Teaching in a girls’ secondary school in Hackney in the mid-1970s triggered my professional interest in sex education. Many of my pupils were sexually active (and very verbal about their experiences), whilst knowing little. As a result, a significant number had unplanned pregnancies. As a Social Studies teacher (I guess the forerunner of PSHE), I had the task of providing some sex education and it was these lessons where the girls queued up at the door to get into the classroom.
We watched videos, discussed issues and I tried to answer questions honestly, though this was often a challenge, since I had led a much more sheltered life than most of them had. I remember one lesson where a particularly precocious girl put up her hand at the back of the class and said ‘Miss, I’ve been reading this book and it’s got lots of long words I don’t know in it. I’ve written them down. Can you explain what they mean?’
I don’t know to this day whether it was a genuine request or a wind-up, but I had to find an immediate appropriate response. I asked her for the list of words and promised that, by the following week I would have the answer to her question. Using a combination of a dictionary and a husband more knowledgeable than me, I found the answers, and shared them with the class the following week.
The response of the pupils convinced me that good information, given simply without embarrassment, and the opportunity for young people to ask questions in a safe environment is the key to good sex education.
Happy birthday to the Sex Education Forum – congratulations and well done for 25 years of service. I was there at the beginning of the Forum and hope we finally succeed to secure SRE for all of our children and young people before I die.
Mum was a family planner who made sure I knew about sex because she was appalled by young people’s lack of knowledge. I arrived in London in 1967, cut 10 inches off my skirt and almost immediately became an informal and untrained peer sex educator. My long career in sex education had begun!
Looking back, there is much to celebrate. We have been successful in getting sex education guidance produced, getting rid of the hateful Section 28, developing resources for primary schools and the care sector, addressing SRE for boys, considering faith and culture issues of SRE and supporting the teenage pregnancy strategy.
Nonetheless in 2012 we are still letting young people down, many lack the knowledge, skills or confidence needed to negotiate safer, mutually respectful and enjoyable relationships. I am horrified at the number of young women who experience violence in their relationships, at the level of homophobic and transgender bullying in our schools and communities and I am disappointed that teenage pregnancy (although reducing) and sexually transmitted infection (including HIV) rates are still unacceptably high.
It makes me furious that we are still arguing for SRE. The last government failed to make SRE statutory while the current government panders to a highly vocal minority who support inequality, abstinence education, independent counselling for women seeking an abortion, and creationism teaching in school.
We know what works in reducing teenage pregnancy and improving sexual health and wellbeing. We have a strong and irrefutable consensus in support of SRE; young people want it, so do their parents, teachers and health professionals.
We have to get active again, get organised and make a noise. So let’s support the Sex Education Forum’s new campaign ‘Sex Ed Matters’, write our own blogs, get on Twitter, write to and visit our MP and contact every head and chair of governors in all schools in our local area.
We cannot sit by and let yet another generation of young people grow up without good quality SRE. I am just going to nag my MP again and put something on Twitter – what are you going to do?
Gill Frances OBE, Sex Education Forum Director 1996-99
In 1986 a copy of Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, probably the first English-language children’s book to discuss homosexuality, was discovered in a school library in London. Hysterical outbursts in the press against school sex education and teaching about homosexuality followed and led to legislation to restrict school sex education and the infamous Section 28.
I’d just begun work at the National Children’s Bureau as Company Secretary and Director of Finance and Administration. Horrified by these events, I was deeply concerned that FPA and Brook were the only voices of reason, often dismissed with ‘well they would say that wouldn’t they’. So I set out to build an alliance to support children’s right to sex education in schools.
In November 1987 the Sex Education Forum was born with eight members including three religious organisations. Not the usual suspects at all. Journalists were sceptical that we could agree about much, and certainly not about teaching about topics such as homosexuality and abortion. How wrong they were.
Teachers though responded enthusiastically. At the launch conference they talked movingly about their feelings of isolation and frustration at the lack of support for their work. It was clear that influencing public policy and providing practical advice were both essential. And early work included how to develop a school policy and different religions’ attitudes to sex and relationships.
The arrival of the Labour government in 1997 kindled great hopes of major progress, which were partially realized. The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy drove improvement by bringing investment and greater recognition and training for PSHE teachers. But it was focused on health outcomes, reducing conception rates and the incidence of STIs among young people, and not educational aims.
And despite overwhelming evidence from young people about the patchy provision of sex education and PSHE in schools, shillyshallying by Ministers squandered the opportunity to make PSHE compulsory.
Back in 1987, who could have imagined the SEF as the large and influential body it is today. It has achieved so much. Sex education is in embedded in many more schools, PSHE is recognised as a discipline and teachers can draw on high quality training and materials.
But children and young people are caught between the widespread availability of pornographic websites and the forces of reaction that make primary school sex education and any discussion of sexual pleasure controversial issues.
They need the Sex Education Forum as much today as in 1987 and we must keep fighting for their rights.
Anne Weyman, Sex Education Forum Founder and President