Sex and Relationship Education

Updated: May 26

Whose job is it anyway?

I wonder how instantly a thought pops into your head that represents who you believe it is?

Teaching sex and relationships can be too stressful for some people to even contemplate without breaking into a state of fear and trepidation. There are so many influences to consider on how we decide what to say and when to say it. At a Macro level, politicians create strategies that meet the needs and direction of government policy and law, and these strategies cover how we manage the process of initiating this subject, protecting and nurturing children and young people. It is these same policies that often take on a diverse range of approaches.

But what influences our choice about whether to do this and who is actually going do it? I can see it now- parents receiving messages suggesting they talk to their children about sexuality, and the debate about why, who, what, where, when, how? But this is not uncommon, this same conversation happens in schools, youth centres and projects the length and breadth of Britain and beyond.

I was one of seven children and my recollection of sex education at home was the whispers about ‘The sex talk'. I cannot be sure how that went down with my siblings, but I have no memory of ever receiving sex education at home. In my school, there were weary books with pencil drawings of naked men, women and children, and a very awkward process, impact and outcome.

Whilst it is complex, the subject of sex touches on all our strongest beliefs and values and creates conflict about what is the right way and when is the right time. On the other hand, some people are accused of being too relaxed and presenting too much information too quickly? Clearly there needs to be a balance and flexibility found in order to ensure that education is appropriate and meaningful to the target audience in front of us; whoever they are and whatever age.

I came across a superb case study where a Primary School was being proactive and positive to ensure their boys received lessons about the development of their bodies as they moved towards puberty. The girls meanwhile were taken off to some mysterious place at the back of beyond. Shortly after the talk, a mother of one of the boys spoke to me about the anxiety of her son. He had focused on one part of the information given in the talk and had started to worry that he was going to start wetting the bed as puberty approached. Her concern conveyed his anxiety. In this instance the confusion was identified and an explanation given to the young boy to ease his concern, but with such an open market for young people to get information this is not always the case, and receiving misinformation can be more damaging than receiving none at all.

So, detail is vital, and indeed the language we use incredibly important. I have worked across all age groups including men and women in probation units, and although the approach is significantly different from sessions I would deliver to teaching staff in a Primary or Secondary School, the evidence base and information shared never changes.

PSHE- Is it still possible for teaching staff to focus on their subject strength?

We know that parents have a very significant impact on their child’s health, values, attitudes and beliefs. Even before the baby is born it can be affected by the parent’s health choices and behaviour. Much of this learning is provided by the state, the media or through peer influence. But young people can be more misinformed from what is missing from a conversation rather than its content.

So surely, we all have a responsibility to generate open, evidence-based and informative two-way approaches to having that conversation. With so much opinion and pressure some would say parents could be forgiven for deciding to leave this responsibility with the school. But what are the schools' responsibilities?

  • Sex and relationship education (SRE) is compulsory from age 11 onward. It involves teaching children about reproduction, sexuality and sexual health. It does not promote early sexual activity or any particular sexual orientation.

  • Some parts of sex and relationship education are compulsory - these are part of the national curriculum for science. Parents can withdraw their children from all other parts of sex and relationship education if they want.

  • All schools must have a written policy on sex education which they must make available to parents for free.

"Leave it to the experts." I hear some say, but is there really such a thing as an expert anymore, or do we need to challenge the subject in a more vigorous way?

An incredible opportunity exists where schools under the umbrella of PSHE can explore a whole range of subject matter within each subject on the curriculum and thus share this burden of responsibility.

A history teacher can create a lesson about historic attitudes and beliefs around sexual behaviour and law- even the history of the first condoms up to modern day. An English teacher can focus on the attitudes of different authors towards sex from Shakespeare to Jackie Collins, and an art teacher can concentrate on how sex and relationships have been presented through artistic impression. PSHE is not limited by subjects on the curriculum but can be shared across the whole of the curriculum, reducing the pressure often felt by the nominated PSHE teacher.

On behalf of all children and young people we share this responsibility to support them. We should collaborate with each other and share best practice, including those who can make positive informed decisions in the future to achieve that which is most important, that young people have a source of information and support that they feel confident in going to and asking questions, without fear, tension or judgement.

Government guidelines: