Bare facts

Talking frankly about sex with teenagers is not easy, but can be fun. Madeleine Brettingham looks at the latest approaches

"Man hands on misery to man," wrote Philip Larkin. And his words could have been written about sex education. Despite the tedium of watching their biology teacher shuffle a condom over a plastic phallus during their own school days, many teachers feel that they have no alternative but to inflict the same dry, uninspiring lessons on the next generation.

A survey by The TES in February found that three-quarters of teachers had been given no training in sex education, despite nearly half having been asked to teach it.

So is it possible to make sex and love lessons interesting and accessible, or are we doomed to recreate the shifty and furtive fumblings of generations past?

In this issue, to coincide with the Family Planning Association's Sexual Health Week (August 4-10), The TES Magazine looks at three sex education programmes that take a lively and, dare we say it, fun approach to sex and love.

Exploding condoms

No one bothers trying to make Alice Smith blush these days. The young PSHE teacher has a reputation for being unembarrassable. "Parents tell me that's why their children enjoy my sex education classes," she says. "I'm hard to embarrass. It's just the kind of person I am."

It's a good job, because she runs a scheme of work at Highlands School in Enfield, north London, that is fun and fearless in its approach to sex. One of her favourites is the exploding condom demonstration.

"You get two children to volunteer - preferably two of the naughtiest. Then you ask them to blow up a condom and give them different types of lubricant to rub on the surface," she explains.

The result is that the water-based lubricants - such as KY jelly - are fine, whereas the oil-based lubricants such as Vaseline cause the condom to explode.

"It generally does so in the naughty child's face, causing much hilarity," says Alice, a member of the PSHE Association's advisory committee. "But the point is that pupils learn what kinds of lubricants are safe to use."

In another demonstration with Year 9 pupils, Alice uses an ejaculating model of a penis (which can be bought from online medical supply shops such as and to put across a safe sex message.

Pressing the syringe causes the model to ejaculate fake semen, which is then shown up under UV light. "That shows the class how far it can spread, and why you need to wash your hands and genitals after sex."

In the beer goggles experiment, pupils are asked to put a condom on a fake penis while wearing a pair of "drunk goggles" purchased from a medical supplies shop. The goggles distort vision, meaning the condom often ends up inside out or with a hole in it. "It emphasises why they shouldn't have sex when they're completely trolleyed," says Alice. But the activity that grosses out pupils the most is nothing to do with exploding condoms or ejaculating penises - it's "EastEnders contraceptives", a game that Alice devised to get pupils to look at what protection is appropriate in different scenarios.

"I'll take different couples who are in EastEnders at the time and ask them what contraception would be best. So we'd have Bradley and Stacey; Sonia, who'd been in a straight relationship and then a gay one; Phil, who was cheating on his wife with another woman, and Dot and Jim. Obviously they all freak out about this one because they're an old couple. But I can use it to explain different issues, such as the fact Dot's been through the menopause and they're in a long-term relationship," she says.

She emphasises it is important to set ground rules - no inappropriate language - and set the lessons within a programme of activities that emphasise the importance of stable, loving relationships and resisting peer pressure. Nevertheless, she is adamant that sex education is the solution not the problem. "Condoms cause sex no more than umbrellas cause rain. But the condom failure rate among teens is high. They need to be taught how to use them."

The "willy bag"

Peter Webster, director of PSHE at Stockport School, could be the only teacher in the country to own a "willy bag". The 54-year-old uses it as part of an armoury of fun activities to make sex education with Year 8s less intimidating.

"I carry all my demonstrators in a Durex carrier bag and call it the willy bag so when I reach for it I say, `I think I'll just get the willy bag now'," he says.

"I place it on my knee and rummage. I always get out the ones in the boxes first as they dismantle into a base and a penis bit. I call these my IKEA willies as they are self-assembly. The class laughs and it diffuses the situation, even with the less enthusiastic."

Peter also takes the unusual step of giving his demonstration penises names. "We decide whether to say hello to Enis the Penis or Roger the Todger. They decide and so out he comes. I place it on the table, then perhaps I might hold it like a computer game joystick and make computer game noises."

Then the condom appears and it's time for "Willie to meet Jonny". "I go through basic information about kitemarks, dates, and the like, and how if you are too nervous to get your own then you should perhaps not be thinking of any form of risky behaviour."

"As the condom appears out of the packet I say, `Heeeeere's Jonny!' I put it on the top like a hat and make the willy dance and so on. The follow up is that they all have a go next week." The "ask it basket" is another method Peter uses to communicate essential information in a fun and frank way. Year 10s are invited to write questions about sex, and put them anonymously into a basket so that Peter can traffic light them.

"The green ones I'll answer now. Amber ones I'll think about and answer at the next lesson. The red ones are the questions that are silly or over the top," he says.

"They ask different questions, such as whether sex hurts the first time or whether they should feel pressured to do this or that," says Peter. "In some cases, it has given them the confidence to go and have a chat with the school nurse."

Year 10s are also invited to perfect their contraception skills in a "condom relay". "I hold two willies, and they have to open the condom, put it on correctly, remove it, tie it and dispose of it in turn. The next person goes and so on, until we have a winning team," says Peter.

The activities are part of a comprehensive programme of sex education, which includes hard-hitting lessons about teen pregnancy. And Peter says that, despite the frank subject matter, he's never had a complaint.

"Any child can at any time opt out of any part of the session, but they don't. I have never had any complaints from parents or carers or any pupils withdrawn from lessons in 20 years."

Special needs

How do you deliver sex education when some of your pupils have difficulty speaking? This was the challenge faced by Levette Callander, deputy head at Kilpatrick School in West Dunbartonshire, where many pupils are wheelchair-bound and have moderate to severe learning difficulties that inhibit talking and listening.

With the help of the local health development officer and arts and culture team, she gave a sex and relationships programme that focused on personal safety. The lessons dealt with self confidence and respect, but the aim was to make pupils less vulnerable to inappropriate behaviour or abuse.

With a drama teacher they held a workshop where 15 and 16-year-olds discussed situations where they'd felt threatened or uncomfortable, using touch and smell (such as bad smells or nice, silky fabrics) to communicate "yes" and "no", where pupils had difficulty speaking.

They then held an assembly in which they acted out one of the scenarios - which featured two girls being threatened in a park - to the rest of the school. If pupils felt they should have behaved differently, they could get up and act out an alternative ending

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