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Turbulent sexuality education campaign opens door to valuable conversations in the Netherlands

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27 March 2023 Tags: fake news, primary education, Schools, Sexuality education, Spring Fever Week, the Netherlands

Teaching children about autonomy, a positive self-image and talking about what you like and dont like. This is what our annual Dutch campaign ‘Spring Fever Week was all about this year. Unfortunately, part of that message was lost due to a tidal wave of fake news. But what the week mostly instigated were many valuable conversations between skilled teachers and parents and tens of thousands of children. This is our account of a turbulent week. 

Spring Fever Week

The ‘Spring Fever Week’ is an annual week for special and primary education in the Netherlands to discuss relationships, sexuality and resilience. Rutgers has organised this week together with the Dutch municipal health services since 2006. During the week, schools give one lesson a day to 4 to 12-year-olds about the topics in the curriculum. This year, almost half of the schools participated and 4,000 more lessons from the Rutgers Butterflies in your tummy (‘Kriebels in je buik’) curriculum were given than last year, an increase of almost 20 per cent. 

For each group in primary education, there are separate lessons tailored to the age and experiences of the children. Primary schools that participated this year gave lessons on the theme “What do I like?”. “We know from research that children develop a more positive self- and body image when they think about their bodies, relationships and sexuality at an early age. These children are also better able to indicate their wishes and boundaries and treat each other more respectfully,” says Rutgers programme officer Elsbeth Reitzema. 

Schools can choose whether to participate in the Spring Fever Week and whether to choose the Rutgers teaching package or one of the other two recognised teaching packages. Teachers then also choose the way in which they implement it. Rutgers advises schools to inform parents in advance about the lessons and what they will discuss. The municipal health services support schools in this by organising parent evenings and teacher training. 

Every year, Rutgers and schools receive some enquiries about the Spring Fever Week. However, this year there were many more questions than usual. This was due to the high amount of fake news that was being spread about the content of the curriculum and the sexual acts teachers allegedly would discuss during the lessons.  

A tidal wave of fake news

The sharing of fake news already began in January, according to an extensive article on the disinformation by investigative journalism platform Pointer. Since then, Dutch politicians and opinion-makers have taken elements of the different teaching programmes out of their context and shared content that does not belong to the Spring Fever Week curriculum. 

The fake news even led to parliamentary questions to Primary and Secondary Education Minister Dennis Wiersma.  

The fake news not only led to more questions in schools, but also caused turmoil at Rutgers’ office. As Rutgers director Marieke van der Plas commented: “Colleagues were personally approached, threatened, scolded and called all kinds of names.” 

On Twitter and other social media, Rutgers explained what was wrong with the various fake news stories. Programme manager Luc Lauwers: “We started discussing the fake news and the inaccuracies that politicians shared with the Minister of Primary and Secundary Education during a debate in parliament.” 

In response, Rutgers received unpleasant reactions but also a lot of support from parents and opinion makers. For example, Dutch news paper columnist Hester Zitvast wrote: “It is downright naive to think that a child is not yet engaged or ready. Children know a lot more than we used to because of their unlimited access to the internet, and that deserves guidance.” 

In the news 

Many mainstream media also reported on Spring Fever Week. Rutgers staff spoke in prime time tv programmes and numerous experts not affiliated with Rutgers also debunked the fake news in various media and on their own platforms. They all emphasised the importance of relational and sexuality education at an early age. For instance, sexologist Eveline Stallaart said in a current affairs programme: “The biggest problem with all the critique is that a lot of untruths are shared but also assumptions about the lessons and what effect they would have on children. (…) It has been proven that early sexuality education results in fewer teenage pregnancies and young people having sex for the first time at a later age.” 

The joint municipal health services stressed the importance of relational and sexuality education in primary schools: “We are surprised at the vehemence of this discussion; we stand for the safety of the people doing this work. Attention to relationships and sexuality from an early age is part of healthy childhood and education.” 

On Friday, Mayor of Utrecht Sharon Dijksma visited Rutgers’ office, where she motivated Rutgers to continue to stand up for its values and promote the importance of Spring Fever Week. “There was a lot of noise coming from a small dark corner this week, but a much larger silent mass thinks what you are doing is very important. And so do I,” she said. 

These and the many other expressions of support Rutgers received over the past week mean a lot to the staff. Luc: “They strengthen us to continue our work, together with the municipal health services and our other expert partners.” 

Skilled teachers and involved pupils

Right through all the turmoil, teachers provided wonderful lessons and had valuable conversations with the children and their parents.  

And the pupils? Most of them noticed little of all the turmoil. They discussed in class whether or not it is nice to get a big birthday kiss on your mouth from your uncle or aunt. “A bit weird,” said one girl on the children’s news. Not a big deal, said a classmate. “Because I just know them well .”

Also in this edition of Spring Fever, children talked a lot about what they like and about their limits. And this is what Spring Fever Week is supposed to be about. For instance in year 5 of primary school De Clipper in Rotterdam. What do the children think about images on social media portraying a perhaps not entirely realistic image of women and men? “Not good,” they chorus. ‘You should just be yourself!”, shouts one child. ‘You’re just beautiful the way you are,’ says another.”

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