“Miss Brown, how can people have sex with three people at once?” is not a question most people are confronted with at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon. This particular question was from a thoughtful, 9-year-old girl. She had seen something online and thought our sex education lesson was as good a time as any to seek some clarification. A deep breath and a quick moment to order my thoughts and I had an answer for her. Teaching sex education can be incredibly challenging but I’ve always enjoyed it. Firstly, because it is so important and secondly because the pupils always find it fascinating.
In the first lesson there’s inevitably a bit of giggling; it can take a while for the class to feel comfortable using words they don’t normally hear/see in the classroom (apart from during those sneaky looks in the dictionary during quiet reading or the occasional, sly Google search during Computing.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that 10-year-olds are obsessed with finding out about sex per se it’s more that they are infinitely curious about the world around them and, in particular, about their own bodies. For every, “What does an orgasm feel like?” question there is, “Why do we have eyebrows?” or “Why do men have nipples?” I don’t discriminate between questions in my classroom and I do my best to answer all of them as honestly as I can.
Anyone who has ever taught sex education to 9-year-olds will know that 9 years old is already too late. I’ve had 9-year-olds ask me questions about threesomes, STDs, masturbation, oral sex, sex with animals and everything in between. For most of those children this was the first sex and relationships education they’d had and their prior knowledge on the subject came from older siblings or whatever they’d seen on the internet. They weren’t asking those questions to show-off, be cheeky or wind me up. For most of them it was the only opportunity they had ever had to get some honest, straightforward answers about the mysterious world of sex. By the age of 9 they’d already been given several mixed messages and were almost relieved to have the chance to do some fact checking.
This is why I think sex and relationships education (SRE) is so important: it answers questions pupils actually wanted answered and provides them with facts that could impact their decisions later in life. Yes, reading and writing is crucial but forgetting how to use a semi-colon is unlikely to result in an unwanted pregnancy whereas not understanding how get hold of and use contraception might. It’s arguably one of the most important areas of the curriculum.
So you can imagine my despair when this week when Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced that sex education would not be made compulsory. The announcement was made after four House of Commons committees wrote to Morgan asking for the status of Sex and Relationships Education to be raised to statutory. Before you tell me that you have a very real memory of being shown a dated video by some red-faced Year 6 teacher etched into your retinas yes, at the moment sex education is compulsory, but only from the age of 11 and parents are allowed to remove their children from certain parts of it. This is the part I’ve always struggled with: parents are not allowed to remove their children from Maths, English, Art, Music, History etc… so why are they allowed to decide that their child should not receive this crucial part of their education?
There is a tension between parents and schools on Sex Education in a way there isn’t over other parts of the curriculum. I’ve rarely had a conversation with a parent about whose responsibility it is to teach their child about fractions or complex sentences. I’m of the opinion that we cannot rely on all parents to educate their children in an honest, factual way. Obviously, some parents are great. They feel confident talking to their children about sex and relationships and don’t mind answering any questions. Sadly, for every parent who is perfectly capable of teaching their child about sex there are parents who, due to cultural reasons, religious reasons or just plain old embarrassment are not able to have those discussions in an honest, open and factual manner. I once had a parent complain that I’d been teaching her son about “The Gays” (as if they were a mountain range.) I patiently explained we’d actually been having a discussion about the use of homophobic language and labels. Her next question was, “Well what am I meant to say to him when he asks questions about this at home?” The idea that she should just be honest hadn’t occurred to her. Her annoyance was not that he had been learning about homophobic language but that it had highlighted her own anxieties about discussing homosexual relationships.
Which is why every year, as we approach sex education, there are mutterings from a small group of parents that their children are “too young” or (my personal favourite) it might “give them ideas.” I understand that the fact that 1 in 3 10-year-olds has viewed pornography online might be difficult for some parents to accept, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Ten years old is too late. As for “giving them ideas” – firstly when it comes to sex young people don’t need to wait for school to give them the ideas so surely it’s better that they know the facts rather than having to piece together things they hear in the playground or see online. Secondly, don’t worry, nothing will dampen those thoughts faster than showing them a video of a woman giving birth.
If it were up to me, SRE would start earlier than 9. In Key Stage One I’d start with children knowing the technical terms for their anatomy and move on to educating children to understand that there are parts of their body that are private that nobody (apart from a doctor) is allowed to touch. In lower Key Stage Two we should teach puberty and the changes their bodies will go through in the coming years. It is important that this is done right – there are tales of girls starting their periods and think they’re dying because they had no idea this would happen or even boys who are worried that their periods haven’t started. Then finally, at the start of upper Key Stage 2, we should teach sex and relationships.
It’s the relationships aspect of SRE that anxious parents overlook. This is the time to discuss: homosexuality, asexuality, what it means to be transgender, feminism, marriage, divorce, fertility, dating and anxieties about relationships (which they may already be having.) Obviously these conversations shouldn’t just be restricted to sex education lessons but it’s a great place to start. This education is vital and we are doing young people a disservice by allowing their parents to opt them out of it.
Mind you, perhaps I shouldn’t expect a man who is alleged to have had sex with pig to consider honest, open discussions about sex and relationships a priority for education.