Sex education: how do teachers decide what is age-appropriate?

Advice on when the ‘right’ time is for young people to learn about certain aspects of sex is frustratingly vague – and it is teachers who have been left to fill in the gaps, finds Irena Barker
14th February 2020, 12:04am
Navigating The 'age-appropriate' Field


Sex education: how do teachers decide what is age-appropriate?

Is it OK to teach a Year 8 student about pornography? How about telling your Year 4 class about periods? Is 15 too late to learn about the negative consequences of unprotected sex? Everyone is likely to have a slightly different answer, different caveats and different specifications for each of these questions. Emotions, life experience, education, ideology and religion can all have a profound effect on how we feel about what pupils need to know and at what age.

That is why the government’s statutory curriculum for primary relationships education and secondary relationships and sex education puts schools and teachers in a very tricky position.

Rather than lay down, in detail, precisely what to teach and when, the guidance lists what has to be learned only by the end of each phase. It leaves it up to schools to decide when and how - and in what depth - each area is taught within that phase but specifies that teaching should be “age and developmentally appropriate”.

That phrase is a minefield for schools. While they generally welcome being given autonomy, how should schools interpret “age and developmentally appropriate” given the huge variability in the potential views among parents, teachers and the children themselves?

Route to clarity

A first stop on the route to clarity might be the Department for Education itself, but it does little to enlighten.

It says: “Our guiding principles have been that all of the compulsory subject content must be age appropriate and developmentally appropriate. It must be taught sensitively and inclusively, with respect to the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents.”

No help there. How about Ofsted? The inspectorate says that it does not set expectations for what should be taught or when “beyond that required by the law”, but that it would “take into account on inspection any concerns raised by parents - to the school or directly to Ofsted - about age appropriateness.”

That suggests the parents may get a big say in what “age appropriate” really means in practice but, as Grainne Hallahan explains on page 28, dealing with parents’ views is a world of problems in itself.

So, with only this to go on from officials, what does the research into child and adolescent physical, cognitive, social and emotional development say that might help schools and teachers make their judgements?

Well, it can provide a good guide as to when to talk to pupils about the way their bodies will change with puberty: essentially, earlier is better.

The biological changes of adolescence are observed in children as young as 8 or 9, and British research found that nearly one in 10 girls aged 11 had begun menstruation. This study, based on children born between 2000 and 2002, also found that girls from the poorest backgrounds were twice as likely to have had their first period by age 11 compared with girls from the richest backgrounds.

One aspect of development that is discussed much less is the “spermarche” (perhaps because it is less easy to measure) - the age when boys first start to produce sperm. Experimental research from the 1980s suggests that this happens at a median average age of 13.4 years old.

Talking about these changes when they have already happened is unlikely to be helpful, say the experts: we need to prepare young people in advance for the changes that are going to happen.

“Education about puberty is usually confined to grades 4-6 [ages 9-12],” writes Eva Goldfarb, in a chapter she co-wrote for the 2015 book Evidence-based Approaches to Sexuality Education: a global perspective. But the professor of public health at Montclair State University in New Jersey adds: “Given that pubertal changes can occur as early as age 8 … starting that conversation even earlier is appropriate and, depending on the curiosity and maturity level, even younger children can start to learn about the bodily changes of puberty so that they are prepared when these changes come about.”

Judgement call

But child and adolescent development is about more than outward physical milestones. When are children able to fully comprehend and engage with lessons on, for example, sex, consent, healthy relationships and sexual coercion?

The teenage years are when young people begin to be able to think in more abstract terms and come to decisions about abstract issues, says Goldfarb.

“There are three main areas of cognitive development during this time of life: stronger skills in advanced reasoning, increased ability to think abstractly and growth in metacognition capabilities,” she writes.

This leads to “a dramatic change in their decision-making abilities”, she explains.

Such cognitive changes can make it possible for young people to discuss big issues related to sex and relationships, such as love, trust, equality, beliefs and spirituality, she writes.

At what point in the teenage years does this transformation occur? There’s quite a bit of variability. And special educational needs and disability (SEND) can be a big factor here, too (see overleaf).

So, where does that leave teachers? Elly Hanson, a clinical psychologist who has advised the PSHE Association and the police’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency, says schools have to combine what they know from the research and what they know of the young people in front of them and “make the best judgement call”.

In a recent presentation to the PSHE Association, she explains that, at whatever age, the teaching and content should be:

  • Relevant to the concerns and lives of the students.
  • Understandable and matched to their cognitive capacity and skills.
  • Responsive to and harnessing the tendencies and interests of that life stage (for example, early to mid adolescents have a stronger focus on the views of their peers over the views of their parents).
  • Sensitive to developmental diversity, that is, an awareness that children develop and are exposed to different things at different ages.

Lucy Emmerson, director of the Sex Education Forum, agrees but adds that there are “no shortcuts” to finding what is right for the pupils in your school.

That said, in general terms, she believes a sequential approach to RSE is crucial. Learning about family and friend relationships early in primary school, for example, lays the groundwork for learning about romantic relationships later on. Or learning about the lifecycle of a frog in Reception appeals to that age group’s interests, cognitive capacities and introduces the idea of reproduction.

“Any topic can be approached in an age-appropriate way,” says Emmerson.

She argues, too, that young people should be part of the process of deciding when something is age appropriate.

“One thing that schools do is save up various questions that children ask on a particular topic and keep them for that age band. They say ‘these are the questions that children are actually asking in our school…what does that tell us about what we should be teaching and when?’,” she says.

While this can help, it is clear that to deliver age-appropriate relationships and sex education, teachers will need more training in the research around child and adolescent development to make the calls they are now being asked to make. That’s going to be expensive - both in terms of time and training budgets - but to fulfil the obligations that have been set, there seems little choice for school leaders.

Irena Barker is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 14 February 2020 issue under the headline “Navigating the ‘age-appropriate’ minefield”

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content. Or register to get 2 articles free per month.

Already registered? Log in

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content.