Explosive minefield or one of the most important features of the curriculum?
It will come as no surprise that young people believe sex and relationships education is one of the most important things they can study. On 11th January 2017 Barnardos launched a campaign to ensure that SRE is taught in every school off the back of research that showed 74% of teenagers wanted good quality SRE on their school curriculum.
Similarly, for many teachers, sex and relationships education (SRE) is one of the most important features of the curriculum and they throw themselves into the task of teaching it. For others, though, it can be a minefield of political correctness, legal obligations, parental concerns and a behaviour management nightmare.
One of the most important features of meaningful sex and relationships education is empowering the teachers who deliver it, and there is no doubt that this is needed in Britain.
Here are some top tips for all teachers and coordinators of this important subject.
According to an article from May 2015 the average age of a child first exposed to pornography is 11 years old. This is, rightly, a shocking statistic. However, as we have seen all too clearly during the political revelations of 2016, polls do not always tell the whole truth, and most teachers have a healthy dose of cynicism about the claims made by the students they teach, including about their sexual experiences.
Fundamentally, one of the biggest challenges facing sex and relationships education teachers today is being realistic about the exposure and experience of the students they teach in the face of these extreme news headlines. To read the news sometimes you’d think that every teenager (or in some cases, pre-teenager) is constantly accessing sexual content online, sexting their peers and falling victim to grooming by sexual predators.
Pornography is a focal point for much discussion over the content and delivery of sex and relationships education at the moment, and it is easy to assume that near enough all students have watched pornography by the time they reach the legal age of consent.
The trouble is, while there are vast numbers of young people engaging with explicit sexual materials and practices, there are many who do not. The role of the sex and relationships education teacher is to “help and support young people through their physical, emotional and moral development” which means that teachers must allow for all levels of knowledge, understanding and experience amongst their students. Balancing these needs is a challenge, as with all differentiation, but acknowledging this range of needs is the first, crucial step.
Of course, some students are finding explicit material online because they have questions that the internet can answer. Some teachers will worry that by talking frankly and honestly about sex that they will inadvertently encourage students to experiment sexually. However, young people want to know how their bodies work, and a study published by the British Medical Journal stated that “Young people report feeling vulnerable in SRE, with young men anxious to conceal sexual ignorance and young women risking sexual harassment if they participate.”
Our young people need teachers to answer their questions and help them to feel confident in SRE as much, if not more, than in any other subject.
It’s logical and is second nature to many teachers to start sessions with establishing ground rules, and this is especially true for sex and relationships teachers. It’s such an integral part to successful SRE lessons that it’s worth reiterating. Students need to know where the boundaries lie to be able to feel confident in their lessons, especially when dealing with sensitive material. Establishing confidentiality and making everyone aware of what is or isn’t acceptable is worth spending time on every lesson. Some examples of SRE ground rules could include:
Make it clear that no names should be used when giving examples or asking questions by encouraging students to say, “a friend of mine” or “someone I know”. This could of course refer to themselves but gives them privacy when asking questions or raising points. It also means that if a student asks you a personal question you have a cast iron reason to not answer it (avoiding the “Miss/Sir didn’t answer so that means yes!” problem).
There’s nothing more frustrating for a teacher than seeing a student laughed at for asking a question. I have often told students that they have to ask lots of questions to make my job worthwhile, because if they know everything there’s no point to me being there.
It’s been known for me to exaggerate this with some classes where there is a fear of asking questions because so many of the students would laugh at others for asking things they believed should already be known, and with one class I made it a rule of each lesson that every student had to ask a question linked to the topic to help a change in the culture regarding questions.
This can encourage open dialogue in SRE lessons, enabling students to speak freely without being afraid that their contributions will come back to haunt them outside the lesson. This can also apply to the teacher, and I frequently use this as a way of stating the basic rule of child protection: that I have no need to pass anything on to any other member of staff unless I believed someone was in danger.
This pre-empts conversations with students who ask you to keep a secret for them if they want to disclose something to you (for example, “You know I can’t promise that, because if I think you’re in danger I have to do what I can keep you safe”) and it also encourages them that you’re not going to go to the staffroom and laugh about what they’ve said in your lesson.
A documentary aired on Channel 4 in August 2015 saw Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens bring a new type of sex education to a school in Lancashire. Her emphasis on sexual pleasure as well as anatomy and consent was controversial for both parents and the school, and as one student said, “it’s against the rules innit to say stuff like that in lessons”.
This was reinforced by an interview with one of the teachers at the school who said that she was fighting the urge to go into the classroom and tell the students off for what they were saying. My response to this is how can a conversation about sex and relationships be honest and beneficial to the students if they feel they’re not allowed to say what they’re thinking?
Allowing students to use language that they are familiar with but which may seem inappropriate in a classroom is, in my experience, key to successful sex and relationships education. If any subject on the curriculum is meant to be relevant to students’ lives, it has to be SRE, and to use words they know for this topic not only reinforces their ownership over the lesson but also enables them to understand the content more readily.
In this case, I would strongly recommend pausing to clarify meanings of the words they use, partially to ensure they know terminology but also develop their confidence in talking about the topic in a matter-of-fact way. Moreover, if they say something to try to elicit a reaction from you as the teacher, this can be helped massively by giving your permission for them to use those terms. You may feel that they are trying to embarrass you, but in my experience a lot of the time they want to be reassured that they are allowed to talk about whatever they have mentioned, that it is a valid point and that their questions can be answered.
Of course this also has the benefit of meaning that by not rising to what could just be a taunt from a student trying their luck, you successfully take the wind out of their sails.
In a similar way, it’s important to remember that times have changed from when you were at school. Students have access to much more information about sex now than at any other point in history; they’re likely to know things you wouldn’t expect them to know and they’re likely to have several misconceptions about sex and relationships.
Keeping it real includes not showing that you’re shocked at something they’ve said, or to make a judgement about what they’ve shared. Instead, try to give them as much accurate information as you can and just like in any other lesson, if you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest with them.
This is easier said than done, of course, but it goes hand in hand with being realistic, setting grounds rules and letting students express themselves in their own ways. In any given class, a teacher will likely have some students who go out of their way to ask awkward questions to try to embarrass the teacher, some who try to show off to their peers on the topic of sex, some who think the teacher can’t possibly say anything they don’t already know, and some who are painfully shy and find the whole experience uncomfortable. My advice: embrace everything they throw at you. Here are a few brief examples from my own sex and relationships lessons:
Students were discussing the differences between men and women in relation to sex and were using offensive language to describe women who had several sexual partners. I adapted the lesson plan at this point, asking the students to come up with as many words as they could for men and women who have “a lot” of sex (that’s a debate for a different day).
It became apparent that the language for men who have several sexual partners often applies approval and admiration whereas for women it is overwhelmingly derogatory. This led to an invaluable discussion in the lesson about the inequality in our language and the views behind it. This required students to use language that would have been unacceptable in other lessons or elsewhere in school, but was in fact vital to their SRE learning so that all the issues that they might face are properly addressed.
One student was talking about the benefits of withdrawal as a method of contraception and was instantly called out by another student who talked about pre-ejaculate. I was in my first year of teaching with this one and was caught off-guard by this as the lesson had been very vague on the finer points of conception up until this moment, so I threw it back at the student and asked them to explain what this was and why it meant withdrawal wasn’t a reliable form of contraception to the rest of the class.
They gave a brilliant explanation, justifying their answer and I could then commend them on the way they explained themselves as well as for the value in their point.
During a session on pornography a student announced loudly that there was no point in the lesson because “everyone starts watching porn when they’re like 10 or 11”. Instantly I asked a series of questions for the group to discuss, including whether or not people tell the truth when they say they’ve seen or done certain things and why they might feel like they need to lie, why watching pornography and learning about it in school are two different things and how an individual’s attitudes towards pornography might change over time.
The student who had raised the complaint became very involved in the discussion and at the end of the lesson said that it had made him think, but that he still believed pornography should be talked about earlier than Year 11. He then spent some time with the PSHE coordinator at the school and together they reviewed the curriculum for the whole school.
If you can’t feel confident, act it. There’s nothing worse than showing your embarrassment, whatever the context, and particularly true when teaching about sex and relationships. If all else fails, pretend you’re completely comfortable with the subject matter and the chances are, by acting it you’ll become it. My years of teaching SRE have taught me every student will engage with the subject in some way, and they are relying on their teacher to make them feel OK about studying something so important to them.
Discover more on how to deliver SRE in your school with our range of PSHE courses:
Or train a group of staff with one of our in-house offerings:
 “Not Yet Good Enough”, Ofsted 2013. Personal, social health and economic education in schools (PDF)