Sex education in schools – where is it failing?

sex ed in schools

In December last year, the then Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening announced that she would be letting young people, parents, and teachers have their say in influencing a proposal for Parliament to reform sex and relationships education in schools. In an article for the TES she wrote:

“Although the world around us has changed dramatically, the guidance for schools when it comes to teaching relationships and sex education (RSE) is firmly stuck in the past. That is why I am determined to finally update RSE so it’s relevant to life in modern Britain.”

The current national curriculum regarding sex education was last updated in 2004. Sex education, limited to teaching children about sex in biology lessons, was only compulsory in schools run by local authorities and not in, for example, private schools, academies, or free schools.

Since 2004, many more issues have emerged which have highlighted the huge need for an overhaul for the way RSE is taught. For example, things like online safety, consent, sexting, and LGBTQA sexuality were absent from the government guidelines.

“They need to consider a broader range of sexual identities rather than just the practicalities of not getting pregnant. Queerness was not discussed at all during sex education when I was at school.”

Twenty-year-old Edie* is one woman who feels intensely let down by the sex education she received at school. “It was all entirely biological and they did not take into account any of the emotional aspects of sex – it was just teaching 14-year-olds how to put on a condom and nothing else,” she says.

In sixth form, her and her peers were given some further sessions about emotional and physical abuse in relationships, but by that point many of them had already had their first sexual and/or relationship experiences, many of which had already been negative.

On top of this, as a queer teenager, Edie was quite shocked by the lack of inclusivity when it came to the sex education she received. “They need to consider a broader range of sexual identities rather than just the practicalities of not getting pregnant,” she says. “Queerness was not discussed at all during sex education when I was at school.”

Laura* is a secondary school teacher, and is in charge of PSHE. Her experience of teaching sex education to secondary school pupils also paints quite a sorry picture, with the majority of obstacles coming not only from government guidelines, but also the attitudes of other teachers within the school itself.

“The school I am currently in doesn’t value sex education at all I would honestly say,” she says. “I have tried for two years to get outside speakers in to give lessons to students and I am not allowed to give students condoms that companies give us.”

Given the positive responses Laura has received from pupils when she has managed to squeeze in “small chunks” of sex education, it is all the more baffling why leadership teams are so opposed to it.

“One member of staff complained to me that I had fake penises for a condom demo out in my room when she had to use it for her class, as they were ‘disgusting’.”

Laura’s experiences also show how important it is to teach it. “One of the most shocking things I found in my current school was the lack of understanding about consent. One person actually announced to the class that once you take your clothes off you can’t change your mind – he wouldn’t accept anything I said on the matter of consent that went against the view he already held,” says Laura.

Nonetheless, many pupils are hugely receptive. While at first they can be shy, or try and show off in front of their peers, they actually are eager to learn.

“Girls are really easy to talk to about sex education,” Laura says. “Until you get to the idea of pleasure, especially self pleasure; it’s still regarded as a huge taboo subject and actually the thing I get most parent complaints about.”

Many parents are not happy for their children to be taught about sex at all, and will withdraw them from classes as they are legally allowed to do so. “This really puts children at a disadvantage,” says Laura. “We as teachers aren’t telling them anything they can’t find out on the internet and surely it’s better to come from a teacher.”

In terms of the current guidelines surrounding sex education, these are detrimental to both pupils and teachers. “Teachers on a whole do not receive enough training on teaching sex education,” says Laura.

This is a two stemmed problem: there are lots of outside companies who will come in to do a day session on sex education that schools will use, which means that staff are not developing their own skills in teaching the subject, and also some teachers, Laura says, can be prudish.

“I know a lot of staff get embarrassed,” she adds. “One member of staff complained to me that I had fake penises for a condom demo out in my room when she had to use it for her class, as they were ‘disgusting’.”

Edie attended an all girls school, which, you would have thought, would make many aspects of sex education easier for teachers. Nonetheless, her and her peers were all left completely unprepared for future sexual relationships.

“I know it’s difficult to stand in front of a room of 14-year-olds and talk about willies, but chances are they have a lot of questions and a lot they really need to know,” she says. Safe sex in lesbian relationships was completely overlooked, she adds, stating that she didn’t learn about it until she was 19 or 20 and had already been sexually active for a long time.

Laura’s students, too, get frustrated by the limits placed on schools. Many will go to her between lessons for discussions or information regarding sexual education. She says she is also lucky to work with a great youth work team who run drop in sessions to talk to students, adding that the teenagers really appreciate being given the time to ask questions.

In terms of proposed changes to the curriculum, Laura welcomes the notion that relationship education is being valued, and the focus that a lot of teachers are now putting on different aspects of sexuality.

She adds, “I think there needs to be more judgement placed on schools that don’t offer a valued programme of study to students. I know other teachers who don’t want new ‘rules’ for teaching, but that is fuelled, a lot of the time, by the fact that they do no wish to teach sex education.”

“I know it’s difficult to stand in front of a room of 14-year-olds and talk about willies, but chances are they have a lot of questions and a lot they really need to know.”

Edie thinks things left off the curriculum when she was at school that definitely need to be taught include conversations about gender and sexual identity, safe sex practices in all kinds of sexual relationships, physical and sexual abuse, consent, Tinder, and more.

As Laura understands it, sex education and RE are the only two things that a teacher can still refuse to teach, and the head has to respect this. “I think new legislation should be welcomed,” she adds. “The government should put some money into it and not treat it as a guideline they can just bring in, then abandon, so that young people can really benefit from it.”

While teaching sex education in all schools is set to become compulsory in 2019, Greening’s proposed changes to the curriculum are still being discussed.

Wales has recently made statutory changes to the way schools must teach sex ed, including adding LGBTQI sex ed to the curriculum, which will come into force in 2022. It looks like its time the rest of the UK followed suit.

*Names have been changed

Featured image shows a classroom of children sitting at tables looking at a teacher who is standing at the front of a classroom.

Imogen Robinson

Deputy Editor, The Femedic

Imogen joined The Femedic after working as a news reporter. Becoming frustrated with the neverending clickbait, she jumped at the chance to work for a site whose ethos revolves around honesty and empathy. From reading articles by doctors to researching her own, and discussing health with a huge variety of women, she is fascinated by just how little we are told about our own bodies and women-specific health issues, and is excited to be working on a site which will dispel myths and taboos, and hopefully help a lot of women.

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