The great sex education debate

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September 6, 2013 by Sian Rowland

It’s great to see Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in the news for all the right reasons for once. I’ve blogged many times before about SRE- the lack of quality teaching in many schools, lack of government guidance, lack of support from the media and the dear old British dichotomy of loving a bit of sauciness but shying away from engaging in genuine discussion.

It reminds me a bit of the Jamie Oliver school dinners debate. There was a huge movement of people desperately trying to improve school meals for years but we made very little progress until Lord Jamie of Turkey-Twizzler made it headline news. You don’t have to be an expert to recognise the link between good nutrition and improved performance in class but it took a coordinated campaign to make real progress.

It’s the same with SRE- when children and young people are happy and healthy and feel safe then they learn better. Fact. But in the face of constant opposition from the ill-informed  putting the frighteners on parents and teachers alike and newspapers with headlines like ‘Outrage as school show ‘banned’ sex education ‘porn cartoon’ to children aged FIVE’ (Daily Mail, 2012) and telling parents that their little poppets will be forced to watch porn and put condoms on bananas, it’s impossible to make progress.

Beyond the video: lots of resources out there but which to choose?

Beyond the video: lots of resources out there but which to choose?

But suddenly Sex Education has become…uh…sexy. The Telegraph has started a campaign for better sex education and all credit to them. Girl Guiding UK, the NUT, NAHT and NASUWT have added their voices to the debate. For those of us who have been banging on (no pun intended) about better SRE for years this is welcome news indeed. So why is everyone so concerned?

The year 2000: as we fought off our millennium hangovers and grumbled about the Dome, the government produced some SRE guidance. It was a good document. It still has merit but it’s the last time the government produced guidance. Since then the department acronym has changed several times, ministers, secretaries and advisers have come and gone, CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS FIVE now carry smartphones, we talked to our families instead of facebooking them and my hair looks so much better since straighteners were invented. Many of the teachers I work with were still at school themselves in 2000 for goodness sake. In other words, it’s a long time ago and the guidance is hopelessly out of date.

The previous government tried to push through (again no pun…) compulsory PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) with a consultation document which would have gone some way to redressing the balance but left it all too late so it was lost through wash up. Young London Matters (Government Office for London) came up with a new core curriculum designed around modern young Londoners in 2009. I remember the consultation event- PSHE advisers and teenage pregnancy coordinators from every London borough came together (Do I really have to say no pun by now?) to pool ideas, expertise and discuss issues. The result was a curriculum that had a balance between the biological bits, skills, attitudes and understanding. It covered feelings, keeping safe, understanding the media and assessment. It advised on how to teach, when to teach and why. And within a year it was removed and ‘archived’ by the new government. Back to square one.

Being creative with teaching SRE.

Being creative with teaching SRE.

Michael Gove who, as a journalist, knows how to spin a bad news story, has pronounced that this is good news and that schools are free as birds and bees to teach what they like, how they like and however they like when it comes to SRE. Hurrah! Funny, he doesn’t seem to have the same views when it comes to how we teach History or Science.

But teachers are anxious about this. Some schools stick with their tried and tested routine which usually consists of plonking the class in front of an embarrassing 90s-made video and hoping they don’t ask too many awkward questions. We don’t do that in English or Maths so why SRE? Some drop it quietly or hand it over to the Science department. Some do a better job but it’s really difficult unless you’ve had proper training and support. Confidence is everything.

Teachers reflecting on how they teach SRE.

Teachers reflecting on how they teach SRE.

Last year my business partner and I were commissioned to review the SRE provision in primary schools in a London borough. We spoke to teachers and children, offered some advice and then ran a two day training course for teachers and school nurses. Despite being free, several schools declined to take up the offer which is a shame because we were offering support to make things better for the children in their care. I couldn’t really work out what the harm was in that even if they chose not to take up any of our recommendations. Most schools were incredibly supportive and open to change, if needed, and we also saw some cracking good practice. We ran our training and saw teachers’ confidence grow across the two days.

There are plenty of us out there offering support and training for teachers and schools. It’s fantastic having a campaign that supports better sex education in schools and calls for better guidance but we also need to call for prioritising training for teachers. For allowing teachers to spend time considering how best to support the pupils in their schools and to prepare high quality lessons.

Maybe one day soon we’ll look back on the way we taught SRE and shake our heads in disbelief. Did we ever feed children rubbish like turkey twizzlers and chips? Did we ever stick them in front of that video for half an hour and call it sex education? Here’s hoping.


If you’re a teacher looking for some excellent guidance check out the advice on writing your policy here form the PSHE Association.

The Sex Education Forum has campaigned for years for better SRE. Lots of resources here.

Schools and Health Consortium (my business) is running the two day SRE course for primary teachers on 21st and 22nd November. Information and booking here.

Join the debate on Twitter  #bettersexeducation

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