Lights, music, sex lessons

Many teachers find sex education painful and embarrassing.But, as Caroline Hendrie finds out, it doesn't have to be like that.

Are you gay, Miss? Are you having sex? How old were you the first time you had sex? Such questions are meant to rattle teachers in sex education lessons, but for Dot Kesterton they are never a problem. "We set firm ground rules - we talk about issues not people, and the pupils know that. If someone did ask, I would say 'It's not appropriate to ask me. My sex life is none of your business, just as yours is none of mine'."

Ms Kesterton is a full-time specialist PSHE teacher at King Edward VII school, a large mixed comprehensive in Sheffield. The department is funded separately, has its own rooms, and in 1996 won the Pamela Sheridan Award for schools that demonstrate excellence in sex education.

The department is aware of the need to teach about parenthood - something lacking in many schools, according to the recent Ofsted report, Sex and Relationships. To this end, 14-year-old boys are looking at their role as future fathers. And as Ms Kesterton frequently reminds her students: "South Yorkshire has the dubious honour of being the teenage pregnancy capital of Britain."

Ms Kesterton believes having a dedicated room enhances her teaching. "In the upper school, we have our own hut; it has curtains, carpet, soft lighting and music. We have created an environment where the children can come in before lessons and look at posters or pick up leaflets, and stay for a chat about issues they don't want to share with the group."

Well practised in fielding questions aimed at raising a laugh or embarrassing the teacher, she has found pupils are more concerned about appropriate behaviour - is it OK for a parent to take a child into bed with them, or for a father to have a bath with the baby? - than the details of oral sex or fetishes.

Ms Kesterton was offered the PSHE post 10 years ago. She was ready to move out of PE teaching, and leapt at the chance. "At first I was nervous about classroom work, but soon found my experience in teamwork, skills-building and sharing ideas transferred well." Along with other Sheffield sex education teachers, she gets support and training under the city's teenage pregnancy concordat, which aims to halve the rate of unwanted under-18 conceptions by 2010.

Charlotte Hall, a consultant for the South East Sheffield education action zone, says: "While some teachers are happy and confident to teach sex and relationships, some worry what they'll do if the kids ask something embarrassing. Others believe, 'It's not my role.' No one should be made to teach it if they are uncomfortable, and making it the task of the form tutor can make delivery uneven." She supports secondary schools in the deprived south-east of the city, helps with teaching materials, offers Inset training, and gives demonstration lessons.

More support comes from Sheffield's Centre for HIV and Sexual Health, which runs two-day courses for teachers and others working with young people on how to nurture self-esteem, enabling pupils to avoid becoming sexually active until they are ready.

The centre's training manager, Rob Brown, says about a third of his job involves supporting teachers in the design and delivery of sex education. More training for PSHE teachers is needed, he says. "Many didn't get a good sex education at school themselves and didn't get much during their teacher training. They feel they are getting the rough end of the stick when they are expected to deliver a programme ranging from biology to feelings, which they don't feel comfortable with."

Increasing numbers of primary schools are being encouraged to take these training opportunities. "Young people consistently tell us they have been given too little knowledge too late. We need to start in primary schools, teaching not sex, but how to have healthy, safe relationships with adults and other young people," says Mr Brown.

Dot Kesterton says: "Teachers' fears are often to do with feeling isolated when having to prepare material that might be questioned by children or parents, or even held up to ridicule or condemnation in the press. Understandably, teachers don't want to put themselves up for that. But it needn't be embarrassing or risky if there are clear ground rules, and as long as teachers are fully supported in the preparation of what they are delivering."

Kim Wilson, head of PSHE at King Edward VII, says: "Sex and relationships education (SRE) taught badly is worse than none at all. There are many potentially excellent PSHE teachers out there who could deliver the material, but they need specialist training and support from professional agencies."

The Centre for HIV and Sexual Health (www.sexualhealthsheffield.co.uk) runs two-day courses, Boys Own and Go Girls, for workers with young people. For details, contact Rob Brown, training manager, tel: 0114 226 1914, or email: rob.brown@chs.nhs.uk. A Rollercoaster teaching pack, on the ups and downs of puberty, is also available from the centre, tel: 0114 226 1911

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you