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The Issue - Sex

Talking about sex can be as embarrassing for teachers as it is for pupils. But how can blushes and a lack of confidence be turned into effective education?

Talking about sex can be as embarrassing for teachers as it is for pupils. But how can blushes and a lack of confidence be turned into effective education?

Discussing sex with young people can be daunting. You may be embarrassed, or worried what parents will think, or you may simply feel that you lack the necessary knowledge. But do not despair. According to Claire Fanstone, training manager at the Family Planning Association, sex and relationship education (SRE) lessons can be the highlight of a teacher's week. "It's normal to have some worries," she says. "But SRE is usually great fun. Young people are interested in sex and relationships, and that makes your job as a teacher easier."

Even though proposals drawn up by the last government to make sex education compulsory were dropped in the run-up to the election, most secondary schools already provide it as a matter of course. For teachers, this means you could be asked to step into the breach. But 80 per cent of teachers do not feel confident about giving the classes to their pupils, according to a survey for heads' union the NAHT.

The biggest barrier to providing effective lessons was the children's embarrassment about asking questions, closely followed by a lack of training for teachers, the survey found.

One of the keys is to lay down some working rules at the start. Take the tricky question of terminology: do you talk about sexual intercourse and sound clinical, or do you use slang and risk seeming ridiculous? "Discuss with the class which words everyone is comfortable with," says Ms Fanstone. "Then you can decide what is and isn't appropriate in terms of pupils talking about their own experiences. That way, no one need be embarrassed."

After 12 years teaching SRE, embarrassment is pretty much a thing of the past for Mina Cullimore, head of PSHE at Barton Court Grammar School in Canterbury, Kent. "I find a bit of humour puts everyone at ease," she says, explaining that when she shows pupils how to put on a condom she brings along three different model penises, and asks the class to decide which one they would like to see used. But she acknowledges that teachers new to SRE will not necessarily have this kind of confidence.

"Perhaps begin with some team teaching," she advises. "Having an experienced colleague in the room is a big help. And, of course, if you can get some proper training it makes all the difference."

There is plenty of training out there for primary and secondary teachers. Courses cover factual information as well as useful SRE strategies, such as role-play and small group work. There is also a range of resources, though do not fall into the trap of hiding behind a DVD or worksheet when what young people really value about SRE is the chance to ask questions and share ideas. You could also make use of visiting speakers - invite a young mum to discuss teenage pregnancy, for example, or ask the school nurse to talk about sexually transmitted diseases.

Sex education is a controversial subject, so it is no surprise that teachers sometimes worry about possible recriminations. Try to pre-empt problems by keeping parents informed of exactly which topics you are going to be covering with different age groups - that way any objections can be raised in advance.

Finally, if you feel strongly that you don't want to teach SRE - for whatever reason - you should explain this to your line manager. It is in no one's interests to have a sex education teacher who is uncomfortable talking about sex. On the other hand, if all you lack is a little courage, then get yourself some training and get stuck in.

"SRE is such a wonderful subject to teach," says Ms Cullimore. "Sex and relationships are an essential part of what it means to be human. They are the very core of who we are."

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