Teachers set solid foundations for sex and relationships education (SRE) when they stick with a few core principles: provide accurate information, celebrate human diversity, explore relationship boundaries and consent, and encourage an understanding of biology.
That was the opening message of a conference looking at the challenges of teaching Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) to ‘generation Z’, co-hosted by the Sex Education Forum (SEF) and Kingston Grammar School. Even though – as Jane Lees, SEF Chair acknowledged – curriculum time is constantly squeezed and the list of essential topics grows longer; even though technology seems to be changing everything about what our children are seeing and when, where and how they see it…’don’t panic’.
This will be a vital message in 2017 for schools which haven’t already embedded a comprehensive programme of SRE into their teaching yet. It looks increasingly likely that the government will legislate to make SRE a statutory subject in all state-funded schools in response to widespread concern that that lack of SRE is leaving our young people vulnerable and ill-equipped for the very 21st Century challenges they face. Whether it is pornography, online grooming, ‘sexting’, or sexual violence, almost everyone now agrees that SRE has a role to play in protecting and informing young people.
Making SRE statutory is necessary, but not sufficient. To ensure that all young people have the opportunity to participate in good quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate lessons, schools will need support. The Sex Education Forum’s work will continue – translating evidence of what works and what is manageable into training for senior leadership, teachers and non-teaching staff; signposting the range of useful resources developed by our members; and providing guidance for best practice. We are optimistic about a change in the law, but realistic about the task ahead. So it was motivating to attend an event where practitioners spoke of fresh and positive ways to address the challenges young people face.
Mobile technology has facilitated unprecedented access to pornography and misinformation, but Dr Polly Haste, training manager at SEF took us through ways we can start to see the internet as an SRE resource and not just as a threat: using young people as our guide to what's where and what's good on the web. Good or bad, whatever young people are looking at, can provide the basis of a useful conversation; and help to develop their critical thinking skills and challenge their assumptions…and ours.
Rachel Hughes, a PSHE lead from Brighton College echoed the idea that young people themselves are an invaluable resource. If you can provide the space and support to let their curiosity and their questions inform the curriculum it will ensure it is relevant to them, up to date and useful. The questions posed by children and young people are vital not just in shaping a curriculum, but in providing evidence to parents of what their children want to know and when, which can alleviate parental anxieties about ‘too much too soon’.
Much of the recent support for statutory SRE has come about because of concerns about what children are seeing and how they are relating to each other online. In this context it is understandable that we sometimes step in to protect and shield young people with didactic messages and even the threat of criminalisation. So it was interesting to hear Marie Smith of CEOP maintain a focus on young people’s realities. She cautioned teachers against framing their work around an imagined divide between online and offline relationships – a divide that doesn’t exist for young people. Many of the most serious crimes of grooming and exploitation take place on the internet, but the majority of problems young people face are with people they know in the real world. What they need are not just tools to stay safe online, but tools to recognise an exploitative or abusive relationship wherever it takes place. Smith demonstrated a range of resources CEOP has developed for different key stages, but also recommended new guidance for schools from the UK Council for Internet Safety on how to respond to incidents of sexting which aims at safeguarding, rather than criminalising children.
The Kingston event was lit up by a dynamic and passionate contribution from guest speaker, TV doctor and sexual health expert Dr Christian Jessen. He reminded us that alongside contemporary concerns about technology, the more timeless issues of STI rates and unintended pregnancy haven’t gone away.
He worries about the ‘psycho-sexual insecurity and misery’ in adults resulting from poor SRE, and is a passionate advocate for SRE that addresses healthy relationships and pleasure, not just risk. We know that’s what young people want too. As we usher in 2017 with all its likely challenges let’s see young people’s needs and questions as an opportunity.