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What do we want from sex and relationships education?

June 28th, 2010

Dr Petra

Last week I was asked to speak at Channel 4′s Education Annual Conference, which was live blogged by Joanne Jacobs here and can be followed on Twitter via hashtags #c4ed and #c4edconf. The event included highlighting different educational interventions (fascinating), debating technology in education (talked about perhaps too much), discussing free schools (not debated enough) and showcasing forthcoming educational programmes/games (like this one which looks great) I addressed the question ‘what do we want from sex and relationships education?’

I promised I’d share my presentation here, so here’s an outline of where we are currently with sex education, some of the opportunities and barriers we’re currently facing, and an idea about what we need to do to enable young people.

Relationships education: the current situation…
We’re in a place of political uncertainty, with a coalition with very different views on SRE and related issues. Anxieties have been expressed that the Conservative Party in particular has a poor history on sex education (indeed has been known to block it), and also has a record of homophobic legislation (such as Section 28) and being anti choice. Therefore how our current government will respond to providing sex education, or even what could be delivered, remains to be seen.

Although many people believe sex education is a compulsory part of our school curriculum this only relates to providing basic information on reproduction – delivered usually (but not exclusively) through science lessons. Additional SRE (sex and relationships education) is currently delivered in a patchy way within schools. Some do an excellent job of covering a variety of issues in an appropriate way, others do not address the topic in depth (if at all) while still more specifically discuss sex in negative, incorrect or frightening ways – or provide teaching that’s age inappropriate. Because sex education was not made statutory in the reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill: April 2010 the opportunity to share quality sex education across all schools was lost. While statutory sex education doesn’t guarantee quality teaching it was at least the start of getting this important issue safely housed within the school curriculum.

While we don’t have statutory sex education we have had several consultations on the matter including a recent DCSF (now Department of Education) one, and a new NICE PHSE consultation which is currently open for contributions until 15 July 2010.

Meanwhile we have also had a series of reviews into ‘sexualisation’ – one excellent investigation completed by the Institute of Education for the Scottish Parliament, and a less robust one conducted for the UK Home Office. The latter gained a lot more media attention than the former. You can see copies of all recent sexualisation investigations (including the Scottish and UK ones) along with resources for evaluating them here.

We are currently seeing a lot more focus towards the role of parents, which is very reassuring. Not least because young people do often want sex and relationships advice from parents and parents do want to offer such support. They often feel sidelined by the media who make out parents are being denied the chance to give sex ed simply because it might exist within schools as well. And often parents worry they may say the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time. So current plans are looking to include parents more within planning for sex education and delivering training to them to enable them to talk more to their kids. Organisations such as the Family Planning Association are active at delivering this.

Although sex education is not statutory and there are organisations within healthcare who speak to schoolchildren (such as school nurses, outreach workers etc), delivery of sex education still often falls to teachers who can feel unsupported, untrained and uncertain how to provide the diverse messages young people want.

Given we’re currently in a recession and have just seen dramatic budget cuts to educational spending (if not to healthcare) there are concerns that providing sex education or training for parents and teachers may not be invested in.

Why is (good) SRE important?

What with all this uncertainty it may be questionable whether sex education is even needed. But if you look at the evidence around the benefits sex education can bring, you find it delivers a lot of very useful stuff. Much of it not about sex at all, but a lot of it very helpful for interpersonal relationships of all kinds – not just intimate or sexual ones. Sex education helps us because it…
- Answers young people’s questions
- Reduces stigma, fear and anxiety
- Encourages delaying sex
- Increases communication skills
- Increases the likelihood of contraception used
- Avoiding pressure/coercion
- Reduces STIs, teen pregnancy
- Highlights the positive and negative aspects of relationships
Of course this is dependent on sex education being delivered in effective ways, no sex education or programmes that are confusing or judgemental don’t help young people.

We currently recognise sex education is important, or at least parents, teachers and the media fret a lot about related issues like STIs, teen pregnancy, termination rates, and sexualisation. We do seem more aware of issues relating to consent or coercion, and also violence within relationships. And there is a recognition of peer educators and parents playing a vital role in sharing SRE messages alongside formal/informal educational networks, outreach and the media. Plus a growing awareness that we should focus on the positive aspects of relationships and sex.

Current problems with SRE

Aside from teachers and parents feeling disempowered and the problem of teachers’ lacking confidence to deliver SRE, we also struggle with other barriers that need urgent attention. These include:

Lessons are often not based on evidence. So you have well intentioned activities that may not be reflected on, correctly delivered to a target audience and not evaluated. It’s not unusual for practitioners to take the fact they’ve delivered a lesson, game or activity (or screened a DVD or similar) within their SRE remit and assumed because they did something and young people were in attendence that it was effective. Clearly we need to move from simply delivering information (particularly just via handouts or in didactic ways) and incorporate what we know works within SRE and ensure we evaluate what we do and base it around current evidence. Unfortunately many teachers, healthcare staff, youth workers or parents aren’t aware of how to do this or lack the time or skills to reflect on what they are saying about relationships. (There are organisations who can help, however, such as the PHSE Association, PHSE Solutions, NSCOPSE, BISH Training and BASE.)

We struggle because parents, teachers and healthcare staff often haven’t had good sex education themselves. Particularly covering topics around difference and diversity. This can result in educators either not discussing topics as required by young people or supporting stereotypes. In particular BME youth, LGBT young people and young people with disabilities or learning difficulties report sex education often excludes them – or places them in unsafe spaces where they feel exposed and vulnerable.

There is also the fear held by many parents, teachers, and health providers that if we talk about sex with young people this will encourage experimentation. This global belief is often cited as a reason to restrict sex education, suggesting if we don’t talk about it then young people won’t have sex. It ignores that many young people aren’t sexually active at a young age but those who are require information and all young people need to know about positive aspects of a relationship they can look forward to in adulthood and be given the life skills to help them put this into practice.

We also find where teaching is ‘consequence based’ (a current buzzword), adults interpretations of ‘consequence’ equals listing all the appauling things that might happen. Rape, coercion, domestic violence, STIs, unplanned pregnancies, having a termination, getting a reputation. And while negative issues do need to be planned for and discussed as they are a worry, there are positive consequences around relationships which we can consistently miss out on. Whether this is a hangover from old style sex education which utilised scare tactics to discourage activity is unclear. But certainly if we’re going to focus on consequence based training it needs more reflection and a wider scope than some are currently offering.

Another buzzword is ‘sex positivity’ which can range from talking about relationships as something to anticipate in the future as pleasurable, through to discussing topics like masturbation as positive rather than harmful. However, this area is riddled with a lack of theory and reflection and often taps into similar adult messages in the media so rather than discussing what positive relationships might look like it becomes more of an aspirational lesson in how to have ‘perfect sex’. Moreover critics of sex education frequently misunderstand the ‘sex positive’ approach as simply telling young people sex is great, and avoiding how there can be difficulties in relationships.

The challenge then is for practitioners, parents, young people and the media to think carefully about both consequence based and sex positive approaches, using aspects of both that can be helpful and avoiding presenting sex either as a scary or disgusting topic, or one that is always going to be wonderful and problem free. It’s as unhelpful to make sex seem only about violence and STIs as it is to suggest it’s only about positions, sex toys and orgasm. Nor is it helpful to suggest that relationships are inherently problematic as this can lead young people (and adults) to believe they have to endure unpleasant situations. Instead there needs to be more critical attention given to capturing relationship diversity, and always at a level appropriate to the young person wanting to know more.

Partly our struggles in this area are due to branding. The focus on ‘sex’ in ‘sex and relationships’ education upsets adults who are worried about young children being corrupted or hearing inappropriate messages. Media coverage often uses the ‘children as young as five’ line to terrify us into thinking sex education will be delivered in explicit and inappropriate ways to young children without parental consent. Instead if we think about life long learning about relationships (sexual and non sexual) it is often reassuring to adults and also reminds us we’re really focusing on a wide range of topics under the umbrella term of SRE.

While these remain practical problems largely within education and the home, the media also causes us headaches when it comes to delivering sex education. This might include contradictory messages such as this recent effort here and here from the Telegraph which managed to frame young people as feckless as well as misrepresenting the facts about termination rates. Or mislead parents, such as the Mail’s response to the NICE PHSE consultation (which implied it was about to be inflicted onto children, not a discussion with parents, teachers and healthcare staff). Or it may well present as being about supporting children but really be about girl blaming, or youth negative narratives that hinge around biases towards race or class. Such as the Mail’s recent ‘slut shaming’ piece.

These approaches make parents anxious, but they also deny the agency young people have, ignore the voices and experiences of young people, and often contradict current evidence as well. Indeed journalists covering such stories seem to either be unaware there is research out there that tells us very clearly what young people need and how we might deliver this (for example this review addresses a lot of the questions about repeat termination which the Telegraph might have considered). Alternatively journalists do know about evidence but deliberately ignore or misrepresent it in order to gain a good headline. Print media aren’t immune to this practice, in fact television can be just as bad – an issue I raised when speaking previously at Channel 4.

None of which helps young people as what begins as a discussion about the welfare of young people quickly results in narratives of blame and shame which presents young women as victims, young men as abusers, implies black and working class youth are feckless and promiscuous and silences completely the voices of LGBT, disabled or rural youth. It also sets up an argument that goes along the lines of ‘how dreadful, something must be done!’ Ignoring what already is being done, what we know should be done, but suggesting in its place ideas such as abstinence only (as opposed to delay and respect) or blame which do not address any problems of sexual and reproductive health young people may be facing.

What do teenagers want SRE to cover?

Knowing what we’re doing wrong is one thing, but luckily when it comes to sex and relationships issues we do have a good idea what young people want (a summary of the evidence on this can be found here, also echoed by this great report from Canada). Young people want parents, the media, youth workers, teachers and healthcare staff to deliver information that
- Moves beyond biology/contraception
- Tells them how to access sexual and reproductive health services (and lets them know what happens at health clinics)
- Covers feelings and emotions
- Gives them practical tips about how to ‘manage’ relationships
- Provides core life skills around communication, negotiation, and assertiveness
- Uses ‘Real life’ examples that answer the ‘what’s it like?’ questions young people may have
- For older teens there can be requests to include discussions on pleasure and desire (often interpreting some of the mainstream media’s aspirational sex messages they’ve heard about/are worried by), for younger children basic answers to questions about gender differences and where babies come from
- Includes information about STIs is important, although in a practical sense with a prevention focus preferred
- Makes SRE sensitive and inclusive for LGBT and BME youth, as well as young people with disabilities and from diverse backgrounds
- Hosts classes that feel interactive, secure and fun
- Have sessions that are led by educators young people trust – like youth workers, parents or peers (those working in healthcare have to do more to make themselves accessible and trusted by young people)

What can we do to ensure Young People are supported?

Again, we’re very lucky to know what young people need, our problem is simply about ensuring this is provided. You can do your bit to campaign for sex and relationships education, and here’s your checklist for activities to sort out!
- Acknowledge young people’s agency, awareness, opinions. And LISTEN to young people!
- Campaign for a consistently delivered, wide ranging and inclusive curriculum (that includes showcasing the diverse aspects of what relationships can offer – including friendship, respect, humour, love and communication)
- Ensure what is taught is age/ability appropriate
- Address core issues of friendship, confidence, communication from early years
- Focus on relationships
- Empower parents, teachers, health and social care staff as well as peer educators
- Challenge poor media coverage
- Challenge initiatives that seem to focus on sex purely as shameful or aspirational, particularly any approaches that seem to be more about sex positions and products rather than tackling young people’s specific worries
- Ask critical questions (of ourselves as well as of the media and educational systems)
- Review and utilise the evidence (there’s a lot of very useful stuff out there for us to use!)

And finally we need to reframe this as a human rights issue, rather than a moral debate. If we’re consistently talking about the rights or wrongs of sex education we miss the needs and rights of young people themselves. Avoiding the moral discussion helps us move into an educational one. We want young people to grow up to enjoy positive relationships in a safe and consensual way, to be realistic about relationships and have the skills to maintain positive relationships and deal with negative ones assertively.

All of us are responsible for tackling sex and relationships education – and in doing so not only will young people benefit, we will too. It’s amazing how much your own relationship can be improved once you start reflecting on what relationships can be like and enabling others to enjoy theirs as well.

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