Schools need brave teachers for sex and relationships education

Sex education is now compulsory. But how should schools prepare for its introduction in 2019? One answer is good training for teachers, says Helen Corteen

A collective whoop of joy rang across Brook on March 1 when education secretary Justine Greening made sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory in all secondary schools, and relationships education compulsory in all primaries from September 2019.

It feels like a real “win” for young people. We know that SRE can help them to navigate online safety and equip them to recognise the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

We deliver SRE in 12 per cent of secondary schools where our sessions on healthy relationships are one of the most regularly requested. We use motivational interviewing techniques to help young people to explore the difference between possessive and protective behaviour.

Specialist educators should enhance provision

SRE can also contribute to curbing  rising  rates of sexually transmitted infections (vital at a time of cuts to sexual health services) and has been flagged as a key tool for tackling sexual harassment in schools.

We approach this through sessions on gender roles, looking at the unwritten rules about how men and women must, should or shouldn’t behave. We also discuss porn and how it reinforces unhelpful stereotypes around passive and violent behaviour.

So where should schools start in preparing for September 2019?

There is already a wealth of high quality SRE material available. The Sex Education Forum has a great guide to choosing resources and the PSHE Association has its own quality mark for assuring materials, as well as its own curriculum – a great basis for developing your own.

But, as Ofsted has identified, trained, confident teachers are key to effective SRE. It can be tempting to bring in outside agencies to deliver it for you, an approach that is not without its benefits. Specialist educators can provide a more memorable learning experience and can link young people to community health services. But this approach should be used to enhance provision rather than replace it.

Good training can help teachers, who are present year-round, to support young people through honest, brave conversations. It will also enable them to deliver SRE that encourages critical thinking and builds resilience, both of which are essential in all areas of life, not just in our relationships.

The Sex Education Forum is a great place to start to find courses and local trainers. Brook Learn also offers several free online training modules on how to deliver SRE, relationships and contraception, plus advice on updating your SRE policy and letters for parents.

It might be a surprise to learn that young people look to schools to support them in learning about sex

But it is not just about training and resources. Everyone must be on board. Schools need to start with senior management and governors. And remember that good SRE is not a “nice to have” but that done well, can become a vital part of pastoral care and safeguarding.

It is also essential to build trust with parents and carers: we often run sessions with this group before we deliver SRE to young people, and yes, they often start with some folded arms and hostility! But by the end we often find that parents are supportive of our approach and are better equipped to have the same consistent conversations at home.

SRE is more effective when embedded within a whole-school approach, which means identifying cross-curricular strands where it can be integrated. For instance, healthy relationships can be explored through literature in English lessons and medical treatments for sexually transmitted infections can be studied in science. This normalises what are fundamental parts of what it means to be human.

It might be a surprise to learn that young people look to schools to support them in learning about sex and relationships. What may come as less of a surprise, is that when they do receive it, young people say it is too little, too late and too biological.

So let’s be bold and work together to get this right and to give young people what they want and need.


Helen Corteen is Head of Education at Brook, a young people’s sexual health and wellbeing charity

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