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Sex and sensibilities;Opinion

Schools will not improve personal education until adults develop a more grown-up attitude to it - and allow pupils set the agenda, says Debbie Epstein

WHEN Susie was a teenager

A teenager she was

And she went

Ooh, aah, I've lost my bra'

Left my knickers in my boyfriend's car.

I first heard the story of Susie, told in a clapping rhyme that has been current in primary school playgrounds for at least 30 years, when I was a young teacher in the late 1960s. Most recently, I have heard it during my research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, on children's relationship cultures in Year 5 and 6.

Susie, it seems, is still a sexually-active teenager. Britain has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe - it is almost five times higher than the Netherlands. The report of the Government's social exclusion unit on teenage parenthood published last month includes, among its recommendations, a call for schools to improve personal, social and health education.

The reasons for teenage pregnancies are complex. It would be wrong to assume that all of them are unwanted, though the high number of abortions among teenagers would indicate that many of them are. Neither is it clear quite what sex education can do. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that the much more liberal cultural context of the Netherlands, with its early and liberal sex education curriculum, works better than ours does.

Comparative research, carried out by Roger Ingham for the ESRC in 1997, showed that Dutch young people had their first sexual intercourse later, felt safer and were happier about their early sexual experiences. They were also less likely to have unwanted pregnancies than British young people.

Sex education continues to be an incredibly sensitive and difficult issue. Schools are frequently - and quite reasonably - fearful of being dragged through the press. One school where I carried out research for my recent book, Schooling Sexualities, invited the local Rape Crisis Centre to work with their students after one girl's father had been jailed for sexually abusing her. For their pains, they were besieged by journalists anxious to write up the story in a salacious way and intent on talking to pupils outside the school gates.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a more common response would seem to be to keep sexuality off the school agenda, except in the tightly bound confines of sex education. But sexuality pervades schools from the early years on. Young children are not involved in sexuality in the same way as adults, but their games, their talk, their imagined future lives include heterosexuality from an early age.

How many infant school teachers have not observed children playing kiss-chase? Sexual rhymes, songs, clapping and skipping games, such as the one about Susie, abound. The pleasures to be found in the skill of skipping, combine with the pleasures of using sexualised language in many games, such as one enjoyed by nine-year-old girls in one London school: Ballerina, ballerina, turn around

Ballerina, ballerina, touch the ground

Ballerina, ballerina, do the splits

Ballerina, ballerina, touch your tits.

We know that children start talking about having girlfriends and boyfriends from as young as five or six, and by the time they are nine or 10, this is a well-established practice. As our current ESRC-funded project shows, friendship groups are often organised around questions of heterosexuality - who is dating, two-timing, dumping and who fancies whom, or what it will be like to have periods.

Schools have an impossible task. Sexuality is everywhere. But they are supposed to be places where sexuality doesn't happen and, ironically, where pupils are kept ignorant. Children are not meant to talk about or know about sex or sexuality, except in the sex education ghetto.

Many teachers of sex education aim to work in sensitive ways that tap into children's needs, but they lack curriculum guidance in this important area. The result is that sex education is still too frequently about human plumbing and danger, often excluding the things that young people have told us, again and again, that they want to know about: relationships, pleasure, desire. The social exclusion unit report gives a welcome boost to the need to discuss relationships.

But we need to grasp the nettle of sex education and develop a broader sexuality education, in schools, where sexuality in its broadest sense is recognised, and where difference is respected and valued.

Children themselves can often provide us with the resources we need to improve our approaches to sexuality and education.

As one 10-year-old girl said to me: "Some grown-ups aren't very grown-up about that." We need to grow up and allow our children to do so as well.

Debbie Epstein is the co-author, with Richard Johnson, of Schooling Sexualities, published by the Open University Press. She is at present directing an ESRC-funded project on children's relationship cultures in Years 5 and 6, ESRC award number R000 23 7438.

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