Are they getting enough?

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Michael Reiss gives 10 top tips on how to approach sex education

Sex education has nearly always been controversial. For one thing, there are still those who argue that it should not be taught in schools. Then, the precise aims of sex education vary greatly. Other issues include the age at which sex education should start, the teaching approaches to be used, the framework of values within which it should take place, whether or not parents should be able to withdraw their children from school sex education, whether classes should (sometimes) be single sex, who should teach it, the training which teachers of sex education should receive and where within the curriculum it should be taught.

Debates on these questions are taking place at a time when teenage pregnancy rates, though falling, are still higher in the UK than in any other country in Europe, when children reach puberty at least a decade before they are likely to get married, when rates of sexually transmitted infections are soaring and when society's attitudes towards homosexuality are shifting.

So what are schools to do? Here are 10 suggestions.

* Involve pupils of all ages in evaluating your provision and drawing up a new sex education programme. This will motivate them and lead to a better programme. At the very least, get pupils to say what they would like to learn. Better still, involve them as peer educators with a younger age range.

* Don't leave sex education to just one part of the curriculum. Leave it to the biologists and chances are values may not get discussed in any depth.

Leave it to the RE department and pupils may not be able to tell chlamydia from a clitoris.

* Neither avoid nor rely solely on outside speakers. Used well, GPs, nurses, community leaders, drama specialists, youth workers and "the tampon lady" can all enrich school sex education. Used unthinkingly, they can reinforce stereotypes and alienate certain groups.

* Don't assume you have to be some wonder teacher to teach sex education.

Sex and sexuality are personal so it's not surprising that most of us find it difficult to talk about contraception, masturbation or orgasm. But teachers are - or should be - good at getting pupils to learn sensitive subjects. Schools provide a wonderful opportunity to help young people discuss things they find difficult in any depth out of school.

* Clarify your aims. If you want children to think about how to relate to one another you will need a different approach to the one you will need if you want them to avoid getting sexually transmitted infections. Get half a dozen teachers together and you will probably find three or four different aims for sex and relationships education. That's less likely to bore children than repetition. Which leads on to:

* Avoid repeating the same thing year after year. From round about Year 2 (eg, who is in our families?) to Year 5 (eg, growing up and puberty) through to Year 8 (eg, sexual intercourse and human reproduction) and Year 10 (eg, sexual orientation and the law) each year should have a distinct programme.

* Keep in mind that girls and boys may value times when they can learn in single-sex groups but that both sexes do need to learn much the same things in sex education. Some schools have single-sex classes for a range of subjects. In other schools teachers organise groups so that there are occasions when the groups are single-sex and occasions when they are mixed.

* Get pupils critically to examine how sex is presented in any materials you use in your teaching. Some materials are sensitively written, comprehensive and helpful. Others are sexist, fail to tackle menstruation, ignore lesbian and gay issues and omit or fail adequately to deal with cultural diversity. Get your pupils to discuss among themselves and with you such questions as: "What useful things do these materials contain?", "What angle do the authors seem to be taking (eg, 'Don't engage in sexual intercourse until you are ready for it' or 'There is more to sex than sexual intercourse')?" and "Are there any ways the material could be better? Are there other things which the authors should have included?"

* Ensure pupils are being exposed (possibly not the best word) to a range of teaching methods. If you are comfortable with role plays these can work wonderfully well, especially if pupils are encouraged to play roles different from those they normally occupy. For instance, pupils could role play being young mothers and young fathers (with both boys and girls in each role). Often some of the most important learning takes place when pupils are given the chance to talk subsequently about what it felt like to be in role.

* Finally, don't get too worried about it. Most pupils are fairly positive about the sex education they receive at school. What they do want is the opportunity to discuss things for themselves, to explore issues and get answers to the questions they want to ask. Good school sex education can provide that and more.

Michael Reiss is professor of science education at the Institute of Education, University of London and editor of the journal Sex Education. He is co-author (with Professor Mark Halstead) of Values in Sex Education, published by Routledge Falmer in 2003, pound;16.99 paperback

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