Schools and Relationships

// 6 May 2008

The NSPCC, and I’m sure not going to make myself popular arguing with a group as respected as them, are saying that schools should teach more about relationships in sex education. This comes in response to data from Childline suggesting 50 children a day ring up saying they feel pressured to have sex. And in that light the NSPCC suggestion sounds wildly sane but I have to admit it actually made me flinch a little.

At the moment schools are only obliged to teach the facts of human reproduction. The first thing that frightens me is that if the syllabus is expanded out to include relationships, what is the risk that the facts of biology will be lost? I think children have a right to understand how their bodies work in factual scientific terms. Many especially faith schools are reluctant to teach these facts and given the chance to hide them discreetly behind a barrage of warnings about the unholy nature of any kind of relationship not fully approved by religious leaders, the message could be watered down beyond recognition.

It’s also difficult to understand how children will react to hearing the facts of biology lined up next to what can be nothing more than advice about relationships. I think a clear line needs to be drawn between the facts of how the human body works and advice about how to deal with the stresses and strains of relationships.

And finally who exactly is going to set the relationship agenda? I’m sure religious leaders would love to. And so would some of the virginity cults that we seem to be importing from the US at the moment. The uproar from religious parents if their children were taught that anything other than chastity and fidelity was acceptable and enjoyable means that the education is always going to be skewed. Who is going to let kids know that promiscuity, safely practiced, can be a lot of fun? And we all know the fuss that ensues if you teach children that it’s ok to be gay.

All that said, I’m not totally against raising in school the subject of dealing with pressure to have sex. I think children should be taught that they have human rights, and that one of those is the right to make their own decisions about sex (or this could be covered under the women’s studies addition to the national curriculum that I’ve been talking about forever). But I’d like to see that taught separately from the biological facts of sex.

Photo by Reading is Fun, shared under a creative commons license.

Comments From You

Anne Onne // Posted 6 May 2008 at 6:51 pm

I’d like to think it would be a good thing. I’d say relationship advice in a school setting could be useful. I’d like to see boys taught the importance of respecting partners’ wishes, because teaching girls to be more assertive is only half the issue, especially when boys might well ignore or turn a blind eye to objections, and pressurise girls. I’d like to se a focus on what consent is, what constitutes rape, and encouragement for teens to make their own choices, and be able to assert themselves, and articulate their needs. There may definitely be a use for useful information and advice for young adults, and it doesn’t need to strictly be about sex. PSHE and related subjects cover all sorts of ‘ethical’ and ‘lifestyle’ issues, and I don’t see why this also doesn’t belong there.

Maybe they could even focus on homosexuality (in my dreams, I know!) as well.

I just think PSHE sex ed is already taugth separately from the strictly biological aspects, or it was in my case a few years ago. We covered pregnancy and the physical aspect (and some rudimentary info on contraception) in science, and covered contraception in more detail, in PSHE. I agree that we cannot compromise the biological aspects of sex education, or it would be pointless. At the same time it might be the right tome and place to focus on consent and issues that are never addressed.

Then again, I think we need sex ed for adults, too.

Rachel // Posted 6 May 2008 at 8:45 pm

I think its all about how you go about teaching about relationships. This part of sex education probably isn’t best taught from the front, that surely wouldn’t be very effective anyway.

Could PSE classes (or whatever they call them where you are) potentially provide a place where school pupils could DISCUSS relationships, without being told what to think or what to do, and actually reach their own conclusions.

We did a really good thing when I was in High School, where we all got given a card with a person on it (ie you are a 15 year old lesbian or you are a 16 year old male christian who is committed to abstinence) and then we were asked a series of questions and had to think through that persons perspective.

Also, surely talking about relationships in sex ed could potentially create a place for talking about sexual consent and equal relationships and other really important things.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 6 May 2008 at 10:01 pm

Part of the problem with only teaching sex as biology is that children group to believe that only penis-in-vagina is sex. If this is not supplemented (which it often isn’t in biology), this leads to a group of teenagers who often engage in risky sexual behaviour without knowing that what they do is sex and that protection needs to be involved. It is also an form of education that excludes non-hetero forms of sex.

Sarah // Posted 6 May 2008 at 10:02 pm

At the moment, in maintained state schools, the situation is this:

Students are required (by the national curriculum) to learn the biological facts about human development and fertilisation.

Most students will also be taught PSHE (personal, social and health education) in seperate lessons, hopefully by trained specialists, where they will study a range of things relating to this biological knowledge, including how contraceptives work, and topics like “relationships”, which is slightly less easy to define, but usually encompasses discussions about the different types of relationships in society, including, in most schools, addressing homophobia and transphobia (if any teachers are reading, there’s an excellent channel 4 documentary called something like “My mummies used to be daddies”) good and bad reasons to have sex, and development of the skills to resist pressures (through, for example, role play) and the law relating to consent and underage sex. Most schools also let parents pull their children out of these lessons.

I’ve taught sex education in a girls comprehensive in London for the past 3 years, and think it’s vital if only to dispel the crazy myths going around: “Miss, aint it true if you don’t got a condom you can use a crisp packet?” But further than that, students who are used to talking about sex and relationships with friends and adults will be more likely to feel confident talking about sex with prospective partners, and that can only be a good thing.

Laura // Posted 7 May 2008 at 1:54 am

I don’t really see the problem here, tbh: there’s no reason why schools can’t teach biology and emotional/relationship issues and I think it’s good the NSPCC are highlighting what is clearly a serious issue. But I agree that children shouldn’t be given the impression that there’s anything wrong with having lots of sexual partners, as long as it’s safe and consensual.

sian // Posted 7 May 2008 at 8:52 am

i understand the concern about teaching relationships in schools, but as has been said above, if it is handled correctly, it can only be a good thing, i believe. boys and girls need to be taught respect and consent, and as the pressure to have sex is a very real thing, a more open discussion on sex in relationships (and how this doesn’t have to be penetrative but still be sex) should be encouraged.

however, i’m totally behind you on the doubts as well. if this is taught badly – in a hetrerocentric marraige above all else way, then it will cause problems, let alone the gay issue. my PSE (7-8 years ago) did touch on relationships, but i had an appalling teacher who was very decided on her “better to wait as he won’t respect you in the morning” view.

i think the solution has to come from employing external experts, such as counsellors or something to come in and take these lessons. having your teacher blushingly explain sex in relationships is not good for any student – i think employing an outsider who is trianed in this area will avoid a single view embarrassed perspective on relationships and sex.

ps biology of sex is generally science lessons rather than pse isn’t it? or has that changed?

Serian // Posted 7 May 2008 at 9:20 am

It’s difficult though, because Sex-ed isn’t very well taught at the moment. It isn’t touched upon until at the youngest, year 5 ish, mainly Year 6.

Then you aren’t taught about looking out for cancers, STDs, condoms or abortion. In my school, if you take 2 languages, you don’t do PSHCE.

I’d like to see more relationships etc (same sex relationships education would be awesome) but I’d also like to see more biology.

Amanda // Posted 7 May 2008 at 2:19 pm

Again I really do not see the problem with this if it is handled correctly. At the moment all the kids seem to get is a lot of focus on biology (which in itself seems to be mainly “when you want to have a baby the man…” then focuses on conception etc) I think that good comprehensive relationship education would make a huge ammount of difference.

Of course there is the problem that it might get caught up in the abstinance agenda but I don’t think that this is what the NSPCC is calling for. If we can impliment a proper system focusing on all the different types of relationships available with empthasis on personal autonomy and respect then it would be a great help to young people.

I believe that the Dutch system is one of the best in the world and I would argue for emulating its focus on encouraging openness and encouraging young people to develop the skills to make their own decisions.

Amy // Posted 7 May 2008 at 5:52 pm

I agree with Laura, I don’t see a problem with it either and good on the NSPCC for bringing attention to the issue. There is definitely room in schools for both teaching kids biological facts and letting them discuss relationship issues (because lets face it – the vast majority of people want a committed relationship at some point in their lives, right? I think we can all agree that supportive, equal relationships (of whatever sexual orientation) are basically A Good Thing). There are so many things I wish I’d been tought – for example, what to do if your boyfriend moans about using condoms, how to cope with jealousy, when your partner’s behaviour is out of order, how to bring up sexual issues in conversation, so on and so forth. As well as more practical, context-based sex education such as what you do when you both want to use a condom but your partner can’t keep his erection while wearing one.

On the promiscuity issue – I agree that kids should not be moralised at and there absolutely should be no repetition of the double standard (women are sluts, men are studs etc), *but* I think there’s nothing wrong with telling kids that sex is more pleasurable in a loving relationship as this is true for most people. I’d like to see teachers (I agree that they should be specially trained) discuss with kids the right and wrong reasons for having sex… it’s all very well saying ‘promiscuity is ok if you use a condom’ but this would be woefully inadequate preparation for having a sex life. Safe sex doesn’t just mean protecting yourself from disease. It should also mean protecting yourself from emotional hurt… being intimate with someone too soon and then being dumped is a terrible feeling, especially if you really like the person, and kids should be prepared. They should be warned against having sex for the wrong reasons, such as for popularity, for attention, to get or keep love, to look good in front of their mates, for an ego trip, etc… and encouraged to have it for the right reasons, i.e. mutual pleasure, bonding with your partner. They should be encouraged to decide for themselves about whether they think they can have sex without wanting to form emotional ties – if so, great, go have fun; if not, be careful!

Also – after reading ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’ by Ariel Levy I realised just how many girls of school age who have sex aren’t concerned with their own pleasure. I think this should be rectified in school with discussions about sensitive bits, erogenous zones, ways to give pleasure, etc. It’s vitally important in relationships and also this would help to debunk the many myths about female sexuality that boys learn by reading porn.

I understand people’s fears about relationship education being hetero and marriage-centric, but notice the NSPCC did not say ‘marriage’ but ‘relationships’… so I think it’s encouraging. After all, that’s where most sex takes place.

tomhulley // Posted 8 May 2008 at 8:40 am

The problem with scientific ‘facts’ is that they may be misleading. Generations have learned about brave, competitive male seeds racing to inseminate (rape?) an egg. More accurately, the egg accepts or rejects. Fighting patriarchy means fighting patriarchal science.

Years ago, in the youth service, we used to focus on feelings instead of plumbing and talk about consent, choice and exploration. Counselling, in a broad sense, creates space for people to make their own decisions as free as possible from pressures.

Bad sex education imposes values, good sex education responds to enquiry. So, maybe it is not an issue of what kind of content but of how young people are engaged and of how much say they have in what they are taught.

Danielle // Posted 10 May 2008 at 1:30 pm

On a different note, apparently education is bad for your sex life:

Hannah // Posted 11 May 2008 at 6:59 pm

Maybe educated girls are less satisfied because they are more aware of shortcomings, inequalities etc…for example now I read the f word I’m more aware of what I can rightfully expect, which may not be the same as what I receive.

Or perhaps it’s actually clever boys aren’t good in bed and clever girls mix with clever boys? Girls are getting the blame for bad sex because they’re educated here when it could just as easily be the other way round!

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