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Still more on school sex ed

December 4th, 2005

Dr Petra

In The Observer today there’s coverage of a government report that sex lessons for children ‘as young as five’ could become compulsory. The document, which is to be backed by advisors on sexual behaviour and education, also outlines how school sex education is inadequate, unfair, confusing and optional. The results of this is a hit-and-miss delivery of sexual and reproductive health advice for young people, and the report suggests is the cause of the UK’s high rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs.

This could mean that sex and relationship education (SRE) might move beyond basic biology to include topics like confidence, communication, identity, respect, peer pressure and awareness of difference.

The report obtained by The Observer is called ‘Personal, Social and Health Education in schools: Time for Action’, created by the Independent Advisory Groups on Sexual Health and Teenage Pregnancy, which advise the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills.

The Observer piece outlines how some MPs may well back the report and attempt to make sex education compulsory, however it also outlines how those MPs with particular religious views may seek to block such a move.

I’m fully in support of compulsory school sex education. However I think this issue needs more careful exploration than just stating it’s a ‘good thing’ (as The Observer piece implies). We need to consider who will train teachers to talk about sex and related issues? What topics will be covered? We know that basic biology is often easier to deliver than more complex and emotionally charged issues of peer pressure, sexual desire, or diverse sexualities. We need to invest in a school sex education programme that applies to both boys and girls (frequently staff assume sex is natural and boys need not be taught much). Sex education also needs to focus on positive aspects of our lives and encourage communication and respect since many young girls in particular report coercion and abuse as part of their early sexual experience.

There is plenty of evidence about what young people want from sex education, but we need to ensure this evidence is part of any new policies or education programmes. There may be some topics teens would prefer to discuss with those other than their teachers – e.g. peers, parents or partners. There may be some topics teachers might not want to talk about with pupils. We need to evaluate what information can be delivered by what source at what time.

We also need to expand titles. Sex and relationship education implies a permission to have but one relationship, or one relationship at a time. We know from the experience of many teenagers that they may have a series of relationships one after the other, and sometimes these relationships may overlap. It even implies you’ll only be having one relationship during your lifetime, which of course is unlikely.

Parents need support in order to answer questions raised in sex ed, or perhaps to add advice as they would to other aspects of the curriculum. After all, it’s fine to help your child learn to read or write, so why not talk about sex? Given most parents in the UK have also lacked a comprehensive sex education the government could do well to increase the sex ed remit and include courses for parents.

We need to decide exactly what is going to be discussed. I’d like to see education beginning with the five-year-old group, covering emotional and confidence issues, and as the child grows preparing them for puberty, teaching communication skills, then as they move into their teens cover everything from contraception to choosing when to have sex (or not). And I’d like it all done in a sex positive way, so rather than it all being about saying no, infections or unwanted pregnancy, we could prepare young people to make assertive choices about sex – and to enjoy it when they do embark on a relationship (and before by exploring masturbation). However not everyone will agree with that view, and we need to discuss exactly what it is that we want to teach our young people, and at what ages.

Finally, we need to support the existing services currently offering advice in schools – charities, outreach groups, youth advisors and religious groups. These may already be offering a service that could be adapted, provided by people skilled in talking about sex.

After hearing about this report parents and teachers may be worried that in discussing sex, young people will go off and have sex. We need to also reassure people that what we’ll be teaching children aged five will not be what we’ll be teaching nine year olds, twelve, or sixteen year olds. We have to ensure when information is delivered it is done so in a way that is respectful to the diverse political, cultural and religious views held in the UK. We also need to stress the evidence that the more sex education young people are given (particularly if it includes a component of confidence building and communication skills) the less likely they are to have sex when underage and under duress.

The problem is that we currently keep presenting new legislation or suggested curriculum changes so not only are we not having the right conversations about what our sex education could include, we can’t even currently seem to reach agreement between government departments what sex education is about.

Let’s hope that the new report is given a fair hearing, but more importantly that if it is decided to make school sex education compulsory, that more planning, discussion and consultation happens so we give young people the sex and relationships information they need, and support teachers to deliver this vital education.

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