How Can We Best Help Students Learn About Sex?

9th January 2011

Many teachers would rather scratch out their own eyes than teach Sex Ed or other PSHE topics, but as someone who trained to teach this subject, the 12-week sex education course delivered to Year 11s is one of my favourite teaching topics.  Over the weeks we consider the biological, emotional, historical and legal aspects of sexual behaviour.  For example, do you know what the HPV vaccine does, and why it was so controversial?  Or where are you legally able to touch someone without their consent?  Both are questions I couldn’t answer before I started teaching and the answers given by student at the beginning of sessions indicates an equal level of ignorance. 

Such ignorance may be because the British talk so infrequently about sexual activity in a sensible way.  A significant barrier to good sex education is the lack of appropriate language available to speak about sexual activities, meaning most teachers are terrified at the thought of using inappropriate language and the teenagers are equally obsessed with using ‘rude’ words to show their flippance towards the subject.  The sensationalisation of sex in the media and online sites hardly helps.

All fears aside, however, by their GCSE year some students will already be having sex, and many will begin in the next 2 years.  This means even typically inattentive students listen intently to the information provided.  Few teachers expect good behaviour during Sex Ed lessons, but if you expect it and plan for it is amazing what students will learn over 12 weeks.

BUT – here lies the problem – while the programme is enthusiastically received, how can I be sure of its impact? And do students need to know more than the ‘basic facts’?  After all, what skills does a sexually well-educated person need?  By 15 all students are aware of what sex is, so what else am I trying to teach them?

At the beginning of the 12-weeks I share my intentions for the programme.  Firstly, given that students will – at some point – have sex, there are several risks they need to think about so they can plan to avoid them.  Secondly, they need to find a language to talk about sex so that if things go wrong they know where to get support and how to talk about it.  In my mind it is vital that young people understand there are boundaries in sex and that if broken you can find the right sort of help.  In each of the years I taught this programme at least one student has later revealed how they came to be in a situation where they were forced into sex.  Yet many hadn’t realised this was unacceptable, or that they could do anything about it.  

All people should also know where they can access contraception, medical clinics and legal protection – this programme aims to begin that path.  But just knowing things does not equate to being able to do them.  So, we focus on two practical skills.  Firstly, making decisions about and using contraception or abstinence. Secondly, we focus on obtaining and evaluating information – e.g. making a clinic visit or balancing online information.

To provide practical knowledge one session focuses on visiting a Family Planning Clinc.  A health clinic worker visits the students and explains the checking-in process before role-playing with a student volunteer.  I have considered making the role-pay compulsory, or making all students do an ‘order activity’ where they must order the steps involved in booking an appointment so I can check they have gained the required knowledge.  But what is actually required is not just that students have knowledge of the steps of a clinic appointment, but that they develop the confidence to visit it whenever needed.  So how can I test if they have developed this skill?

A more active approach would make students do an experiential homework – e.g. buy a condom, visit a clinic, download online information.  This would reveal whether or not students have developed the appropriate skills as well as consolidating their learning.  Sadly I fear this would not be handled well by some parents, afraid that I am pushing their child into precocious activities.

So, it’s back to the drawing board to tackle some important questions:

  1. What skills does a sexually educated person need?
  2. How can I develop these in a classroom?
  3. How best can I assess that these skills have been developed?
  4. How can I communicate to parents the value of outside-school learning about sex education?


Any thoughts or ideas welcome!