There’s so much to say on this subject that writing a brief article is an almost impossible task. As experienced Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) teachers and advisers we’ve seen some excellent practice, but also some lessons that leave young people as confused and ill-informed as before the lessons took place.
- It’s often taught by people with little confidence or training, many of whom are petrified of the subject for a variety of reasons.
- It’s often tokenistic, frequently left until the end of SATs in Year 6 in primary schools, or tick boxed as an activity in tutor time in the secondary school.
- It doesn’t take account of the young person’s needs, previous experience and understanding.
- It concentrates on factual information rather than skills and values development.
- It’s usually a deficit model – negative about sex rather than acknowledging the positive aspects of a relationship.
- It focuses on sex rather than relationships.
- It doesn’t involve parents and carers
There are several more potential problems with the teaching of SRE, and we’re certainly not saying that these problems exist in every school in the country, but in this and the next post on the subject we’d like to dispel a few myths and try to point practitioners in the right direction, starting with a belief in their own ability to teach – whatever the subject matter might be.
Look at those seven points again, but take away the subject matter. Good teaching is good teaching irrespective of its content. Any subject is badly taught if the teacher doesn’t feel confident, if it’s tokenistic without considering the need or reason for it being taught, if it doesn’t take account of a child’s previous learning, if it doesn’t develop key skills for life, if it doesn’t generate an interest for the child that is meaningful to them and if the learning doesn’t involve a partnership between home, school and the young people themselves.
No teacher would go into a classroom and teach about quadratic equations if they felt uncomfortable with their own lack of knowledge. Neither would they teach the subject if they weren’t aware of the young peoples’ previous algebraic learning, and yet in far too many cases this is the way that sex education is offered – with anxious teachers discussing a subject with little or no knowledge of individual children and their learning needs.
Our previous 3D Eye post looked at the issue of pornography which was in the news last week due to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner raising the point that it should be taught within Sex and Relationships education – and saying also that all SRE or RSE, prioritising the relationships aspect, should be statutory in all schools. Whilst we concur with the need for statutory status for RSE, we shouldn’t make it statutory without considering the consequences for teacher training and without putting some real thought into how we elicit a child’s understanding of the subject prior to launching into such a sensitive area of learning.
Neither can we make it statutory before we’ve given some real thought into the aims and purpose of teaching relationships and sex education. As advocates of PSHE education, we believe that personal and social development is an integral part of education. We fundamentally believe in instilling a love of learning that will carry a young person through childhood to adulthood with a real desire to learn more about themselves, others and the world in which they live. We also believe that education should be about developing key skills and core values that help them to live virtuously and honestly – which is why relationships education is important.
(Please note the plurality of “relationships”. This isn’t about one relationship. Our relationships education should consider the development of our interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, or our social and personal intelligences, that will enable us to live contentedly and considerately (spiritual intelligence) within the range of relationships – platonic, sexual, family, etc. – that we have in life.)
PSHE and quality Relationships and Sex education (RSE) isn’t going to cure all the ills of the world, but it’s an excellent starting point and if offered universally rather than in the piecemeal manner it is currently, then there’s a greater probability of adherence to a collective set of virtues and values for ourselves and our societies.
- Be open and honest. When a child asks a question, they’re probably not trying to embarrass you or catch you out. They are asking for a reason – they want to know something.
- Be very clear in your own mind about your own attitude to sex and relationships before considering your response to children and young people.
- Be sex positive. Acknowledge that for the majority of people sex is a wonderful experience, but should only be considered once the body, mind and soul are ready for it.
- Concentrate on generic relationships skills, values and attitudes. What is good and appropriate for one relationship is good for all (apart from sexual activity which is specific to a certain type of relationship).
- Ensure that teachers in school have sufficient training in the subject and is not left to “experts” who don’t know the children or teachers who feel inadequate in teaching it.
- Involve parents and carers in the development, implementation and evaluation of RSE education programmes.
- Involve children and young people in the development, implementation and evaluation of Sex and Relationships education programmes.
- Carry out needs assessments prior to working on RSE and continue with formative assessment throughout the lessons. Even as a parent, carry out an informal needs assessment, identifying what your child knows before launching into a birds and bees story.
- Use existing opportunities within the curriculum and the home – story books, novels, television programmes that children and young people are watching.
- Plan for a programme of work on RSE that is flexible enough to allow change according to need or to be directed in response to issues that are happening in the media or in the lives of your children and young people.
- Prioritise it. All children and young people have to deal with relationships of one sort or another. It’s probably the most relevant thing that they will study in school.
- Consider single sex lessons on puberty in the first instance, ensuring there’s a time when they can discuss things together as this is more real for them.
- Only bring in outside support for an established programme of work. Experts in sexual health and the teaching of RSE are a useful enhancement but shouldn’t be relied upon wholly.
- Use participatory learning in relationships education. Remember that good pedagogy for any subject is also good pedagogy for teaching RSE. Involve young people in their learning. It’s far more sustainable to do so.
- Protect yourself and your young people by agreeing clear ground rules for discussion. Keep away from your own experiences (parents may want to be more flexible on this) and make it clear that child protection and safeguarding rules apply.
Please note, this isn’t an exhaustive list. It’s a starting point for discussion. We’d welcome your comments about these points so that we can get an active dialogue on this site to benefit teachers and parents and ultimately our children and young people.
- PSHE Education “Not Yet Good Enough” (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Relationships, Sex Education and Pornography: What should schools do next? (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- “Not Yet Good Enough” : A Brief Response on SRE (3diassociates.wordpress.com)