Thursday, 4 April 2013

Does sex education have a place in Britain’s Primary Schools?

The following is an assignment I wrote for my PGCE. It still seems relevant today so I thought I'd post it for general consumption.

Britain is facing a sexual health epidemic which is embarrassing the nation and costing the National Health Service (NHS) hundreds of millions of pounds. In order to address this epidemic, campaigners have called for a complete overhaul of the way in which sex education is taught in schools and improved access to sexual health services and advice. Some have called for a more thorough and compulsory programme of primary school sex education, a suggestion which has promoted fierce debate amongst sexual health professionals, politicians, teachers, parents and religious groups. Sex education is an emotive topic as it touches upon aspects of morality and individual and cultural identity. Though its introduction to the primary school curriculum may help to tackle issues such as sexual abuse, pornography, sexual references in popular culture, gender discrimination and sexual harassment and bullying it also raises questions about the relative abilities of parents and teachers to provide such education, the ability of pupils to cope with the information and the suitability of the classroom as a learning environment.

Britain’s teenagers have the highest levels of pregnancy, sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in Europe (UNICEF, 2007). If left untreated, many STDs such as Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea can result in permanent sterility or infertility whilst some such as HIV/AIDs can lead to death. Teenage mothers are more likely to suffer from premature delivery, anaemia, pregnancy induced hypertension and mental health problems whilst the interruption to their education often damages long term employment prospects, exacerbating a statistically lower standard of living.  Children born to teenage mothers are often underweight, have increased rates of neonatal mortality and suffer as young adults in terms of poorer health, lower educational attainment and a higher risk of economic inactivity. There are also statistically more likely to become teenage parents themselves (Knox, 2002 and Berthoud, Ermisch, Fransesconi, Fiao, Pevalin, and Robson, 2004). For those who opt to terminate their pregnancies, abortion has been associated with potential physical and mental health problems such as an increased risk of infection, infertility, suicide, depression and "post-abortion syndrome" (Fergusson, Horwood & Ridder, 2006 and Ring-Cassidy & Gentles, 2002). The cost of teenage pregnancy to the NHS alone is estimated to be £63m a year. Teenage mothers will also be more likely than older mothers to require expensive support from a range of local services in housing, education, employment and training (DFES, 2006).

                Teenagers are becoming sexually active at an increasingly younger age, more frequently and with more partners and some commentators claim that Britain’s conservative institutions, have failed to recognise this fact. The government’s Social Exclusion Unit indentified low life expectations amongst young women, ignorance regarding contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and parenthood and "mixed messages" regarding sexual activity as the major contributing factors to Britain’s high levels of teenage pregnancy and STDs (DFES, 2005). Critics of current policy such as the UK Youth Parliament, Channel 4, Brooks, Marie Stopes and the Family Planning Association claim that the current approach to sex education is "pedagogically bankrupt" and incapable of dealing with modern concerns (Epstein, O'Flyunn & Telford, 2003).  They have therefore called for a complete overhaul of personal and social education (PSE) and legislation to make it a statutory duty for schools to teach it competently (Times, 2007). Celebrities such as Davina McCall have been recruited to present their case (Channel 4, 2007 and McCall & Naik, 2007).

                Proponents for the introduction of sex education to primary schools primarily draw upon the "Dutch Model" for inspiration. Having gone through the same socio-sexual revolution as Britain, the Netherlands has managed to achieve the lowest rates of teenage pregnancies, abortions and STDs in Europe (UNICEF, 2007). The Dutch Model is "more explicit, coherent and comprehensive" and promotes a high degree of reciprocity between the biological and emotional aspects of the programme, avoiding the largely mechanical instruction given in British Secondary School texts (Lewis & Knijn, 2003). Instead of discussing sex in the context of danger, risk and prevention with undesirable behaviours such as drug use, crime, alcohol abuse and smoking, it encourages individuals to consider sexual scenarios before they arise and then to act responsibly. Lewis and Knijn (2003) suggest that sex has been normalised in the Dutch Curriculum whilst British pupils continue to perceive sex as something "at once dirty, illicit and desirable."

                The success of the Dutch model is attributed to three major factors. Firstly, by introducing sex education to children as young as five, sex and sexuality is normalised, thus preventing the development of embarrassing attitudes which hinder future education. This has contributed to an openness in Dutch society which encourages teenagers to discuss their concerns, rather than act them out. Secondly, by providing information regarding the changes associated with sexual maturation before it occurs, teenagers are more confident with their emerging sexualities and more likely to make informed decisions, often to delay sexual activity until they more emotionally mature (Went, D., 1985). This may be significant as puberty is occurring on average eight months earlier age than thirty years ago and there is a greater incidence of early pubertal maturation which is associated with a variety of negative health and psychological outcomes including adolescent pregnancy. (McCall & Naik, 2007, Dixon & Achmed, 2007 and Ellis & Essex, 2007). Finally, by accepting that teenagers will engage in sexual activity, comprehensive education in the benefits and use of contraception means that they are less likely to engage in unprotected sex.

                Primary school sex education may also help to address some of the negative trends which have created the environment in which teenage pregnancy and STDs have become a problem. Though the "No sex please, we’re British" mind-set is something of a national stereotype, evidence suggests that the British are renitent when it comes to openly discussing matters pertaining to sexuality and are failing to adequately inculcate their children with the knowledge and understanding they require to make informed discussion regarding sexuality and contraception (Blair, 2007). Dutch parents are twice as likely to discuss sex with their children compared to British parents (UNICEF, 2001). A more comprehensive sex education policy is therefore necessary to make up for parental shortcomings, a controversial position as many parents may be offended by what they regard as government or academic interference in their parental prerogative, particularly if they have strong moral or religious objections to the curriculum content. Supporters however claim that much of the success of the Dutch Model is due to the fact that parents are regarded as partners in the process. British parents would benefit from the programme as it would improve their own knowledge and understanding of sexual health, combat prejudices and misconceptions and help them to develop the skills required to converse with their own children regarding issues of sexual health morality. Though this stance has been supported by OFSTED (OFSTED, 2007), critics are likely to remain unimpressed. Many regard the right of parents to choose the education their children receive, particularly in matters of faith and morals, as sacrosanct and see sex education as another tool of the "nanny state".

                Some commentators suggest that primary schools are a more effective and relevant setting for sex education because they can provide quality learning experiences and offer facilities and expertise not available to most parents (Went, D., 1985). The classroom is an ideal environment to discuss issues relating to sex and relationships because it is safe, non-judgmental and open to peer interaction (Buston, Wight & Hart, 2002). However, some pupils may feel vulnerable in sex education lessons as their contribution can lead to ridicule if they do not conform to accepted gender stereotypes. Male and female pupils react differently to the discussion of sexual topics with boys often acting as a disruptive influence on proceedings. The teacher can therefore not always take the previously established classroom environment for granted (Buston, Wight & Hart, 2002 and Walker & Kusher, 1997).
Despite these difficulties, teachers are educative specialists who can draw upon a rich pedagogical background to enrich the learning experience. Drawings, stories, drama, problem pages, puppets and carefully selected fiction could all be used as mediums to teach sex education effectively (Claire, H., 2001). Teachers are also extremely adept at judging individual and group capacity for learning which allows them to determine when children are ready to receive specific areas of the curriculum. Such a view however has to be balanced against the opinions and confidence of individual teachers. Teachers are as likely to feel as embarrassed and reticent in discussing sexuality as parents. A report by the Scottish Executive into the implementation of the Channel 4 Living and Growing programme, found that many teachers were unwilling to discuss homosexuality, contraception and masturbation and altered some of the more explicit cartoons and diagrams included in the support materials (Scottish Executive, 2006). Some may also feel the intimacy required in discussing such sensitive matters blurs the boundaries of professionalism established within classrooms (Van Loon, 2005). Many teachers are also afraid of a parental backlash to controversial topics even though statistically, very few parents discuss sex education with teachers (Buston, Wight & Scott, 2002). Opposition to sex education can nevertheless provoke a high profile reaction. Living and Growing was lambasted in the national press for including the word "clitoris" in material designed for five years olds whilst some schools in Nottinghamshire have been targeted by Christian Groups for promoting "unethical" sexualities (Teachers.TV, 2005 and Salkeld, 2007). Any attempts to introduce compulsory sex education would require a far more comprehensive training programme which aimed to improve the confidence, background knowledge and legal awareness of primary school teachers (Buston, Wight & Scott, 2001).

                Undeterred, supporters claim primary sex education will help counteract some of the negative behaviours associated with developing sexualities. Critics claim that Britain’s educational system either institutionally or incidentally supports a number of traditional and conservative attitudes which are opposed to modern notions of equality. Though the current SRE guidelines claim not to promote one particular sexual orientation (WAG, 2002), they implicitly support a limited and traditional heterosexual family based sexuality (Reynolds, 2005). This "hetronormality" is further exacerbated by the predominantly all female environment and higher ration of male to female headteachers in primary schools which creates a quasi-family unit. The female class teacher represents the benevolent and nurturing mother whilst the male headteacher represents the harsh authoritarian father. Thus clearly defined gender roles and heterosexuality are institutionalised in the primary classroom (Dworetzky, 1998). Gay and lesbian teachers are regarded as "inherent and inevitable dangers", capable of corrupting children’s heterosexual innocence (Reynolds, 2005).

Observations on emerging sexualities in primary schools suggest that the school playground is a cradle for the gendered and sexualised bullying which is used to create and consolidate gender and cultural norms in latter life. Boys tend to define masculinity in terms of violence, sport and misogynistic attitudes which "traduced all things feminine" whilst girls constructed their own femininity "by routinely being subject to, and policing agents of, a heterosexual male gaze" which creates a "hegemonic sexuality" (Reynolds, 2005 and Claire, 2001). Earlier sex education can help to prevent the development of gender, sex and sexuality stereotypes and homophobic sentiments which limit individual aspirations and can lead to bullying because it helps to normalise divergent genders and sexualities. A corollary of such an education is that pupils who come from backgrounds which deviate from the traditional heterosexual two parent family norm will feel less stigmatised and more confident in their particular identities. This is particularly important as the proportion of all people living in "traditional" family households of married couples with dependent children fell from 52% to 37% between 1971 and 2007 (Self & Zealey, 2007).

                A further benefit of introducing sex education at an earlier age is that teachers can ensure that children receive reliable information. The current reticence of parents and schools to provide adequate sex education has forced children and teenagers to look for information elsewhere, often from dangerous and unreliable sources. Popular culture is saturated with sexual imagery and messages which promote a distorted view of human sexuality with little reference to the potential risks, emotions and morality of sexual activity. One study suggests that teenagers with high exposure to television with a sexual content were twice as like to initiate sexual intercourse in the following year (Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, Kunkel, Hunter and Miu, 2004). Modern society makes few attempts to separate children from such imagery whilst symbols of childhood such as school uniforms and sweets have been loaded with sexual meaning (Reynolds, 2005). It is therefore possible for Bebo to be both a popular children’s social networking site and a host for Nuts TV which "rates" naked women according to their sexual desirability (Bebo, 2007). Pornography is particularly problematic as it actively promotes a distended sexuality which is sometimes violent, misogynistic and degrading. It can also be used to exploit children, particularly those who are most vulnerable such as those with special educational needs. The universal nature of the internet makes it easier for paedophiles to make contact with children, exploit their ignorance and distribute their material (Stock, 2004). Earlier sex education can therefore help to alert children of the dangers posed by distorted views of human sexuality, nullify misconceptions and satisfy their natural curiosity for answers to questions provoked by their everyday experiences.

                The sexualisation of children by popular culture touches the very heart of the debate on the nature of childhood. Critics claim that primary school sex education would deprive them of their natural innocence and result in greater levels of sexual activity, a claim vociferously contested by some sexologists and psychologists (Lewis & Knijn, 2003). Research from the United States suggests that there is no significant correlation between sex education and the frequency of sexual behaviour or the age of first sexual intercourse (Somers and Eaves, 2002) though this has to be balanced against research which suggests most teenagers have already been "sexualised" by exposure to popular culture which makes such claims irrelevant (Stock, 2004). Epstein and Johnson in Reynold (1998) suggest that sexual innocence is a myth which adults have wished upon Primary school children who in reality are exposed to, and have opinions on, a variety sexual issues including teenage pregnancy, abortion, prostitution, sexual abuse, homosexuality (Claire, 2001). Reynolds concludes that "it is ridiculous to assume that children don’t draw conclusions from the visible, invisible and imagined sexual behaviour of adults and children around them" (Reynolds, 2005). However, just because a particular behaviour is observed does not necessarily mean that behaviour is "natural". Much of the work on developing sexualities appears to have been greatly influenced by the work of Freud which is now regarded as "unscientific, eccentric and absurd" (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2007). Where one sociologist sees children engaging in proto-sexual activity, another simply sees childhood play and mimicry of adult behaviour. It therefore difficult to support assertions which apply adult concepts to childhood behaviour such as Reynolds’ claim that Year Six girls "police each other’s bodies as heterosexually desirable commodities" (Reynolds, 2005).

                Using the arguments presented, proponents for the introduction of sex education into Britain’s Primary schools conclude that they have an excellent case and a plausible implementation candidate in the Dutch Model. Such a view however does not take into account the broader cultural factors associated with sex education, a fact recognised by every major proponent and critic. One could argue that the current policies and proposals address the consequences of teenage sexual activity, rather than the causes. It is a response which is being driven by the sexually explicit references children are exposed to by popular culture which has set new norms which "undermine the educational and moral authority of parents and schools" (Van Joost, 2005). It is one thing to acknowledge that children are exposed to a highly sexualised culture but that does not mean that we should countenance the sexualisation of primary school children. One child I encountered in a Year Six class appears to have been highly affected by the sexual content films and the Internet. He used vulgar language towards his female peers, allowed his apparent sexual interest in women to enter into his creative writing and was heard to remark that he wished he had "got a girl drunk" when he was going out with her. It is doubtful that knowledge of contraception and female anatomy would address such inappropriate behaviour. Early sexual experiences are detrimental to the physical and psychological health of adolescents and a high percentage of those who engaged in sexual activity before they were 16 regret it (O’Keeffe, 2003 & DFES, 2006).  It is for this reason that the Scottish Executive’s sexual health strategy is based on the premise that "sexual relationships are best delayed until a person is sufficiently mature to participate in a mutually respective relationship" (Scottish Executive, 2006)

                There is little empirical evidence to suggest that the introduction of Dutch style sex education system will be a success in Britain. Recent attempts to introduce a sex education programme using methods similar to the Dutch Model in Scotland proved to be more popular amongst pupils but no less likely to cut teenage pregnancies (MRC, 2007 & Sample, 2006). Dr Joost van Loon questions the effectiveness of the Dutch Model suggesting that there is no standard model of sex education in Dutch schools, that sex education does not begin at a younger age in the Netherlands nor is it more explicit or permissive than in Britain. He argues that the most significant factor in teenage pregnancy is family structure: the children of single-parent and non-traditional homes are more likely to be sexually active at a younger age. British children are five times more likely to be in single-parent families than their Dutch counterparts and more likely to be in third party care or to find their mothers out when they get home from school (Van Joost, 2003). Even early pubertal maturation is associated with parental investment as high levels of psychosocial stress accelerate reproductive development (Ellis & Essex, 2007). Responding to a recent UNICEF report, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, The Children's Commissioner for England, suggests that Britain has produced a generation of young people who are "unhappy, unhealthy, engaging in risky behaviour, who have poor relationships with their family and their peers, low expectations and don't feel safe" (UNICEF, 2007 and  BBC, 2007)

                It can therefore be argued that the levels of teenage pregnancy and STDs can be better understood in the context of the low life expectations amongst Britain’s teenagers. Sexual risk taking amongst adolescents (defined as unprotected and multiple partner sex) can be predicted by examining academic ability, alcohol consumption, parental monitoring and contact, suicidal ideations and histories of sexual abuse. Sexual risk takers have more opportunities to engage in risk-taking behaviours (e.g. low levels of parental monitoring) and fewer incentives for avoiding risks (poor prospects for higher education or employment) (Luster & Small, 1994). Increased sex education and access to abortion and contraception will not necessarily help to bring down the rate of teenage pregnancies and STDs. Economists such as Professor David Paton, suggest that the principle of "Moral Hazard" demonstrates that as abortion helps to alleviate some of the risks associated with having sex and a confidentiality agreement means that their parents need never know about it, more individuals will engage in risky sexual activity. The pregnancy rate amongst teenagers may therefore increase as some adolescents who think they will opt for an abortion if they get pregnant may not do so when faced with the actual decision. Riskier sexual behaviour also decreases the effectiveness of contraception which increases the risk of infection with an STD (Paton, D., 2002). Indeed, there are some dangerous STDs from which contraception offers no protection and the only method with 100% efficiency is abstinence. Philip Levine supports this research and the view that low expectations are at the root of the problem claiming that "measures which improve the educational and work prospects of those groups most at risk seem likely to help achieve the stated aim of reducing underage conceptions" (Levine, 2003).
                It is clear that sexual abuse, pornography, sexual references in popular culture, gender discrimination and sexual harassment and bullying are matters of concern for some primary school children and most teenagers and that the primary school environment provides an excellent opportunity to inculcate some of the knowledge, skills and understanding which would help them to tackle these issues whenever they arise. It can be argued however that most primary school children lack the cognitive and emotional capacity to place adult sexuality and behaviour in context. Most of these issues can therefore be confronted without explicit reference to sex or sexuality because they are related to matters of self esteem and respect for others. Dr Kate Worsley, of Marie Stopes International suggests that a more comprehensive sex education policy is necessary because "abstinence messages conflict with all the other messages about sex which teenagers receive from the culture around them. And a cultural shift is very difficult to achieve"(O'Keeffe, 2003). However, as it is the social context which is driving the high rate of teenage pregnancies and STDs, a cultural shift is what is needed. It is here that primary schools may be best able to address the issue. If teachers and schools are able to provide pupils a quality education which inculcates the knowledge, skills and understanding to increase their future opportunities and prospects, then Britain’s children may not suffer a "poverty of aspiration."


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