Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sexuality Education in UK Schools: A Pupil's Perspective

Having been to a Christian Brothers' school when I was younger, I never really received any sex education. The sum total was one biology lesson when I was eleven, when my teacher (the excellent Mr Wilkinson) made it very clear that sex is to be enjoyed by both parties, and to be gentle with a girl if it's her first time.

As a teacher, I was never form tutor to the relevant year group, so never led any sex education either. My knowledge is fairly good, I know that sex education in the UK is generally mediocre at best, and that it's usually led by form tutors who don't have any choice in the matter (or training).

With the Government making PSHE a compulsory subject on the National Curriculum, this all looks set to change, although details are sketchy at the moment. The vague allusions to the as-yet unpublished syllabus sound rather promising, and not too dissimilar to UNESCO's Guidlines to Sexuality Education.

In the meantime I'm still quite interested in the current system's shortcomings. So when my friend Hannah, who is in sixth form, mentioned she'd had sex ed yesterday, I took the opportunity to ask her what she thinks of it. And this is the conversation that ensued:

Hannah: To be brutally honest- the school sex education system is pretty much the most pointless lesson in existence (though saying that my favorite lesson ever was a sex education lesson with a nurse who was clearly very down to earth and hilariously funny).

Today we just had the general chat about protection, what to do if you get pregnant and STIs. It wasn't ever so in depth as the teachers don't really like talking about it. Last year we put condoms on little models only to be told that in 'real life' it was nothing like what we had just learnt.

The next week we had the nurse come and talk to us and it was one of the funniest- disturbing talks I've ever had and it will NEVER leave me. I don't think that happens at most schools though sadly, if it did people would be much more aware.

Me: Interesting you say about nurse vs teachers - I think it can make a big difference if the SRE person is seen as someone who is properly trained- hopefully that will be resolved with the new compulsory PSHE on the National Curriculum if there are dedicated teachers, rather than those who happen to be Year 9 tutors that year (which is what often happens).

I remember in the staff room two years ago, the "who took my red box?" incident. There was an SRE-Lesson-in-a-box which was given out to all Year 9 tutors for their sex ed lesson. One of the tutors put down his box at break time, and put his notes and folder on top of it - by the end of break someone else had picked it up. Which meant he was going to have to wing it if he didn't find another one very quickly. I think it was resolved about ten minutes into the lesson, after much running around the school.

Hannah: Well until this year we were a single sex school so sex education wasn't too taxing for all the female teachers and was always relaxed. I know one of my teachers is very concerned about sex-ed with some of the new year seven boys where she has to cover wet dreams and the like (going into quite a bit of detail by the sounds of it).

This nurse was young and plump and we were all like 'oh here it comes- get ready for the lecture'. She pulled out an old battered suitcase with some 'props' in and commandeered the over head projector and changed it so it filled the back wall of the hall for her 'presentation'.

She introduced it with the sentence 'so you think you know about sex? Well it's not all about clambering on and waggling it around kids'. We were all amazed by her bluntness. In the first ten minutes she covered the first time, the idea of 'dogging' and standing up for a quickie in the toilets of a club ('does nothing for us girlies I tell you- you'll get off the the thrill of the thought you might be caught than the actual motions').

Then she pulled out a plastic carrier bag sort of thing filled with an... odd... looking liquid to help her explain 'anal'. It ended with the liquid going EVERYWHERE and all of us sat in stunned silence. She was brutally honest about the fact you can get pregnant from anal and that if you get too 'into it' you will break your muscles or something and it will leak.

She then went onto STIs and we only had ten minutes left and had learnt more, in more detail and in a more open way than ever before. She went onto the next slide and a HUGE picture of genital warts filled the back wall of the hall, followed by gonorrhea (for the eye too- we didn't dare ask at this point) and many other.. dubious looking images. One girl on the front row fainted and had to be taken out by one of the teachers as she was going to throw up.

It was the most hilarious lesson ever though and over a year later I can still remember all the gory details and can't say the word waggle without giggling like some small child. School lessons on the other hand are too formal I feel and don't go into the brutal honestly of what sex actually is.

Me: She sounds brilliant. Pictures of penises and the like all but devoured by parasites are always a good intro. It needs to be open and honest. You clearly needed more time with her though.

Did you ever have much discussion about more social issues such as genderqueer people and discrimination, or sexuality in the media, body-image issues, or anything like that?

Hannah: We've NEVER talked about anything like that- as far as school are concerned we are all straight and seem to think everyone should be. I've learnt the gist of sexuality in the media (and the effects it has on people) but that is because of my GCSE lesson choices (sociology) rather than an actual lesson in PHSE.

Body-imagine issues have been touched upon but school goes into very little detail. I personally think that is ridiculous as, in a school full of girls, there are HUNDREDS of people with body issues and no one is really sure what 'normal' is anymore, due to the media mainly.

Me: See, that's the main thing I'm concerned about:

"I've learnt the gist of sexuality in the media"

The portrayal of sexuality (especially of girls) in the media is atrocious. A newspaper will salivate all over some celebrity bikini pics, then attack another celebrity for being too thin/fat when they are completely normal. They will bully persistently some celebrity about it for months on end, and then complain that women these days are wearing revealing clothing, and apportion blame to them if they are raped whilst wearing a short skirt.

And this is presented as morally righteous.

I think that media and society needs to be discussed in much wider terms, in fact, for example the unjustified implications of Islam = terrorism, immigration = benefit fraud, and various other combinations presented to the public as fact.

Hannah: On the psychology trip we covered this as part of our first lecture. The conclusion was that even if we know it's a complete lie- the more we're told something the more we like and believe it, in general.

Part of the problem is though that the media only looks at negative points- because it makes for much more interesting reading. They play on people's thoughts and feelings, like the women in magazines, they change their stories depending on what has been said the week before by people writing in.

If, the week before, someone has written in saying that Charlotte Church (the only example I could think of) was looking beautiful and curvy they'll run a special on the curvy women and comment on how beautiful and 'natural' they are. It's just a money making ploy.

Me: That's quite a depressing conclusion - I tend to take a more positive view than that. Although they have some influence, the more we challenge the media the more we dictate their content. Take the way the Sun underestimated their readers in their attack on Gordon Brown for his mistake-ridden handwritten letter of condolence to a soldier's mother.

Ultimately they're businesses and they need to reflect as well as influence their readership.

Going back to the SRE lessons - you said about condoms being distributed - was that at school?

Hannah: I suppose so- I just don't think people realize the power they have maybe. I don't know really as I try and avoid news papers at all costs (like the typical teenager I am).

And yes they were given out at school- I think they were provided, though, by the local 'connexions' service who come to see us quite a lot to remind us that it's 'our place' and that they're there to give us advice/help/a shoulder to cry on etc.

There's a lot of support out there- it's just having the nerve to go and find it when you need it as much as anything else. People think it's 'uncool' to go and ask for help if you need it.

Me: That's really interesting. I have mixed feelings about condoms being distributed at school - it does leave them open to accusations of promoting promiscuity. Being able to see and touch them in class though to see what they are like is important, though, I think.

How do you think (or know) young people usually interact with services like Connexions? Do they physically go to them, see them when they are in school, phone them, chat with them on the Internet? Do young people really feel like it's "their place" or is it something that someone else set up because they thought there should be some sort of service there?

I think Connexions started when I was at school - it's a lot more comprehensive now, all I remember is the discount card that got me 10% off at the barbers' and Our Price.

Hannah: I suppose though giving them out in schools removes that 'embarrassment' people face when trying to buy them. I know many people who can't bring themselves to buy condoms and so have to 'risk it' or find a different form of contraception which is more permanent but doesn't protect against STIs. People know where to get them for free, as teenagers though we're just too much of a chicken to go and ask.

Well this is part of the issue with Connexions. It is only open from 9-4, Monday to Friday. These are the most ridiculous opening times as we are at school from 8:50-3:30, Monday to Friday. I'm sure that if they were open weekends or later after school more people would go to them for advice. I personally have never been in there because it's always shut by the time I'm walking past (it's on the main road into town so it's hard to miss)- I would have liked to though even if it's just for a bit of a nosey and a milkshake (it's a free cyber cafe! Why have people not caught onto this?).

'Your Connexions adviser at school is called D***** G***** and she can be found at this email address.....'. Some people contact her if they need help with anything as emailing is much less personal when trying to get a problem out in the open. She also does a 'drop in' session ever Thursday lunch time which I think a few people have made use of. She's a shoulder to cry on more than anything else, it seems.

Me: Yeah, it's not uncommon for "youth-led" or "youth-focused" activities to be organised in working hours to suit the organisers, who then complain that the youth didn't show up so they're clearly not interested.

Did you get any kind of sex ed in primary school?

Hannah: I had two hours of sex-ed in Primary School. A nurse came in from outside and held two separate 'lessons'- single sex. In ours we spoke about growing up, periods etc not so much actual sex. I have no idea what she managed to talk about to the boys for an hour even now- I didn't dare ask.

Then in the second hour she had a mixed class again and we watched a video about basically what she had covered. I remember her being very cross because we laughed at it and having to restart it several times (which made us laugh more). Also we watched a video of childbirth which made us all shut up and pay attention. I didn't really learn much besides that childbirth looks incredibly painful and more than slightly gross from the 'front line'.


Other people's experiences of sex ed are more than welcome in the comments - particularly those who are still in the system or have been through it very recently.


  1. Very intriguing. This is a topic that always intersts and concerns me. It is obvious, and has been for a long time, that the current provision for sex and relationship education in schools in this country falls woefully short of wht is necessary. It is a massive problem that needs to be properly sorted but, as you say, even the most resent announcements are sketchy at best.

  2. Well if you are talking about sex education then definitely you should know about the tubal reversal, tubal reversal is a procedure/ surgery by which a woman again be able to pregnant, this is operated when a woman ha done her tubal ligation. www.mybabydoc.com is all about this.

  3. Er, thanks. Yes, that's so relevant to school children, Mr Spambot.


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