A survey by the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations found that 80% of teachers are uncomfortable talking to their students about relationships and sex education. This isn’t necessarily surprising. If you’ve worked in secondary settings long enough, you’ve probably heard a colleague either dread or complain about having to teach anything remotely resembling sex ed to their form. It’s embarrassing. It’s awkward. It’s not really our job.
But it’s about to be. A new, mandatory curriculum in England that launches in September 2020 will finally set out what young people need to learn about relationships and sex before the end of secondary school. It’s more than many schools are doing, and it’s more than can slot into an assembly or yearly drop-down day. Whilst there’s nothing to say schools can’t continue to outsource their RSE to other organisations, the cost of doing so may mean that more teaching staff begin to see RSE become part of their remit.
So why do we find these topics so hard to broach with students? How do we get better at it? And why should we?
Embarrassing, awkward and rife for accusation
This is the reason most often given for teacher discomfort. Even when we discount teachers who find talking about topics related to relationships and sex difficult in their own lives, many teachers find the idea of having these conversations with adolescents a challenge. An element of that comes, of course, from the idea that these conversations may lead to a blurring of carefully established professional boundaries. Younger teachers in particular, who may feel more at risk of students making ‘inappropriate’ remarks, may feel particularly vulnerable to the conversations becoming difficult to manage. These are understandable concerns. Teachers shouldn’t feel like these kinds of conversations bring with them any element of professional risk.
The first step to becoming comfortable with relationships and sex conversations, then, needs to happen before the conversations do. Teachers need guidance and reassurance from their schools that these conversations are appropriate and wanted. There should be clear boundaries offered to teachers on when to take safeguarding measures and on any topics the school may have a zero-tolerance approach to.
This step needs to be shared with students. For young people having these kinds of conversations for the first time, the line between appropriate and inappropriate may not be intrinsically clear. It would be beneficial for teachers and schools to establish a separate code of conduct for these sessions, setting in place an element of confidentiality that young people can have confidence in (and understand what circumstances may warrant a breach of that confidentiality). It would also help to encourage young people to contribute to these lessons from an observational or hypothetical standpoint, encouraging them to refrain from sharing personal information. This sets the tone for these discussions as legitimised educational exchanges, rather than detours from the main lesson.
The last strategy to help combat this is addressing the elephant in the room. Talking about sex can be embarrassing. It can feel awkward and uncomfortable and everyone in the room will have different levels of knowledge and different opinions. Admitting that it feels awkward can offer permission to the students to acknowledge their own feelings and work through them.
Person A, person B
After establishing an environment where students and teacher can feel comfortable – or can, at least, admit to their discomfort – we need to consider exactly how we teach about relationships and sex. Traditional methods of PSHE teaching, such as watching videos or debate, may not feel immediately appropriate. Instead, allowing students to work in groups with classmates they feel comfortable with, allowing them to come up with characters as a group that they can use as a conduit for their thoughts and opinions, and teaching topics through scenarios involving these characters can allow for a lesson delivery that feels organic.
Take, for example, how this approach could be applied a lesson on sexting and sending indecent images. Allow students to create a couple. Tell them both young people are 16 but allow them to fill in the rest of the details themselves.
Now let’s say they come up with Josh and Hannah, both in year 11 who have been going out for a year. Tell them one person in the couple has asked the other to send a nude image to them. Which character asked? This allows for the discussion of gender stereotypes. If they’ve assumed it was Josh, why? This can then offer a chance to display statistics (and that research suggests males request nudes more often than females) and discuss why that may be.
Using Josh and Hannah as a framework for this makes it relatable but distant at the same time. No one is pressured to share their opinion and the teacher can convey key points with reference to hypothetical characters. More importantly, students can discuss and take in facts of key issues that affect them.
Not at school forever
The important point of talking about sex and relationships is that young people won’t be at school forever. Elements of relationships and sex that are currently classed as illegal won’t always be so. If we wait until the age of consent to discuss the nuances of relationships with young people we will undoubtedly be too late. Increasing the conversations in school can help to shift the emphasis away from ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to the more human elements of respect and empathy. That’s got to be worth a bit of awkwardness.
The main thing to remember about the change in the curriculum is that it is still a curriculum. Having the backing of statutory guidance gives you something concrete to present to parents who don’t want their children to discuss certain topics.
However we feel about it, the way we teach sex education has got to, and is going to change. We may as well get ready for it.
Helen @dringhelen is a special educational needs co-ordinator who teaches RSE in Manchester. She has been teaching since 2007 and is writing a PhD thesis on LGBT+ and SEND inclusion in the 2020 RSE curriculum.