Skip to content

Lad’s mags teach young men about sex and relationships? Why Ofsted’s report on personal, social and health education is wide of the mark

April 12th, 2007

Dr Petra

Today’s newspapers have all been eagerly covering a report from Ofsted (the UK’s official school inspection body) that reviews personal, social and health education (PHSE).

Although the report covers a number of issues, the media focus has mostly been around criticising parents for not talking about sex and praising magazines for offering sex advice….
Parents health advice under fire from schools watchdog – The Guardian
Pupils rely on magazines to learn about sex – The Scotsman
Ofsted praises teen mags for teaching sex – Telegraph
Magazines, not parents, teach the facts of life – Daily Mail

In particular the press picked up on lad’s magazines offering sex information, and the media coverage would have you believe the main focus of the Ofsted report is about media sex education. However a reading of the 26 page report suggests otherwise, with only two sections tackling media:

“In discussion, pupils report that some of their parents have neither the knowledge nor skill to talk to them directly about sensitive issues. Parents often seek to approach personal, social and health issues with their children tangentially, if at all. As well as failing to provide the information themselves, some parents express concern about the suitability of information that young people receive from other sources, such as magazines, even when these could be useful. For example, the increase in the number of magazines aimed at young men, while at times reinforcing sexist attitudes, has helped to redress the balance of advice available to young people.

The range of topics and the explicitness in dealing with them have increased in many of the magazines read by young people. While many magazines now stress the importance of safe sex, some communicate, inaccurately, the perception that all young people are sexually active. Nevertheless, the ‘problem pages’ in magazines remain a very positive source of advice and reassurance for many young people, but difficulties may arise if the messages clash with parental and cultural norms”.

It isn’t clear why this angle got so much coverage, since the Ofsted press release didn’t focus on this issue. However, it seems one of the newswires did spin the story towards the magazines-as-main-source-of-sex-education which many papers uncritically ran with. It’s pretty obvious that very few of them bothered to read the full report – even though it’s not all that long and is easily available online.

Whilst it is positive that problem pages are praised, it is important to recognise – which Ofsted did not – that the standard of advice giving varies widely across print and online publications. Some have qualified, vetted staff writing for them while others are written by unqualified staffers, ‘sexperts’ or celebrities. This means some magazines offer quality information, others are very misleading.

What is worrying about the Ofsted report is the assumption that because lad’s magazines exist they automatically offer an opportunity for advice giving to young men. Evidence and experience of sex educators working in the media suggests this is completely untrue. Having lads magazines available has done little to increase young men’s knowledge of sexual health issues – but has led to an increase in incorrect sex information being given – in particular encouraging sexually coercive behaviour. Although Ofsted praised problem pages, where they exist in lad’s magazines they’re not written by qualified staff and often give young men inaccurate messages about sex.

Why Ofsted made these claims is unclear but one can only imagine they didn’t bother to widely consult lad’s magazines to see the poor quality of sex coverage they offer.

Elsewhere the report tells us what the existing evidence base already makes clear about sex and relationships education, that….
- Parents feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their children
- School sex education varies widely in standards and many schools do not reach required levels of sex and relationships education
- Many teachers are underqualified to teach about sex and relationships and feel uncomfortable doing so
- Young people do not always feel comfortable talking to parents about sex but would welcome more school sex education
- Programmes that advocate abstinence from sex and do not teach any other issues about sex (e.g. contraception or STIs) are not effective
- School sex education and pupil knowledge has improved recently
- When young people can’t talk to a parent or teacher about sex, or do not receive sex information (particularly of a highly personal nature) they will seek information from the media

None of this comes as any particular surprise, but what is concerning is how Ofsted make little or no use of existing evidence to underpin their investigations and their recommendations. Although schools have been inspected and young people spoken to, many of the outcomes from the investigations by Ofsted are already well known to us yet do not seem to have informed their work. When evidence is quoted in the report it is selectively used and not always as up-to-date as it might be. It’s as though the report authors did go out to schools and see what was going on there, but didn’t bother to find out what we already know about this issue – which is good educational practice and troubling if our official schools inspection body cannot seem to manage.

Moreover there seems to have been many conversations with staff and pupils but no systematic analysis or critique of this information has been made, meaning you’ve no idea how many of the views mentioned in the report are just hearsay or striking opinions picked to make a point – and which are more representative opinions.

Where other reports have been created on young people, media and sex they have at least created resources and help guides for parents and teachers. All the Ofsted report does is to complain parents are not doing their bit, but doesn’t address how to help them – nor acknowledge that many parents of young people had no formal school sex education and no support now to deliver sensitive advice.

Although the report is positive that sex education has improved and stresses the importance of sex and relationships education for young people, it does not make use of evidence, it misunderstands media coverage of sex, and most worryingly of all it doesn’t do what it could do – which is to advocate mandatory, high quality sex education to be made compulsory in schools.

Instead readers are left with some washed out recommendations that don’t call us to action and will continue to leave young people’s sexual and relationships education to chance.

Further information

If you are a parent and would like advice on talking to your teenager about sex the following resources may be useful to you
The American Psychological Association’s guide for parents

Children Now’s talking with your kids about sex (also available in Spanish)
The Family Planning Association runs ‘Speakeasy’ that helps parents learn to discuss sex
Parentline Plus has a number of useful publications for discussing sex
Here’s a link to a previous blog entry about talking to your kids about sex

Comments are closed.