I’ve never shied away from discussing sex with my children and they’ve always been precocious enough to ask probing questions, usually in public. So when the letter came home from school announcing sex education classes for my then ten-year-old, I was relaxed. And when I later asked him, ‘Did you learn anything you didn’t already know?’, I expected a bored ‘no’. In fact, he said, ‘Yes. Oral sex and masturbation.’ Clearly sex education has moved on since I was at school.
Schools have traditionally covered reproduction in science lessons and, since the 1960s, sex education as a discrete subject has dealt with contraception, sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy. David Perks, head of East London Science School, began teaching in the mid-1980s. ‘Attitudes towards sex education have changed completely since that time,’ he tells me. ‘Back then, you’d be breaking the law if you taught children about homosexuality. Now you have to cover all kinds of relationships.’
More changes are in the pipeline following calls from politicians and campaigners for sex education to be made compulsory and to encompass a wider range of issues. The chief executive of Barnardo’s, Javed Khan, argues this is needed to ‘prevent children being groomed and sexually exploited’. Labour MP Stella Creasy claims better sex education is vital because, ‘addressing the way in which children relate to each other is not just a safe-sex issue, but a safeguarding issue’.
Last year, the then education secretary Justine Greening announced that relationships and sex education would become a statutory requirement for schools. She launched a public consultation on a new curriculum to ‘help equip every young person for life in modern Britain’, to be in place from September 2019. A revamped and mandatory sex education is expected to cover intimate relationships, including friendship and same-sex relationships, sexual consent, domestic violence and online safety.
It’s argued that, currently, sex education fails to address new concerns such as pornography and sexting. Yet most schools already go considerably beyond teaching just the mechanics of sex. What really seems to trouble campaigners is that some schools and parents are free to opt out of lessons. Furthermore, individual schools and teachers take their own approach — leading to considerable variation in what gets taught.
Kevin Rooney, head of social science at Queens’ School, Bushey, acknowledges that while ‘there are various statutory guidelines schools have to adhere to’, what actually gets taught can depend on the interest and enthusiasm of individual teachers.
‘You often find that there’s one teacher, perhaps someone who’s not a subject specialist, who becomes really evangelical about teaching sex education and PSHE [personal, social and health education],’ he tells me. ‘They are the ones pushing for teaching more issues like gender, consent and relationships. Headteachers are often happy for them to set the agenda and even if teachers are privately critical of what they are being asked to do, they mainly just get on with it.’
One such evangelist is Emily Dixon, a former head of music at a school in Leicester. ‘I began teaching sex education as a second subject and it changed my life,’ she enthuses. ‘I think it’s the most important subject.’ Emily plans lessons by starting with what she needed to hear when she was at school. ‘I know how it feels to find it difficult to express yourself, having hidden my own sexuality until I came out at 31, so I make sure my lessons give children plenty of opportunities to explore their own feelings.’
Yet she accepts this can be difficult for teachers who are not confident talking to children about sex and relationships: ‘The pupils need to trust that the teacher will take them seriously and deal with issues honestly.’
As any teacher knows, no matter how confident you feel or well prepared you are, you can’t predict pupils’ responses. Lizzie Soden worked on a safe-sex promotion project in the East Midlands in the late 1990s. One group of 14-year-olds seemed innocent enough. When they were asked what activities were covered by the word sex, most looked at the floor and giggled. ‘Eventually I gave up and listed acts for them but every time I said something they nearly died with embarrassment.’
One of the biggest difficulties with sex education is that in any class, some pupils will be more sexually precocious than the rest. When they’re asked for questions or examples, the discussion risks entering terrain that the still naïve are unprepared for. Sensibly, Emily suggests getting children to write questions on a piece of paper for teacher approval before throwing them out to the class.
Also, when it comes to sexual relationships there’s no accounting for taste. The law might act as the ultimate arbiter of permissibility, but it’s left to individual teachers to decide what’s immoral or inappropriate. The more sex education moves into the realm of relationships, the more values-laden it becomes.
Some parents feel strongly that sex education undermines the values of the home. Bilaan Abdi, a mother from Cardiff, tells me she has withdrawn all three of her daughters from sex education classes. ‘I’m a Muslim and I’m raising my children in my faith,’ she explains. ‘The sex education on offer at school is Eurocentric and liberal. I don’t want my children exposed to lessons advocating contraception, fornication or homosexuality.’ For Bilaan this is not about keeping her children in ignorance. ‘I’m not against my daughters knowing about sex, I just want it to be from an Islamic perspective. It should be up to parents how they raise their children.’
Yet it seems that mothers such as Bilaan might be unusual. Back in London, David Perks says parents and children increasingly expect schools to deal with the fall-out from pupils’ relationships: ‘Not teaching about emotions, relationships and sexuality just isn’t an option today.’
One demand is for more lessons on consent. Some public schools, including Eton, are reportedly paying lawyers to teach about consent, while elsewhere professionals are called in to run workshops. The need for lawyers and experts suggests that consent is not as straightforward as some campaigners would have us believe. Relationships take on their own dynamic, driven by the individuals involved.
The assumption that schools can and should teach relationships has gained ground with little debate about which attitudes and values children should be taught. Teaching around transgender issues, homosexuality and marriage can bring schools into direct conflict with home — and children are caught in the crossfire. Bilaan tells me, ‘If sex education becomes compulsory, I think more parents will end up keeping their children off school on the days that those lessons take place.’
Whether intentional or not, it seems that one lesson children might learn is that sex and relationships are so complicated they need to be regulated by a panel of experts or avoided altogether. David Perks thinks there’s a lot to be said for adopting a more straightforward approach: ‘I sound like Mary Whitehouse but sometimes I do think there’s a case for just telling kids not to have sex before 16.’