It was reported last month that all children from the age of four will now be taught sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools.
Education Secretary Justine Greening is expected to announce a new SRE curriculum which will be introduced to every primary and secondary school in England – including academies, free schools and independent schools.
The move follows months of campaigning from MPs and charity groups who successfully argued that the current curriculum is outdated and does not reflect the dangers faced by young people today.
One of the groups involved in the campaign is BigTalk Education – a core member of the Sex Education Forum. Interviewing Lynnette Smith, the Managing Director and Founder, she told us that one of the biggest hurdles with teaching SRE in schools is the relationship between teachers and parents.
Lynnette said: “Teachers and parents are very wary of each other. Teachers are scared about kickbacks from parents, and parents are worried about challenging teachers.”
Spending her time working with schools to help teach children about sex and relationships, Lynnette tries to educate and protect children as young as three against modern day issues, such as sexting and pornography.
Lynette describes her approach as similar to “immunisation” – she said she “shows them a little picture so they know certain things are not ok, and when/if they see something of a similar nature in the future they will realise this is not ok, and are then encouraged to tell a trusted adult.”
Annual lessons, provided by BigTalk Education, are described as “boosters”, making sure all school-age children have enough understanding to keep themselves safe, whilst protecting their innocence.
Safeguarding children is a big priority at BigTalk Education and a lot of the work they do isn’t just with schools, they also aim to inform and assist parents as well.
Lynette gave us example questions and answers that are often asked by parents regarding age-appropriate SRE.
Why start so early?
Because it’s easier, and safeguarding them from an early age is essential! Young children are fabulous, as all parents know they ask a lot of questions, not least of all about their bodies and your body. If they are asking questions they deserve answers. Ask yourself, how would you like your children to learn about their bodies, their relationships and how babies are made?
Sex Ed at four, surely not?
SRE is an umbrella term used to describe a whole host of topics not just reproduction; some things are vital for even a three-year-old to be aware of, e.g. good and bad touches. Age-appropriateness is the key, using the words, resources and approaches that are most effective when addressing the issues relevant to their age as they grow and mature.
But isn’t this the job of the parents?
Not all parents feel confident or knowledgeable and can be scared they may say too much or too little. In addition, most parents actually assume this will be covered at school at some point.
Won’t it take away the children’s innocence?
Nothing takes away innocence quicker than sexual abuse. Knowledge about their bodies won’t stop them wanting to fly kites, go sledging or make sand castles. When body science is discussed they just add it to their knowledge bank – it is often us adults that have the concerns. The world is changing and protecting our children with age-appropriate information about risk is vital.
Why do they need to know “grown-up” words?
It is really important that children know the correct scientific names for their genitals. In the event of them ever being inappropriately touched, they have the vocabulary to give exact information, e.g. “they touched my minnie/tuppence/flower” is very vague as opposed to “they touched my vagina”.
Research shows that an educated child is three times more likely to speak out if they are subjected to abuse.
I didn’t have this when I was at school, do they really need it?
When today’s adults were at school, the world was a very different place; no mobile phones with cameras, no sexting, no readily available access to pornography or strangers via the internet. It is imperative we educate children to be aware of the risks, so they know to come to trusted adults with questions about their bodies, relationships and sex, rather than the internet.
Teaching children as young as three about SRE can sometimes be controversial – Lynnette highlights what she teaches to children at each stage to ensure they are given the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe.
Age 3 (nursery) – at this age children are taught about the differences between boys and girls, such as the names of body parts, and what areas of the body are private and should not be touched unless they feel happy or give consent.
Age 4-8 (Reception, Years 1, 2 and 3) – children are taught about the difference between boys and girls, naming body parts, which areas of the body are private and should not be touched without consent. Also covered are situations which may be risky, such as other children or adults taking inappropriate photographs of them.
Age 8-9 (Year 4) – at this stage we cover different kinds of families, the emotional and physical changes of growing up, similarities and differences between boys and girls, coping with strong emotions during puberty and also about reproduction. Alongside this, we also cover how to look after your bodies and how to be safe and healthy.
Age 9-11 (Years 5 and 6) – reproduction and puberty is covered and the children are given the opportunity to ask questions. They will often want more details on conception, how babies develop and how they are born. Sometimes they ask how people can get infections from sex and how they can be prevented, or sometimes they are curious about feelings or body image – all children are different. It is important that they know there is someone in school, as well as at home, in case they want help, advice or further information.
If you are interested in the work that Lynnette does in schools, you can find her contact details here.
Thankfully, months and months of campaigning paid off, and the government’s looming announcement will mean that all schools across England are now bound by the same obligation as secondary maintained schools in regards to teaching SRE.
Although this seems like the campaign has achieved success, many are still protesting for the government to address issues surrounding consent.
Girlguiding’s annual Girls’ Attitudes Survey collects the views of thousands of young women, aged 7 to 21 across the UK, and provides evidence for what young people actually care about.
The results showed that only 49 percent of girls aged 11 to 16 said they are taught about what consent means – even though 84 percent of girls feel that education on this subject is imperative.
It is a comfort to hear that the redundant nature of the previous SRE policy will be addressed and it gives hope that young children will receive better education; however, it is clear that more needs to be done to address the content of mandatory SRE.
The policy should be enforced effectively with age-appropriate lessons and a curriculum that includes consent, tackling domestic violence, online abuse, gender equality, LGBT, consent, and healthy relationships.
Our Sex and Relationship Education Resource Pack includes a policy, checklist and guidance documents, which offer advice on how to effectively teach SRE in schools.