Wednesday, 8 June 2011

We're not scared of talking about sex. SRE...NOW

With the announcement of the new SRE council, consisting mainly of those opposed to comprehensive sex and relationships education and a new bill being presented to Parliament calling for abstinence education for *girls*, it may be timely to print this transcript of a presentation EFC Director, Lisa Hallgarten made to a health conference in March 2011.

'Education for Choice works primarily to ensure that all young people are enabled to make informed choices about pregnancy prevention, pregnancy options and abortion and we have been delivering sex and relationships education for nearly 20 years now. 

Last week I attended a conference where the Public Health Minister affirmed her support for sex and relationships education and I was really delighted about that as I think everyone at the conference was...but she couldn’t provide any concrete commitments as to funding or policy. One of the things that was said was that making SRE statutory doesn’t in and of itself ensure quality.  I think that’s something we can all agree on. Just getting a school to tick a box saying it does it is not enough; just getting a school to provide a couple drop down days a year is not enough; just getting a form tutor who is overworked, under-skilled and unconfident to deliver a couple tutorial sessions on sex and relationships education is not enough. But actually, after 10 years of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, Healthy Schools, Sex Ed Forum briefings and more, there's been a kind of flourishing of innovative practice all around the country, and we do know what good SRE looks like now.  Nobody is suggesting that when English, Maths and Science aren’t taught well we should pull them from the curriculum. What we say is we need to invest in workforce training to make sure that teaching and learning of these subjects is improved. I would like to argue that we should be investing in workforce training to make sure that the delivery of sex and relationships education is improved. 

Something else that I heard last week from the Minister and that really, really bothers me, is that we are all scared of talking about sex with young people and that’s the real obstacle to progress.  There’s this common wisdom that everyone in Britain is culturally incompetent, that we all go beetroot at the mention of sex and that we are just tongue-tied around the whole issue. This simply isn’t true. There are hundreds of people out there who are brilliant communicators about sex and relationships, who are experts at talking to young people about sex and relationships and whose profession it is to talk to young people about sex.  Personally I am not in the slightest bit coy or anxious about talking about sex with young people or anyone else.  If you put me in front of a class and asked me to talk about the periodic table, I would be in serious trouble, but talking about periods... piece of cake.  If you ask me to talk about international relations to a history group, I would be paralysed with fear, but intimate human relationships... yes please.  If you want me to analyse the text of Romeo and Juliet with an English class I couldn’t do it, but I can talk about teenage romance... I think you get the picture.  There is an expertise, it’s not rocket science, but there is an actual set of skills and knowledge educators can acquire. What we need to do is get the people who want it to do it and  train them and give them the skills, information and confidence to do it.  For example, my organisation is the acknowledged authority on talking to young people about pregnancy decision making and abortion, that’s a subject that lots of people think is just too difficult to tackle, but actually we do it, and we do it every day in schools.  Teachers like it, students love it, and we have trained about 500 nurses and teachers all around the country to do that every year. Really the cost of that is relatively small when you think how many young people those professionals then reach, it’s a very cost effective way of improving the sex and relationships education people get, in fact you could say it’s a no-brainer.  Young people want it, professionals want to do it, professionals want training to do it and there are people out there like Education for Choice and a load of other agencies who can train them to do it. WIN!

Like most people in this room, I’m not really that worried about the small print, I could even accept that SRE isn’t going to be statutory, I don’t care whether it’s called sex and relationships education, or relationships and sex education, what I do care about is that there will be universal provision of good quality sex and relationships education which means evidence-based information, which means supporting young people to access local health services and knowing which professionals they can talk to about what, where, and how? This means that whoever the child is, wherever they are, whether they are in a community comprehensive school, an academy school, a Faith school, a free school, a private school, a public school, or whether they are being educated at their mum’s kitchen table, that they all have access to evidence-based information which, after all,  is an entitlement; which is a need; and which we know contributes to a whole range of wellbeing outcomes, including reduction in unintended teenage pregnancy. 


  1. I agree with a lot of what is said here. I would add, though, that it is not whether teachers can talk about sex but whether the students in their classrooms talk about sex.

    I am more interested in resources that enable students to work in small groups, talk amongst themselves and share ideas with the rest of the class. Such resources wouldn't necessarily require highly trained teachers to facilitate them.

    My view is that there has been far too much emphasis on attempting to train teachers to the point that they feel competent and confident about discussing sexual issues. For the vast majority of teachers SRE represents such a small fragment of their teaching workload that even if they had the training they simply wouldn't have enough practise at it to build up those skills.

    Having 'good enough' facilitation skills of carefully developed classroom resources is a more realistic option.

  2. I agree to a certain extent and certainly all of EFC's resources are aimed at small group work and getting the students to talk. However, the issue of abortion fills many teachers with dread and most find that one training session is sufficient to alleviate their fears, and provide them with the basic information, understanding and increased confidence they need to use the resources effectively. Obviously hundreds of schools buy our resources each year without attending training so some teachers are happy just being handed resources and getting on with it.

    I think the real point is that the Minister was trying to imply that lack of consistent sex education was somehow inevitable because we are all so tongue-tied and useless and that sex is priveleged and different from all other subjects and we can't be trained or supported to talk about it. Of course I believe we can...