working with their students to meet these outcomes.

In 2008 the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) released Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education to outline principles for the development and evaluation of comprehensive, evidence-based sexual health education in various settings, including schools. One of the primary goals of the guidelines is to offer clear direction to assist local, regional and national groups and government bodies to develop and improve sexual health education policies, programs and curricula that address the diverse needs of all Canadians.

The guidelines offer a framework for the development of effective, comprehensive and inclusive sexual health education. In particular, the guidelines are based on the principle that sexual health education should be accessible to all people and that it should be provided in ways that are “age-appropriate, evidence-based, scientifically accurate, rights-based, culturally sensitive, respectful and inclusive of sexual orientation and gender diversity.” The guidelines support inclusive sexual health education that addresses the needs of all students, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning, and note that an understanding of sexual diversity issues is an important component of sexual health education.


Making the case for School-Based Sexual Health Education –

Canadian guidelines for sexual health education – Public Health Agency of Canada

Sexual health education in the schools: Questions and answers – Sex Information and Education Council of Canada

Sexual health education in the schools: Questions & Answers (Updated 2015 Ontario Edition)

Questions and answers: Sexual orientation in schools – Public Health Agency of Canada, 2010

Questions & Answers: Gender Identity in Schools – Public Health Agency of Canada, 2010

Questions & Answers: Sexual health education for youth with physical disabilities – Public Health Agency of Canada, 2013


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  2. Milhausen R, McKay A, Graham C, et al. (2013). Prevalence and predictors of condom use in a national sample of Canadian university students. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 2013;22 (3):142–151.
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