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Dr John Steward discsusses why sex & relationship education should start earlier...

Dr John Steward, of Priory Education Services, argues that Sex and Relationship Education should start when children are much younger and be much more thorough than it is now.

I think that young people need and deserve more sex and relationship education from us, from a younger age, in more technical and emotional depth, for longer amounts of time, and facilitated or delivered by more people than do so at present, who are trained better. Some of the biggest arguments I’ve had in my career – and I’ve had a few – have been with teachers about that opinion. It’s a sensitive area in mainstream as well as in SEN. But like a lot of SEN work, I think that certain practices and principles hold good for mainstream too.

Sex and Relationships

Sex and relationships will hopefully form a positive part of everyone’s life. It staggers me that we don’t cover this whole area with young people much more than we currently do: that we don’t start covering it in an appropriate fashion when children are much younger than we even do now; that we don’t use more specialists in the myriad of aspects involved; that we are not more detailed, open and honest; that we don’t all seem to be completely at ease when discussing choices, consequences and activities, and making this area fundamental to our attempts at helping to deliver well-rounded citizens for our communities.

To me, we still seem quite hung up about a lot of these things across a range of sub-topics, all the way from what friendship means, to open discussions of wildly diverse lifestyles; about the different activities people actually do; to what sex means in short and long relationships; or with issues around consent; right along the continuum towards the horrors of FGM, sexually oppressive rules and regimes, and abuse, bullying and exploitation.

Young people get all of this information, or versions of it, elsewhere, from sources both reliable and not-so-reliable anyway, without us – so let’s use that curiosity, commit to doing it properly, be brave and go for it. The best learning I’ve ever seen on this has been with the aid of websites such as likeitis.org, where the tone and content seem fearless, non-patronising and clear. Maybe it’s just a question of taste.

Better outcomes

I believe that there would only be good outcomes for our young people if we did far more work around this right across the curriculum. There is apparent evidence to suggest that people start to have sex, and have babies, later in life the earlier that they start this kind of education.

I also think there would be better outcomes for young people around happiness, bullying, equality and diversity if we made more of a progressive and sustained commitment to the systematic exploration of as many different aspects of our sex lives as we can, and with it the whole concept of how we relate to others in these kinds of ways.

An approach like this would need to encompass professionals associated with disciplines including counselling and therapies, nursing and medical approaches, equality and diversity, personal and social skills, legal and cultural aspects. I’m sure that there would be many other aspects and angles that would come from students’ own requests and needs, ones that they felt they needed help with. I would bet that this is one place where students’ voices really would teach us a great deal: about what they knew, what they wanted to know, and how they wanted their lives to be. I’m not convinced that we know as much as we think we know about this part of our young peoples’ experiences in special needs or mainstream.

There aren’t many universal certainties that we wish for our service users, but this, certainly aspirationally, seems to me to be one; I don’t know why we don’t spend more time on it. I’m not criticising the current children’s workforce, but is it something to do with our national history, our emotional baggage, the position of children in our culture? Why are we all, generally, a bit squeamish about all of this? And are we worse if additional needs are involved? I asked a trainer in this area why this was the case, and his answer was simply, “Because we’re English!” Maybe he’s right and it’s just a question of tradition and culture. 


In terms of those that have additional needs, I worry about the subtleties of interactions, the difficulties in creating and maintaining relationships and all the variables around communications. I worry also about the isolation of some of our clientele, and their loneliness.

There is also huge risk around “getting it wrong”, which can have profound and alarming consequences, and sometimes when you read the histories of such young people, you see that at times it does go very wrong indeed.

Leadership needed?

It seems a bit odd to me that, although local policies abound, governmental guidance, DfEE 0116/2000, is nearly fourteen years old. Has there really been no official research or development of thinking since then that could have been reflected in government documentation? I rang the Department to ask them about it for this article, and even the call handler agreed that it was a bit odd.

Although this piece of research from 2009 is interesting: DCSF-RR175, on parents’ views about content and the right to withdraw their children from sessions; it does to me represent something of a missed opportunity perhaps, given the DCSF commissioned it but it has not had an impact on guidance.

There are lively and legitimate debates to be had – fodder for other blogposts perhaps – about teenage pregnancy, contraception, the morning-after pill, abortion, and dozens of other things, but to me they all have their roots in our over-arching attitude towards issues around intimacy, emotional and sexual awareness, repression and embarrassment.

Of course there is some brilliant and awesome practice by teachers, nurses, support staff and others. But I think that as a country we still have some residual conservative feelings about relationships that can, at their worst, hold back the progress of our young people, as some statistics about pregnancy, infection and prevalent attitudes may attest to.

For me, this change is even more necessary given the pornification of so much around us in fairly recent times, and whereas there can potentially be times on occasion when pornography might be instructive and even educative (again, another post entirely), I don’t believe that it usually is, or indeed has been for portraying the accuracy of certain aspects of sexual practice. And it seems to ignore relationships altogether. I don’t think it helps vulnerable people at all.

We need to commit to a different attitude towards sex and all its attendant areas, and do more to prepare our future generations to enjoy as much of it as they want, safely and with equality.

Let’s talk about sex.....more.

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