When my children were young, I was anxious that they should learn about sex from an early age. I took great care to teach them the correct terminology for their genitalia. None of this willy and fanny nonsense: it was penis and vulva all the way, much to the bemusement of their friends and families.
Reading many newspaper and magazine articles, it is frustrating to see a lack of knowledge of the human anatomy among adults. Thanks to the pornification of society, everyone seems to know the difference between a Brazilian and a Hollywood, but not the difference between a vulva and a vagina. Here’s a clue: women wax the former, not the latter (whether they should wax at all is, of course, another matter).
Candid, good-quality information on sex, sexuality and healthy, consensual relationships is hugely important for children and young people in a confusing time of easily available online porn and sexting.
And it seems education secretary Justine Greening would agree. In December, it was leaked that she was considering an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill that would make sex and relationship education (SRE) compulsory for children in secondary and primary schools.
This followed a warning from the chairs of five different select committees of the “lifelong consequences” for pupils if SRE and PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) were not made compulsory.
Another warning came from the last chief inspector, who called for PSHE to be a discrete subject taught by specialist staff if made compulsory. “The big problem that inspectors find is that it’s taught badly in schools,” said Sir Michael Wilshaw. “Often it’s an adjunct. It’s something that’s bolted on to the school’s curriculum. It’s taught by people who are not specialists in teaching this important area of the school’s curriculum and it doesn’t work”.
But how do you make it work? Ms Greening rightly says we have to “bear in mind that it’s 2016, not 2000” (when the core guidelines for SRE were introduced).
One person’s frankness is another person’s filth
In that time, the internet has grown exponentially. But it would be a mistake to assume that everything found online is bad: vlogs on YouTube are providing children with the straight-talking information and advice they seek and are notching up millions of views.
Instead of telling our young people not to watch such videos, perhaps the wiser move is to incorporate them into teaching.
Even trickier still is how you construct a curriculum selection that everyone will subscribe to, one that all schools – including religious ones – can cover. And that’s before you even start to address the issue of funding to train teachers and finding space in the timetable when non-core subjects are being sidelined.
Importantly, how do you ascertain what success looks like? Is it a reduction in sexually transmitted infection rates? Would an increase in the number of teenage pregnancies mean that SRE had failed?
Parental buy-in is crucial. Most parents will support the teaching of sex education in principle, but things can get tricky when dealing in specifics, especially at primary school. One person’s frankness is another person’s filth.
Personally, as a parent, I wanted my children to get as much information as possible. But that does not come without its pitfalls. A Swedish-style liberal approach to talking about sex is wonderful but under no circumstances make the mistake of also buying a Swedish car. Believe me, it’s no fun at the checkout having to tell your child, “No, darling, mummy does not drive a vulva.”