I, like countless other’s welcome and support the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening’s, statement in parliament at the beginning of March which intends make Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) statutory and as such delivered in all primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. Like numerous academics, activists, and educators who focus on sex and relationships education, sexual violence prevention and sexual health and wellbeing, I know that many young people in the UK, and across the world, receive little or no SRE.
Young people who do have formal lessons in school more often than not, find them awkward, out dated, and difficult to relate to their everyday lives. While I think that statutory SRE could be a positive step towards encouraging and nurturing young people to develop a more open, positive and ethical attitude towards relationships and sex, this is not going to happen by simply making SRE mandatory in schools. There is a significant amount of work to be done enabling teachers, and external facilitators, to deliver engaging and relevant material with confidence and competence.
Teachers have a difficult job when it comes to delivering SRE – it is a balancing act on many levels. The SRE teacher must find a way of implementing government policy and preventative agendas in a way that is palatable/accessible/interesting/relevant to an often diverse audience of children and young people. I am pleased that the government is finally advocating for consistent and statutory sex education in schools. However, the delivery of SRE does not necessarily mean that it makes an impact, or rather that it gets across all the key messages for a ‘good’ sexual encounter (whatever we imagine this may be).
My PhD research, which builds on around 50 years of scholarship looking at SRE in the UK and further afield, shows that we need to move beyond the mechanics, biology and risk focus of SRE and create spaces where young people, and teachers, can explore the more complex, emotional and pleasurable elements of developing relationships and of being and becoming sexual. I believe we have a responsibility to children and young people to acknowledge and uphold them as they begin to question, explore and embody new ways of being and doing sexuality.
Teaching young people about consent, and other elements of sexual negotiation is not only part of preparing and developing competent understandings of what might be considered ethical sexual practice; it is also important for the prevention of sexual violence and for a wider agenda of safeguarding. We need to balance young people’s rights to protection, from sexual violence and exploitation, with their rights to participation, education, information, bodily autonomy and pleasure. A continued societal attachment to the preservation of ‘childhood innocence’ and the ‘asexuality’ of children means the delivery of SRE is often limited by what is considered ‘age appropriate’ (according to adults who often feel awkward talking about sex, are significantly removed from/out of touch with contemporary youth and sexual cultures, or who have a very traditional or conservative approach to sex). Thus, information and educational programmes are delivered too late for many children and young people. We need to acknowledge and embrace young people’s developing capacity to make decisions and manage risk for themselves, however awkward this may initially feel.
As well as taking a less conservative attitude to what might be ‘age appropriate’, we need to think more about the content and delivery of any mandatory sex education. The key topics that statutory SRE intends to cover are; consent, ‘sexting’, staying safe as part of thinking about healthy relationships. These are important of course but, as usual, are focused very much on risk, rather than pleasure and sexual ethics. The young people in my research highlighted how ‘dry’ teachers often make these topics, and how the mention of ‘consent and law’ and ‘sexting’ is just a turn off. Ultimately ‘it’s boring’.
SRE is hugely important to help tackle many of the above issues but the question that I think we need to consider is ‘how can we help and support teachers to fulfil the task of delivering positive and meaningful education on these topics?’ Rather than delivering legal, often black and white, messages which do not map onto people’s sexual experiences. This is a task that is less and less simple as schools privatise, through academy and free school systems, but particularly where funding cuts across the board mean that schools may not be able to provide resources and training to the teachers who, not always voluntarily, become responsible for SRE.
Fortunately (!) I am a member of a team at Sussex, Brook and onclick who have been granted ESRC Impact Acceleration funding to develop evidence based online modules and resources around the topics of Consent and Pleasure. Brook learn is a platform for teachers that aims to equip them with the knowledge and recourse that they need to confidently deliver SRE that goes beyond reproduction, STI’s and contraception. The modules we are developing are based on the findings and research experiences of Ester McGeeney and myself, who have both collaborated with Brook for our PhD’s, and been supervised by Rachel Thomson.
Ester conducted her PhD research and a follow up knowledge exchange project on pleasure and ‘good sex’. She has continued to work with Brook since completing her PhD but has also been involved in a number of educational and research projects around risk and pleasure which are beautifully and accessibly documented on the ‘good sex project’ blog.
My PhD research has been developed and delivered in collaboration with staff, volunteers and young people who access Brook. I have worked with over 100 young people and 12 educational practitioners. We have been trying to understand what sexual consent is actually all about, and how best we can teach it so that it is meaningful, memorable and manageable for all involved. One of the outcomes of this has been a website and a video about consent which aims to provide some questions and things to think about rather than a set of do’s and don’ts.
Ideas and resources form our PhD’s and the public platforms of ‘up for it’ and ‘the good sex project’ are currently being converted, by onclick and Brook, into online interactive activities. These will encourage educators and young people to think about the importance of pleasure and consent and what it means to them. This project is timely as the move to making SRE mandatory means that teachers will be in search of support and resources to help talk about these, sometimes, difficult and awkward topics.
(Pictures from consent research project.)