Thinking about Sex and Relationships Education

Posted on: 29th November 2011

On Wednesday this week (30th November 2011), after a 4 month consultation period, the opportunity to submit views closes on the government’s internal review to determine how to support schools to improve the quality of teaching of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE).

Body & Soul submitted our response to the review last week as it is our view (supported by evidence and other organisations) that the quality and consistency of PSHE needs to improve as soon as possible. As an organisation with 15 years of experience in the area of HIV support we concentrated our response on Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) and in particular, how HIV is taught in schools.

Although a small section of SRE is statutory, the wider non-statutory framework gives too much space for some schools to ‘opt in’ to their delivery and other schools are not able to devote enough time to planning and delivering quality SRE, due to other pressures and/or lack of support for the subject. Although there are some exceptions to this with examples of schools delivering excellent SRE, this is not consistent and therefore does not provide the best outcomes for young people.

We are a country with amongst the highest teenage pregnancy rates and STI rates amongst young people in Europe. This would indicate that there are many areas in which we need to improve how young people can have access to the information they need about their sexual health, relationships and making healthy choices.

A survey by the sexual health charity Brook in 2011 of over 2000 14-18 year olds, showed that nearly half of secondary school pupils surveyed reported that their sex and relationships education was lacking. The survey found that the five most commonly shared sex myths amongst peers are:

• 59% of young people have wrongly heard from their friends that a woman cannot get pregnant if the man withdraws before he ejaculates

• 58% of young people have wrongly heard that women cannot get pregnant if they are having their period

• 35% have wrongly heard that women cannot get pregnant if they have sex standing up

• 33% have wrongly heard from their friends that a woman cannot get pregnant if it is the first time she has had sex

• 25% of young people have wrongly heard that you can only catch HIV from gay sex.

In addition, the research identified the scale of the SRE problem as reported by young people:

• One in four (26%) secondary pupils get no SRE in school whatsoever.

• A quarter (26%) of those who do get SRE say the teacher isn’t able to teach it well.

• Only 13% of 14-18 year olds learn most about sex from their SRE teacher, and just 5% from Mum and 1% from dad at home.

• The sex information void is being filled by friends their own age (36%), their boyfriend / girlfriend (10%), TV programmes (8%) and online porn (5%) – none of which are reliable sources of honest, useful information.

• SRE fares particularly badly when it comes to teaching pupils about relationships, with only 6% saying they get the information on relationships that they need in SRE lessons.

In relation to HIV, the Health Protection Agency estimates there will be over 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK within the next year. Despite the growing numbers of people affected, HIV related fear, stigma and discrimination are still hugely and unnecessarily pervasive in our society. The consequences of this can be felt in a number of different ways; in relation to schools, the National AIDS Trust investigated the experiences of people affected by HIV within the school system. They uncovered examples of both children and teachers who had suffered discrimination as a result of their HIV status. This included exclusions, breaches of confidentiality and less favourable treatment. This is a shameful situation for our society 30 years on in the UK HIV epidemic. However, we believe that within the education system we have an opportunity to enhance education so that the next generation do not re-enact the same levels of discrimination.

Body & Soul feels that more needs to be done in schools to ensure teachers feel prepared to deliver HIV-related education in a meaningful, in-depth way. We would recommend including guidance in the PSHE programmes of study to teach about HIV-related bullying and discrimination, whilst also delivering facts. This is not in the existing PSHE education curriculum. There are many good resources already in existence that can help teachers deliver HIV education. Also, Body & Soul is producing a new HIV schools resource as part of our ‘Life in my Shoes’ campaign which will enable teacher to focus on empathy and understanding difference, with HIV as the core example.

Prior to launching the ‘Life in my Shoes’ campaign Body & Soul commissioned OPM (Office for Public Management) in 2010 to carry out research in London schools with young people aged 12-18, in order to establish the needs of young people and current attitudes about HIV. The findings included a stark contrast between the knowledge young people have and how they would behave to someone who is HIV positive, For example, while 81% of young people knew that HIV cannot be transmitted by sharing a cup, only 27% of them went on to say that they would drink from the same cup as someone whom they knew was HIV positive. Likewise, while 69% of young people knew they cannot get HIV by kissing, only 24% of them said they would kiss someone whom they knew was HIV positive.

In addition, the recent House of Lords Select Committee enquiry into HIV in the UK found that “even though teaching about HIV and AIDS is part of the National Curriculum, it is inadequate at present”. A survey of 821 young people conducted by the Sex Education Forum this year found that a quarter of young people had not learnt about HIV and AIDS in school; a problem that was more pronounced amongst older children.

These findings clearly showing the need for more in-depth education on the real experiences of people living with HIV.

There is a huge body of evidence to show that quality SRE increases healthy choices made by children and young people, which will in turn decrease the financial burden of related health and social problems in this country. For example, a 2010 briefing by the Sex Education Forum cited research showing that good quality SRE has a protective function as young people who have had good SRE are more likely to choose to have first sex later.

Improvements in SRE will see a decrease in STI rates and better ensure young people do not get a distorted view about what constitutes a healthy relationship from the media and the internet.

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