As I sat eating boiled eggs with my 6 year old daughter yesterday, she told me about the chicks at school which had hatched the day before. In the playground her friend had told her that girl chickens make eggs that hatch into chicks and male chickens made the eggs that we eat for breakfast. ‘Hmm’ I said ‘not sure it’s quite like that’. We then proceeded to have a conversation about fertilization and the unique roles males and females have in reproduction. As she contemplated the conversation and munched on her soldiers she sighed and said ‘that’s amazing’. ‘Yes’, I thought ‘it really is amazing’.
So why is it that for some talking about something so amazing can be so scary? Admittedly for me the conversation felt natural, but then again after 15 years of working in sex and relationships education (SRE) one would expect a certain level of confidence- which makes me think that confidence really is the key. Over the last 25 years the primary role of the Sex Education Forum (SEF) has been about building confidence. Whether it is the confidence of teachers to deliver SRE, or schools to review SRE, for policy makers to advocate for better SRE, young people to campaign for SRE, or for parents to talk to their children, we can not underestimate the importance of organisations like SEF in showing the world that SRE is NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF!
As part of their quest to build the confidence of practitioners, SEF have published a range of resources, many of which I have had the fortune of being involved with. One resource ‘Laying the Foundations: A practical guide to SRE in primary schools’ published today, has been particularly close to my heart. Having my own young children I have realised the importance of SRE starting early and for competent and confident teachers to deal with this topic in a sensitive way. Building the confidence of primary schools to plan and deliver quality SRE which children need and deserve is really important, and this new resource is designed to do just that. As for parents, every one I have ever spoken to has agreed that when their children start asking about the birds and the bees over breakfast it would be reassuring to know that their school would help with answering these questions. Now if every school could, wouldn’t THAT be amazing!
I’m of the generation where sex education was most notable for its absence. My mother merely told me ‘not to be taken advantage of’ and I seem to remember being very close to the point of no return when I realised what she meant. I had given up biology at age 13 and it wasn’t until my final year in secondary school (how ‘too little, too late’ is that!) that I had my one and only sex education lesson. A science teacher who was married and had recently left to have a baby (all presumably judged essential qualifications to talk about sex in those days) was brought back into school especially for this.
As a young woman, the impact of what was then called ‘women’s liberation’ and of books like ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’ (I still have my original copy) was enormous and life-changing. So I guess it wasn’t really such a huge step when I moved from teaching to health promotion and was invited by my enlightened (and brave) then boss Margaret Jones to take on, together with Hilary Dixon, the re-writing for the British market of a groundbreaking book written by an Australian collective of feminists. The book was called ‘Taught not Caught: Strategies for Sex Education’.
That was in 1984, around the time that Victoria Gillick was challenging in law the right of under-16s to contraceptive advice without parental knowledge or consent. My passion for young people’s entitlement to the best possible education, information, advice and support around relationships and sexuality was well and truly born.
Many, many years (and a whole range of different jobs) later, in 2006-07 I was seconded for 12 months to cover Anna Martinez’ position as Sex Education Forum Coordinator. By then, the key political drive was for Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) to become statutory, and for sex and relationships education (SRE) to sit firmly within PSHE. SEF’s ‘Beyond biology’ campaign was a logical step towards this. For a long time, young people had been telling anyone who would listen that the biology of reproduction was not enough – they wanted to learn about relationships as well as sex, and they needed SRE at the right time and as part of a whole programme of PSHE.
The most memorable event for me in that busy and challenging year at SEF was when the UK Youth Parliament finally published their survey of over 21,000 young people’s views on SRE. They launched their report ‘SRE: Are you Getting it?’ with its eight recommendations in June 2007 at the House of Lords, with full cross-party support. For me, that represented SEF at its best – underpinning with strong and consistent support, while young people held the floor and gave their all to driving forward desperately needed reforms.
I retired recently, but most weeks I see or hear something in the media about sex and young people. The need to support young people to stay sexually healthy and safe will probably always be there, albeit in different guises as time and technology move on. Will SEF stay the course? Let’s hope so!
Sex Education Forum Coordinator, 2006-07