The Children and Social Work Act 2017 compels the Education Secretary to introduce regulations that require secondary schools to provide sex and relationships education (SRE) to their pupils, and for primary schools to provide relationships education to pupils of compulsory school age.
While this is a positive direction, it is one that often leads to more questions than answers, and it can feel like an additional pressure for those required to do the face-to-face work with pupils.
In the 2013 ‘Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools’ report from Ofsted, the inspectorate reinforced popular views held by older pupils that SRE is ‘too little, too late and too biological’. It’s vital that schools get SRE right in order to fulfil their safeguarding obligations to enable pupils to learn about safety and risks in relationships.
The SRE curriculum should be age-appropriate, based on the particular needs of the pupils in the school, and should be accompanied by a clear policy framework. The most effective way to teach SRE is with a trained, confident and competent teacher, as opposed to videos; however, visitors can also be memorable and beneficial, provided that they enhance the teacher’s work and contribute to the decided programme.
It’s not just about sex
This line of work is so much more than just ‘sex education’. It needs to be underpinned by an emphasis on relationships. As human beings, we’re designed to be in relationships with one another; from early parental bonding as an infant, right through to marriage and beyond. From siblings, to friends, parents, partners, teachers, and employers, we have relationships of all varieties with a wide spectrum of people, and all – sexual or otherwise – are of huge importance. Don’t limit the focus to sexual relationships.
Relationships are two-way
This may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how often this point gets missed. We can talk to young children about what makes a good friend and stress to teenagers the need to feel respected, but there needs to be room to explore what we bring to our relationships; for example, “what makes you a good friend?”, “how do you show respect to others?”. SRE is a brilliant opportunity to challenge pupils to reflect on themselves, and this can be done on a broader scale to encompass their role within the school community, with reference to any values the school upholds.
It’s important that key messages and teaching points are followed up at home. Parents may be uncomfortable discussing sex and relationships, particularly with older children, so involving them from the outset may help to give them the vocabulary and confidence to engage their children in conversations.
Some parents may object to the school having an active role in teaching SRE, especially the sexual component, but this can sometimes be overcome by inviting them to a meeting where the lesson plans can be shared and concerns addressed. Statistics often help, so supply evidence of why there’s a need for SRE, and be clear on how parents can support this aspect of the curriculum.
SRE should include a message that healthy relationships should nurture us – not damage us. Friendships should improve our sense of self and be encouraging, uplifting and fun. Friendships that cause physical, mental or emotional harm are not healthy, and either need to be repaired or changed. Similarly, young people need to hear that while sexual relationships are intended to be positive, there is potential for mental or emotional damage.
Five of the key things to explore here could include:
- Peer pressure – too many young people engage in sexual activity before they’re ready because of pressure from their peers.
- Social media – awareness of the dangers and consequences of sexting and sharing indecent images.
- Celebrity culture – this is a great way to start discussions about how relationships are portrayed in celebrity magazines and on reality television.
- Self-esteem – a positive sense of self should not hinge entirely on being in a relationship.
- Body image – use glossy magazines (including men’s health magazines) to look at the expectations portrayed in the media. What young people are exposed to through visual images may inform what they believe they should look like and, critically, what they may expect a partner to look like.
Consent, exploitation and abuse
The law and sexual consent is an essential topic to cover in SRE, but remember to ensure that, when teaching about the topics below, the content is age-appropriate, and pupils have an opportunity to discuss and ask questions:
- Consent – promote equality and emphasise the importance of achieving mutual consent through positive communication, and teach pupils that they have a responsibility to get consent from the other person involved before engaging in sexual activity. Include that everyone has a right to offer, withhold, or withdraw their consent for any sexual activity or other activity at any point.
- Exploitation – explain how pupils can identify exploitative and controlling behaviour, as well as positive and supportive behaviour.
- Destructive cultures – teach pupils about behaviours that are destructive towards culture, such as those that reinforce gender stereotypes, victim blaming and other negative stereotypes; create opportunities for conversations about real life situations.
- Body ownership – teach pupils that their body belongs to them and, therefore, it is their decision who has access to it, and also to respect their own and others’ boundaries.
- Biological terms – teaching pupils the correct terminology for genitalia and reproductive organs is a vital part of safeguarding, so that they have the right vocabulary to communicate if they need help or are a victim of abuse.
- Violence – communicate clearly that violence and exploitation are always wrong, and that victims are not to blame for the violence or abuse they may experience.
- Pornography – explain that pornography is not a reflection of real life; it often depicts a lack of contraception, consent and communication, and a presence of violence and oppressive behaviours; therefore, teach pupils that it is not a good way to learn about sex; it can be worrying, confusing and frightening for young people and they should be made aware that some pornography, such as child abuse images, are illegal.
‘Sexting’ refers to sexual content and images sent via mobile phone or digital communication – you may hear young people describing it using terms like ‘selfies’, ‘nudes’ or ‘fanpics’.
Sexting is most common among pupils in their early teens, so schools should take this into account in their curriculum.
When teaching about sexting, cover; communication skills, attitudes and values, the law, online safety, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and how to seek help.
Pupils should be taught that, in order to protect them from harm, producing, possessing or distributing images of a person under the age of 18 is illegal, even if the picture is of themselves.
Embedding SRE throughout the curriculum
The learning of SRE should be linked to broader school policies and subjects; for example, puberty, reproduction, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and other biological information can be taught during science or biology lessons; grooming and online safety can be taught in computing lessons; the law and different religious beliefs towards sex and relationships can be taught in RE and citizenship lessons; PSHE lessons can teach about different social contexts and beliefs that can influence a person’s behaviours and attitudes towards sex and relationships.
The needs of pupils with physical or learning disabilities, as well as pupils who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, often find that their needs are not met in SRE, which goes against the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure teaching is accessible to all pupils. In fact, too often, homosexuality is completely excluded from SRE or is portrayed negatively. Use SRE as an opportunity to tackle prejudice and promote understanding and respect for different sexual and gender orientations and for those with disabilities.
Ask your pupils
If in doubt, ask your pupils what they want to know – what do they think are the challenges facing them as they navigate relationships safely? Answer pupils’ questions honestly. As daunting as teaching SRE can sometimes feel, the truth is that children are naturally curious about how humans reproduce and how their bodies work and change – consider that, in this line of work, the barriers are very often our own. Addressing pupils’ own questions and concerns provides opportunities to dispel distorted messages from the media and to protect children by clarifying boundaries, safety, abusive behaviour and consent.
Ensure that pupils are aware that the classroom is not a confidential environment, and not the place to discuss their personal experiences or issues; however, ensure they feel comfortable to approach you on a one-to-one basis. You should also signpost them towards organisations or places they can approach if they would like to seek help or advice.
If a pupil does confide in you, you must comply with your Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy and Pupil Confidentiality Policy, ensuring that pupils know and understand how any information they have disclosed will be treated by the school.
Brook, PSHE Association and Sex Education Forum (2014) ‘Sex and relationships education (SRE) for the 21st century’
Children and Social Work Act 2017, Chapter 4, section 34
Ofsted (2013) ‘Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools’