The Moral Maze – A 3Di Response to Panel Members and Invited Speakers

The subject of the Moral Maze this week was “Sex Education”. It highlighted the essential problems of the subject.

Kaye Wellings quote

Sex education is indeed a moral maze – an ethical maelstrom that’s constantly debated by all manner of people, some of whom only have a brief experience of teaching sex education; as an embarrassed fumble of a single lesson many decades ago.

There are examples of excellent SRE throughout the country, and there are plenty that leave a lot to be desired. There’s also an abundance of myths that circulate about sex, sex education and relationships – which is precisely why our young people should be receiving quality SRE.

Below is a grid of comments made by this week’s panel and guests on the Moral Maze – with 3Di comments in the adjoining column.

Contributor Direct Quote 3Di Response
Claire Fox “It’s a bit creepy ….. teachers dictating what good emotional and sex relationships are to teenagers. It seems prescriptive, intrusive…. ever so slightly conformist” A good PSHE teacher doesn’t dictate. A good PSHE teacher facilitates and enables. They may offer some suggestions as to what constitutes a healthy emotional and sexual relationship as a starting point for a discussion for and with young people. As Claire Fox rightly says later, there is no right or wrong answer. It would be inappropriate to provide a prescriptive list of the elements of a “perfect” relationship; no such list exists. 
Sarah Carter “This is a parent’s subject that should be tackled in the home. The parents are best because they can judge their child’s maturity” We agree that parents should be a primary source of learning about sex and relationships. In most cases, parents can judge the level or maturity of their children and the appropriate time for discussion, which frequently occurs when you least expect it in the natural course of being a parent. However, there are many, many parents who feel unable to discuss sex with their children. Where are those children going to hear a rational and reasoned view of sex and sexuality if this subject is not discussed and debated in schools? Some children are abused – harsh truth. These children need to know that they are being abused and know what they can do to prevent it. 
Anne McElvoy “A combination of parents discussing it in the way that parents do and school doing it in perhaps a more formalised approach might be better balance” Sex and Relationships Education has to be a partnership between the home and the school. The law on sex education also states that all materials used in SRE should be ratified by the governing body. Parents and carers should be invited into school to discuss the content of the SRE lessons and to know when they’re going to take place. Preferably, they’d be involved in the planning, implementation and monitoring too. In our experience, once parents have the opportunity to review and discuss in this way then they’re more than happy for their children to participate in the lessons. 
Sarah Carter “What would be ideal would be if schools could consult with parents on what materials on wanted to discuss and then there’s a nice balance of schools working with parents to produce materials appropriate for young people”
Sarah Carter “If you’re putting an 11 year old into classroom who’s never seen porn are they going to join in with this adult conversation?” The new guidelines on the teaching of consent are for secondary schools only, but no PSHE or SRE teacher should talk about pornography without a very detailed needs assessment to identify the children’s prior learning and knowledge. This is good practice in all areas of education and not just SRE. This is also why we and the PSHE Association make it very clear that all subjects in sex and relationships education should be taught within a carefully planned, age-progressive scheme of work. 
Anne McElvoy “Don’t we have a moral duty to respond to the times we’re in and not go into denial? There’s no perfect way to teach SRE but the idea of let’s not bother is wrong” Absolutely correct. It’s sad that explicit images of sex are so readily available to young people but we are where we are and we have to be realistic about this. We need to provide a grounded and responsible view of sex and relationships and an opportunity for young people to discuss their feelings about some of the images they might have seen. There may be no perfect way to teach, but taking care to find out the needs of the young people is vital. The recent guidelines from Brook, PSHE Association and Sex Education Forum are excellent and can be downloaded here. 
Sunder Katwalar “About 1 in 10 remove their children from the classroom” Our understanding is that the ratio is significantly lower than this. NB many elements of SRE are in the science curriculum which is statutory. 
Sunder Katwalar “If a child has been abused by a relative, and doesn’t know what’s going on . . . that is wrong. Isn’t this a time to catch that?” See above response to Sarah Carter. These things happen. Some children only realise their abuse when they’re taught about inappropriate touches. All manner of support should be given to children if this realisation happens within a PSHE lesson. NB: guidelines on ‘disclosure’ should be introduced at the beginning of every lesson, with opportunities for young people to talk confidentially 1 to 1 with a trusted adult offered immediately. 
Joe Hayman “Children and young people are sharing images, sharing porn on phones. We need to respond to that” We certainly do. The sexualisation in society gives mixed messages to young people, and that can be very confusing. A safe place to discuss this is important. Some children don’t know that sharing images is illegal. Teaching them the legal aspects of this is one thing but enabling them think about the emotional repercussions is also extremely important. 
Joe Hayman “I think even the worse teacher has to be better than learning about consent through porn. We’re working to ensure that all teachers are properly trained” Gross misconceptions and distortions about sex and sexuality are perpetuated by pornography websites. As cited in the Channel Four Sex Education series, many young people have warped and unrealistic expectations due to watching pornography, e.g. shaved pubic hair, size of body parts, etc. We have to challenge this. We agree that poor teachers or teachers who lack confidence about teaching SRE shouldn’t be teaching it. Training and mentoring are vital, as are clear boundaries as set out in a school’s SRE policy. 
Joe Hayman “We’re starting from the standpoint that we know in society there are children who have been victims of unhealthy relationships but SRE . . . should be negotiated with parents and governors” It’s true that there are young people who have been victims of unhealthy relationships and whilst safeguarding is a significant component in the argument for SRE, we’d like to take a more positive stand regarding pupil entitlement. Young people have a right to positive and enabling learning about relationships and sex education. 
Claire Fox “This is an intimate area of people’s lives – and you want them to be “Ofsteded”, compulsory, examined?” No. We don’t want this to be graded or examined. Yes, we do want SRE to be compulsory for the reasons already mentioned. Regarding Ofsted, we don’t want to see schools grading a child’s personal development but we do want an accountability system to ensure that PSHE and SRE are learned and taught in schools. If Ofsted is to remain, then this important aspect of learning should be clearly incorporated into the Osfted Framework. In point of fact, the new framework has introduced a judgement on personal development, welfare and behaviour – a welcome improvement that we think will require training for inspectors too. 
Claire Fox “Primary age? How can you possibly introduce the concept of consent?” Joe Hayman’s answer was quite correct. In primary schools you introduce the idea of sharing through negotiation and discussion – often in relation to belonging and to sharing of toys & equipment. This evolved way of dealing with consent is appropriate and prepares young people for the time when they’re going to be discussing consent, as is progressive work on peer pressure and coercion. 
Giles Fraser “Childhood needs protecting” (from commercialism and sexualisation) We agree entirely, though disagree with the solution. Good quality PSHE protects childhood. It doesn’t detract from it or damage the innocence of the young. Commercialisation and sexualisation are obvious and pervasive. Helping young people to interpret what they see is indeed an integral part of education, and of SRE. 
Ellie Lee “This particular document (Consent) is sex and relationships regulation. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with education. It’s an exercise in control” As Anne McElvoy said, there’s a difference between innocence and ignorance. A good education lifts children out of ignorance whilst taking care to preserve innocence. Please let’s say this again because it’s so important: no trained and experienced PSHE teacher would try to indoctrinate children. Advise, guide, and inform when appropriate  – yes; but not dictate. 
Ellie Lee “The primary purpose of schooling is to educate. I think new generations are introduced into an understanding of bodies of knowledge which we develop through centuries” We could write an entire post on this. Schooling should educate and SRE should be part of that education – for childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Ellie Lee says there are new “bodies of knowledge” and new means of accessing these bodies of knowledge. Sadly, they’re not all positive and as our learning and our access to “knowledge” increases, so too does our need to understand our responses to it. We have an understanding of sex and relationships that our children are entitled to learn about. There are misunderstandings about human sexuality that they are also entitled learn about.
Kaye Wellings “Research shows that those who have SRE from schools are delaying sex, have better sexual health than those from who get SRE from other sources. It tends to delay sex” The research is there and we should take heed of it. Furthermore, we should have ongoing evaluation of what works. In this way, we might prevent the continuous discussion about what works and what doesn’t. If you’re currently doing SRE in schools, please record and review its impact and success wherever possible. 
Claire Fox “Young women genuinely are scared about sexual relationships. They talk about epidemics of rape, sexual abuse, STIs. When I was growing up you were worried about getting pregnant but not this absolute horror story. I think they’ve got that . . . not from watching pornography but from going to PSHE and SRE lessons” We too are concerned about the negative views and misunderstandings about sex and relationships that some young women and young men have. We advocate a sex and relationships positive approach, where there’s a clear message that sex is too important to get it wrong or to enter into it too early. We’d also argue that many are fearful because they haven’t had SRE other than the condom demonstration lessons, and that the concerns they are experiencing come from the plethora of news and magazine articles relating to violence and negativity about very bad and inappropriate sex – where they have no safe and carefully planned place to discuss this properly. 
Kaye Wellings “I don’t think young people are hermitically sealed in a world without any stimuli other than what is learned in the classrooms. There’s so much going on in society that’s forcing young people into being adults before we wish them to be so” See above. Our children are surrounded by sexual images from birth –  before they get anywhere near to using smart phones and the internet. Our young people have to contend with far too many problems before they ought to, which is why we also need lessons on resilience, respect and a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities – as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 
Kaye Wellings “I think that if you go broader and take a step back from those adverse situations and think in terms of what you can do in getting across ideas of respectful relationships between people, of concepts of resilience, of self-esteem and belief in your own ability to manage a situation, then that’s quite a positive thing – that’s going to make sure you have good relationships” Exactly so. There’s nothing to add here, but this is one of the most important statements of  the entire programme. These elements may not “make sure” you have good relationships but they’re a very significant help for going in the right direction with friendships as with all relationships. 
Claire Fox “The narrative is that children’s minds have been polluted by sexualisation, pornography. We’re taking them into the classroom to arm them to fight against it. I’m arguing that we shouldn’t do that because it over emphasises and over problematizes human relationships. We’re not just giving them biology lessons. We’re actually morally intervening in their minds and in their hearts and their emotions and that’s too much, too dangerous” No, we’re not. No teacher of ANY subject should “intervene” in minds, hearts and emotions, but this isn’t the same as providing opportunities where young people can consider issues for themselves.  There are many aspects of history or geography or English that pull on the heart strings and the emotions and we wouldn’t be arguing against teaching and learning in these areas. That’s not intervening. That’s informing and enabling young people to come to their own conclusions – same with SRE. 


As Giles Fraser asked, where are the ethics in teaching about consent?

We’d broaden this and turn it round.

Where are the ethics of not teaching about consent? Where are the ethics of us burying our heads in the sand rather than facing up to and challenging the sexualisation of children, and the accessibility of sexual images? Where are the ethics of not providing a safe, reassuring and encouraging environment to talk about the issues that matter to our children and young people?



See also


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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