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Sex education is a good thing, but only if what we’re teaching is right

April 4th, 2009

Dr Petra

Yesterday I appeared on ITV’s This Morning, to discuss how parents can provide positive sex education messages to their children and teenagers. You can see my summary on what to talk about to kids of different ages here.

The programme was inspired by a young mum whose sister (age 11) had recently been given a sex education talk by a visiting speaker at her school. During the talk the speaker allegedly asked the young people to talk about enjoying masturbation. Which isn’t particularly problematic. Except the speaker used the term ‘wanking’, which shocked many of the children in the class.

During the course of the programme a viewer called in, explaining their 9 year old child had come home from school after sex education knowing the names of their genitals. On air I commented how important it was for us to name the genitals in a matter of fact way, and how knowing about the names for our sex organs was as important as being able to name any other part of the body. Off air I was told the parent who called in was upset not because their child had been told biological names, but because a speaker who delivered sex education to her child’s class used the term ‘cunt’ to refer to the vagina. It wasn’t clear how this situation came about, but the parent who called in was understandably distressed her child had learned such a word from an adult in a classroom setting.

These cases raised the question of who is providing sex education messages within schools, and what are teachers saying.

Clearly this is an important issue to tackle since parents are already anxious about what is covered in sex and relationships education, and the media frequently fans the flames of our fears by talking about how school-based sex education is undermining parental authority and introducing children to explicit topics and a young age.

Sex education advocates are often anxious to discuss such issues for fear it may play into the hands of those who want to see the end of school sex education. Particularly since their oppositional tactics often rely on telling parents that sex educators are inappropriate and corrupting.

I am in favour of sex education in both the home and the school. Most parents do provide excellent advice for their children and teens. But not all parents do feel able or willing to do this, which is why we need equally good sex and relationships education within schools. Along with the ability to critique poor sex ed messaging – be that from parents or teachers.

While sex education is going to change in the next year or so, right now there is a problem with how sex and relationships classes are covered. Some schools do a fantastic job and cover a wide range of life skills, while others only offer the biological aspects of reproduction and do not talk about feelings, emotions or contraception. Some schools use their own staff to teach sex and relationships issues, others invite speakers in from charities, NGOs or local health centres, and some use both approaches.

The quality and messaging of teaching delivered varies considerably based on the outlook of the school; the views of school governors and parents; and the skills, abilities, personal opinions and enthusiasm of those delivering sex ed.

So while we hope that most sex education provided is good, there are sadly some cases where it is substandard. This could be due to outdated or negative messaging given, or misleading advice provided. In some cases it seems that teachers are delivering the same message to young people regardless of their age, and not noticing how young people mature at different rates. Meaning there are some cases where children seem to be being given the same messages as older teens.

There are several reasons why this is the case. It can be down to lack of support to teach, a lack of time to adequately prepare for teaching, or no systems in place for supervision and reflection on good practice. Using evidence to underpin work is also not happening within sex and relationships teaching as much as it should be.

So if you’re a parent, teacher, or young person and feel that you’re not being given the right kind of messages in sex education – perhaps too much, too little or just plain confusing advice – what can you do? Teachers can work together to ensure they get additional training, support and time to reflect on their sex and relationships classes. Parents can complain to the school or local authority if they are worried about messages given. And teens can talk to teachers or parents about any issues they’re bothered about.

How can you find out what makes for high quality sex and relationships education?

These pointers come from a paper by Douglas Kirby* who is an expert in evaluating sex education.

10 Common Characteristics of Effective Sexual Health Education

1. Effective programs focus on reducing one or more sexual behaviours that lead to unintended pregnancy or STD/HIV infection.

2. Effective programs are based on theoretical approaches that have been demonstrated to be effective in influencing other health-related risky behaviours.

3. Effective programs give a clear message about sexual activity and condom or contraceptive use and continually reinforce that message.

4. Effective programs provide basic, accurate information about the risks of teen sexual activity and about methods of avoiding intercourse or using protection against pregnancy and STDs.

5. Effective programs include activities that address social pressures that influence sexual behaviour.

6. Effective programs provide modelling of and practice with communication, negotiation, and refusal skills.

7. Effective programs employ a variety of teaching methods designed to involve the participants and have them personalize the information.

8. Effective programs incorporate behavioural goals, teaching methods, and materials that are appropriate to the age, sexual experience, and culture of the students.

9. Effective programs last a sufficient length of time to complete important activities adequately.

10. Effective programs select teachers or peer leaders who believe in the program they are implementing and provide them with training.

Kirby also has this free tool to help you identify good sexual health education.

*Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

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