Jayne Dowle: Sex lessons are better left to teachers than the playground

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I AM not easily shocked. However, even I was lost for words on a recent car trip with my nine-year-old daughter and her friends. The things they were talking about were so graphic, I can’t actually repeat the details in a family newspaper. I have no idea where their insight into certain sexual practices has come from, but they are getting their information from somewhere.

I would much rather they received it from a credible source than playground gossip. Children are full of questions. They deserve straightforward and honest answers, rather than half-understood snippets which mislead and misinform. And these days they are never too young to start to learn. The things they see on TV, even before the 9pm watershed, must make their minds boggle.

This is why I support the Commons Education Committee’s call to make sex education lessons mandatory in primary schools as well as secondary schools. In a report this week the Office of the Children’s Commissioner echoes the call, recommending that “age-appropriate relationships and sex education” should be made part of the school curriculum.

It’s a tricky one though. Clearly, from the evidence I heard, some children are curious from an early age. Others find the whole business of sex so abhorrent, they close their ears. And then, I’d say that there are the majority of children somewhere in the middle: confused, and a little bit scared.

Somehow, teachers have to find a way to address all these needs. I’m not usually a fan of the words “mandatory” and “compulsory”. Education is riddled with them, all too often at the expense of words such as “individual” and “imagination”. When it comes to sex though, it is vitally important to have a proper framework in which to operate. The right to understand how bodies work and how reproduction happens should be available to every young person. Shrouding sex in secrecy, superstition and hearsay is almost the first thing that happens under any oppressive regime. I don’t want that for my children, and I suspect you don’t either.

There is no point being squeamish about it. If you’re a parent you have got to be prepared for some tough questions and tricky situations. If you fail at the first hurdle of explaining where babies come from, what will you do if your teenager comes to you one day and thinks they may have contracted a sexually-transmitted infection?

We hear so much about parent/school partnerships. They should work both ways. Sex and relationships ideally go hand-in-hand. However, it is very difficult for parents to preach about “relationships” when they are speaking from their point of view. What if our own track record in this area is less than exemplary? Far better for young people to explore and develop their own views through guided discussion and debate with their peer group. No parent can provide this alone, so it’s up to the school.

I look at it like this. I’m fully prepared to answer any question my children throw at me. However, I appreciate all the back-up I can get. And it is so much better if that back-up is a well-informed source. I’m not trained in biology. Others are though. I was taken aback yet again at my son’s recent Year 8 parents’ evening. At our first appointment, with the science teacher, we opened an exercise book to be greeted straight in the face with Jack’s detailed drawings of male and female genitalia. I don’t know who was more embarrassed – us, or Jack.

Still, what would you rather have? Your child coming home from school quiet and withdrawn because they have half-heard something from an older child which terrifies them? Or your child landing home proud to have acquired a certain degree of knowledge about how babies are created? I know which one I would prefer. However, I also accept that implementing a modern and progressive approach to sex and relationships education from primary through to secondary is never going to be easy.

We all know it’s a difficult and contentious issue. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, identifies several key issues which must be addressed. If you consider yourself a responsible and involved parent, you must address them too. For a start, who will determine what is age appropriate? Will it be the school, a government body or individual teachers? Who will provide specialist information, or go into schools to give talks on particular topics, given that savage cuts have resulted in a serious curtailment of such services? Where will it fit into crowded timetables? Will academies and free schools, which have control over their own curriculums, be compelled to offer information under statutory provision? And what will happen to the existing parental opt-out, under which parents can ask for their children to be excluded from class-work on sex and relationships? It all requires serious consideration.

After all, it is no secret that our children are brimming with questions about sex and relationships. When it comes to the matter of exactly how they find out the answers, parents should be prepared too.