Is the sex education provided to children in the UK really teaching them everything they need to know?
That memory of awkwardly sitting in your Year Six classroom, cringing while the teacher talks about the birds and the bees. It’s something that – cringe – stays with most of us forever.
These days, children are being exposed to much more than they’re potentially ready for at a young age, due to social media and society’s ever-changing attitude towards sex. It may pose the question of whether or not the basic sex education provided to children is enough, or if children should be made more aware of sex from a wider perspective.
School teacher Alison Lewis, 38, has had the pleasure of teaching children between the ages of 11 and 18 for the past 16 years, and feels that not enough is being done to give children realistic ideas about sex and body image – which she says are inextricably intertwined.
“When a couple has sex, there’s always a chance a baby can be made, even if the couple doesn’t want this.”
“Boys definitely need to learn more about girls’ bodies. They are clueless about periods etc. and they also have unrealistic expectations of girls’ bodies because they get too much of their information from watching porn,” she says.
“It upsets me to think of the pressure upon teenage girls nowadays to try to fit into that supposedly ideal image. Women come in all shapes and sizes and boys need to see what is actually normal.”
Current UK laws outline that schools must provide sex education from key stage three. The National Curriculum states that from the age of 11 it is compulsory for children to be taught about reproduction, sexuality and sexual health but parents can withdraw their children from the lessons if they wish.
Some schools use BBC Teach videos like the above to teach lessons about sex education.
Lewis has a three-year-old and feels this has impacted her opinion on sex education. She is already concerned about the impact sex education may have on her daughter.
“It definitely changes perspectives a bit, being a parent. I know Daisy is only three but I already worry about stuff like that for her in the future,” she says.
“I think they need to be taught frankly about respect within a sexual relationship. Boys not having unreasonable demands and girls having the self-esteem and confidence to say what they do or don’t feel comfortable doing. I probably sound like an old prude but I think there is so much peer pressure nowadays and I’m not sure what the answer is. The education needs to be open, honest and perhaps a bit more shocking than it is currently!”
“When you’re in the changing room or the school showers, you’ll probably notice other boys’ penises. Don’t worry, everybody glances at other people sometimes.”
There are a lot of things children aren’t being made aware of in sex education, which some consider a godsend. Full-time mother of three Tracey Brodie, 46, feels that this is a way of engaging with her children about these issues at home rather in the classroom.
“I personally feel they give them enough for the age they are in Year Six,” she says, “now that Jess is in Year Seven they are explaining it all in a little more detail. As a mother who has a good open relationship with my daughter we are both open and honest and she will often ask questions as she knows I will be open to anything she asks.”
Brodie was also in agreement that there may be some things parents feel uncomfortable discussing and may wish the school would address these issues in more detail.
“Maybe a mother who is closed or shy might complain they need to know more at school. I feel I am happy with what they do at school as it just allows us to talk more openly when she comes home.”
“The first time your penis squirts semen, it can be very surprising.”
In March 2017, the Department of Education announced that all children from the age of four will be taught about safe and healthy relationships, and when they reach an appropriate age, they would go on to be taught about sex.
Fortismere Secondary School in Haringey follows a “well-being” curriculum to teach their students sex education. According to the PHSE co-ordinator, Jo Arrowsmith, the school take different routes to teach the children about healthy relationships and sex which was outlined to parents in an email.
“As part of Year Nine’s “Well-being” curriculum, the Theatre in Education group, “Face Front” will be presenting the play SEX FM.”
“Semen is wet, and it leaves a mark on your pyjamas and sheets, but it washes out easily.”
“The play will complement lessons that are part of Fortismere’s “Well-being” curriculum, for Year Nine. Students will be building on their previous subject knowledge and skills enabling them to develop healthy relationships. Our focus is on the following aspects of a healthy relationship; qualities of a positive relationship, gender identity, consent, sexual health, STI’s, safe sex and contraception and the negative impact of alcohol abuse on wellbeing and happiness.”
As well as talking to the children about the physical aspects of sex education, the school also try to address issues with sex and social media.
“We will also revisit the negative impact of sexting, body image and pornography.”
One method commonly used by schools in England for teaching sex education is through books such as Usborne’s “What’s Happening to Me?” which are simple yet informative to say the least.
This book is used by Oakhurst Grange Independent Prep School for Year Six sex education and specifically covers topics such as bodily fluids, coping with periods and also addresses gay relationships.
“It can be quite confusing because it’s common to fancy someone the same sex as you, especially growing up.”
Other organisations have argued that a more informative approach weakens the influence parents have on their children’s sex education. Christian Concern, the religious organisation, have been vocal about what they think should or in this case, should not, be taught in schools.
“Children need to be protected, and certainly when they’re [still at primary school], we need to be guarding their innocence,” the chief executive of Christian Concern, Andrea Williams told the BBC.
“We need to be protecting them from things, working with parents to ensure that what they might need to know – which will be different for every child, different in every context across the country – is properly looked at.”
But what may be considered “protecting their innocence” could in some cases put children who aren’t being taught anything about sex education at home at a disadvantage. Many argue that faith schools, for example, don’t teach children the relevant information about sex that is necessary for them later in life.
In accordance with new government proposals for compulsory sex education, faith schools are also obliged to teach sex education to children “in accordance with their faith”. This means that they may teach that same sex relationships are immoral and they can also ignore any LGBT issues within their teachings.
“The extra blood fills up a spongy substance called erectile tissue, making your penis bigger and harder.”
Lisa Hallgarten, a coordinator of the Sex Education Forum (a membership organisation aiming to improve the quality of sex and relationship education) believes that young people’s needs are not being met, and that the government need to act.
“There is ample evidence that sex and relationships education is not meeting young people’s needs. The Sex Education Forum has been campaigning for statutory, good quality, evidence-based SRE for 30 years so we were delighted that statutory SRE (to be called Relationships and Sex Education) was made law in the Children and Social Work Act 2017.”
Hallgarten and the Sex Education Forum are still fighting for more in depth and informative education for children.
“There is still a lot of work to do to ensure that the regulations and guidance support teachers and schools to deliver a comprehensive, evidence-based curriculum which really reflects children’s developmental needs, and the context in which children and young people are growing up.”
Year 10 student Tilly Knowles thinks that sex education goes from one extreme to the other.
“In some schools it’s ‘when a man and a woman who are married love each other very much…’ In my school they have changed it and we are learning about freaking polygamy and polyamory, which I think is good because we get to learn about different types of relationships. We learn a lot about different types of relationships, we’re not just told what is good and what isn’t.”
Full details of the National Curriculum for sexual education can be found on the government website.