Teaching approaches and best practiceWorking with parents, governors and the wider community
Many schools are afraid of the reaction of parents to sex education programmes. However, research has shown that 94 per cent of parents want schools to teach sex education to their children. It appears then that the fears of many teachers of 'What will parents say?' are unfounded and in general there is parental support (Health Education Authority, 1995).
School governors should also play a key role in the consultation process and in producing and reviewing the school's sex education policy. Indeed governors are required, under current legislation, to be involved in the process. The views of the wider community could also be sought in devising the school's policy. Consultation with the wider community can include local health experts and community and religious leaders, which should help ensure that the needs of a diverse community are met.
An excellent way to involve the wider community is to host a special consultation meeting. This could be used to discuss current or proposed policy and practice and to display proposed teaching materials. The activities listed in Sex, Love and Video Diaries, Chapter 1 – Training – Getting Started in the Before viewing section can be used at this meeting.
Getting started – key points to consider
A useful tool in getting started is to develop a sex education policy within the school that will help inform practice. This will ensure that everyone is clear about the topics to be covered, including parents, teachers and governors. It will also mean that training needs can be identified and clear guidelines agreed before the programme begins. Having full school support also means that teachers can feel confident when teaching.
In developing a school sex education policy consider:
– Local health needs
– Local and national health statistics, eg teenage pregnancy rates
– Enlisting the help of others in the wider community
Involving the wider community in the delivery of the Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) programme is important in ensuring a multi-disciplinary approach. Consider enlisting the help of others for example, a local family planning nurse, health promotion team or school nurse
Effective Sex and Relationship Education
Teachers require good subject knowledge, an understanding of how students learn, a repertoire of teaching strategies and skills, a supportive teaching environment and access to ongoing professional development.
Any sex education programme should contain three key elements:
Information – information must be age-appropriate and include topics such as how the body works, sexually transmitted infections and contraception
Skills – young people require the necessary social, communication and assertiveness skills that allow them to make informed choices.
Attitudes, values and beliefs – young people need opportunities to explore and clarify their own and others' values and attitudes and consider how these affect behaviour.
Student needs assessment provides a valuable insight into levels of understanding, awareness and experiences, helping to inform staff and parents / carers about the appropriate age for teaching topics and also effective teaching approaches.
Needs assessment may be carried out in a variety of ways, dependent on the resources available:
– Student video diaries
– Surveys of students
– Semi-structured interviews with small groups of students
– Student evaluations of units of work
– Question box
A recommended text is 'Positive Participation: consulting and involving young people in health related work' (Health Education Authority).
Wider needs assessment that involves parents and the community are also key.
Assessment and evaluation
Assessment provides information about the progress of individual students and evaluation of SRE ensures student needs are being met and helps to inform future planning.
A recommended text is 'Health Promotion with Young People. An Introductory Guide to Evaluation.
Tackling difficult issues and situations
There is a wide range of issues that can arise in SRE that could be considered as sensitive, for example, contraception, termination of pregnancy, masturbation. Both staff and students may have very different and strongly held views and there may be a temptation not to raise these issues. However, the school has an important responsibility to address controversial issues, as part of government requirements to prepare students for life.
There may be disclosures from students who are dating, being bullied or under a great deal of pressure. As with any lesson of this type, start by establishing ground rules with students. Avoid getting students to relate their own experiences (see Section on Activities to use with Students below). Ensure you are fully aware of the school's policy on bullying, sex abuse, and so on. If a disclosure does occur, you will have to act quickly and effectively.
Many teenage pregnancies end in abortion. There are strongly held views and religious beliefs about abortion and some schools will apply a particular religious ethos through their SRE policy to the issue, which will enable students to consider the moral and personal dilemmas involved. The religious convictions of students and their parents should be respected.
When abortion is covered within a programme, the challenge is to offer young people the opportunity to explore the dilemmas, enable them to know and understand about abortion, and develop the communication skills to discuss it with parents and health professionals.
However, the key task for schools is to provide appropriate information and effective advice on contraception and on delaying sexual activity, to reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancies.
Contraceptive advice to young people under 16 years in England, Scotland and Wales, and under 17 Years in Northern Ireland
In general sex education guidance advises that as part of sex education, teachers can provide general information to students about the types of contraception and the risks to health. They can provide students with information about where, and from whom, they can receive confidential advice, treatment and support. Personal medical advice must not be given to individual students. Teachers should encourage students to seek advice from parents, the school health team or medical practitioners. Students should be reminded that the legal age of consent is 16 in England, Wales and Scotland and 17 years in Northern Ireland.
There may be rare occasions when a primary school teacher is directly approached by a primary age child who is sexually active or is contemplating sexual activity. This should be viewed as a child protection issue. Schools should designate a member of staff to deal with these rare incidents. Generally the teacher should approach the designated member of staff (this could be the SRE teacher, or other member of staff with pastoral responsibility or on-site health professional); the designated member of staff should make sensitive arrangements, in discussion with the child, to ensure that parents or carers are informed; and the designated member of staff should address child protection issues and ensure that help is provided for the child and family.
For those involved in the provision of sex education there are two dimensions, namely:
– Teaching for protection, through the promotion of self-esteem, the skills of assertiveness, lack of guilt or embarrassment about sexual matters and the skills of self-expression including appropriate language and understanding;
– Recognising signs of abuse, physical, emotional and social.
Teachers have a significant role to play in the early detection of abuse. It is essential that correct procedures are followed as outlined in the school's child protection guidelines, which should also include procedures to be followed if a member of staff is accused of abuse. See also: DFEE Child Protection circular 10/95 - Protecting Children from Abuse: The Role of the Education Service, Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI's) Circular 1999/10 Pastoral Care in Schools: Child Protection, in Scotland Circular No. 10, Protection of Children from Abuse -The Role of Education Authorities, Schools and Teachers, SOEID, May 1990 and Children and Young Persons with Special Educational Needs [Assessment and Recording] (Circular 4/96, SOEID). All schools and colleges should have a senior member of staff with designated responsibility for child protection, who should receive appropriate training.
In summary if a member of a school's staff (teaching or non-teaching) suspects that a child is a victim of abuse or they have reason to believe that he or she is at risk of abuse, the school must act to protect them. In general:
– School-based staff should immediately inform the designated teacher;
– The designated staff must inform/consult with social services and/or the police
– No teacher should take on the role of investigator. This is the responsibility of social services and the police;
– Teachers should give the student time to talk without probing, record exactly what the student says and ensure that students know that teachers cannot offer unconditional confidentiality; reassuring students that, if confidentiality has to be broken, they will be informed first and then supported as appropriate
The SRE guidance makes clear that teachers should deal honestly and sensitively with sexual orientation, in a non-confrontational way, answer appropriate questions and offer support. (see section on Legislation)
Sexual orientation and what is taught in schools is an area of concern for some parents. It is therefore important that schools liaise closely with parents so that they can reassure them of the content of programmes and the context in which they are presented.
More information can be found in Factsheet Sex and Relationship Education – Schools Responsibilities issued by DFES, Scottish Executive Education Department Circular 2/2001 Standards in Scotland's Schools – Conduct of Sex Education in Scottish Schools and Guidance for Primary and Post-primary Schools – Relationships and Sexuality Education issued by CCEA in Northern Ireland in August 1999.
All those involved in the provision of sex and relationship education must be absolutely clear about the boundaries of their legal and professional roles and responsibilities. A clear and explicit confidentiality policy should ensure good practice throughout the school, which both students and parents understand. Teachers cannot offer or guarantee absolute confidentiality. Only in extremely exceptional circumstances the school may be involved in handing information without parental knowledge.
The issue of confidentiality can be dealt with when establishing ground rules and distancing techniques can be used. See section on Activities to use with Students.
Health professionals working in schools
Health professionals are bound by their professional codes of conduct to maintain confidentiality. When working in a classroom situation, they are also bound by relevant school policies. In line with the best practice guidelines they will seek to protect privacy and prevent inappropriate personal disclosures in a classroom setting, by negotiating ground rules and using distancing techniques.
Outside the teaching situation, health professionals such as school nurses can:
– Give one-to-one advice or information to a student on a health-related matter including contraception
– Exercise their own professional judgment as to whether a young person has the maturity to consent to medical treatment including contraceptive treatment. (Any competent young person, regardless of age, can independently seek medical advice and give valid consent to treatment)
Activities to use with students
Warm-up games – provide an opportunity for all students to participate, share personal information in a controlled way, contribute to developing relationships and friendships in the class and prepare students for active teaching methods to follow. These are important to get the lesson started and are usually very active, physical games or about sharing information.
Agreeing ground rules – to clearly identify appropriate and inappropriate participation in the session and use peer pressure to maintain discipline in the group.
Art / creative activities – drawing and other art activities provide an opportunity for students to express ideas and feelings about an issue. An example from the film Sex Love and Video Diaries shows staff drawing 'Me and Learning about Sex', with a suggested adaptation for students, 'Me and Growing Up'
Case studies – a useful way of getting students to develop empathy, understand people's experiences and consider how to respond in a given situation. Case studies can be written, generated from photographs, TV programmes, cartoon strips, newspapers or written by students themselves. A case study could be a development of the paired activity in Chapter 3 and 4 of Sex, Love and Video Diaries 'Resisting Pressure'. A variation on this is the letter to an 'Agony Aunt', which students can then answer and go on to discuss other possible answers.
Continuums – These are a useful way to enable students to consider their own attitudes and understanding of issues. Students are given statements to consider, eg boys are naturally aggressive; girls are more clever than boys. Students then either place the card or themselves on a line that is drawn on a large sheet of paper or imaginary line across the classroom. The line will have 'True' and 'False' or 'Agree' and 'Disagree' at opposing ends of it.
Drama activities – In the film Sex, Love and Video Diaries, Jill gets the students to demonstrate a feeling through taking up a pose.
Chat show – This is a way of conducting a discussion based on the format of TV chat shows. It allows the raising of very controversial and extreme viewpoints, but in a controlled and safe way. In the film Sex, Love and Video Diaries, a chat show is used in the boy's school as the final activity for the work on feelings.
Fiction – using young people's fiction, prose and poetry, to explore feelings and attitudes. It provides a safe way for students to look at experiences which they may go through themselves, for example bereavement, losing friends, bullying, peer pressure, and to then talk about how the issues could be resolved.
Projects and research – written projects, preparing a presentation, making their own resources, ie leaflets posters, writing a quiz or reviewing resources. See section on Contacts and sources of information to get up-to-date information and resources such as reports, leaflets and posters.
Brainstorming – the facilitator asks students to suggest words associated with another word, which is written up on the board, eg 'family'. Nothing is censored. It is a useful way of recording ideas quickly which that also give a sense of students' level of knowledge and attitudes about an issue. A good introductory activity.
Rounds and circles – this method provides an opportunity for all in the group to make a contribution. It works best with participants sitting in a circle. In the film Sex, Love and Video Diaries students pass around an object they hold when they are speaking; if they don't want to say anything the object is passed to the next person.
Visual stimuli – eg use photographs from magazines to make a display about body image.
Special Educational Needs and learning difficulties
Those involved in sex education have a duty to ensure that children with special educational needs and learning difficulties are properly included in SRE education.
Some parents and carers of children with special educational needs may find it difficult to accept their children's developing sexuality. Some students will be more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation than their peers, and others may be confused about what is acceptable public behaviour. These children will need help to develop skills to reduce the risks of being abused and exploited, and to learn what sorts of behaviour are, and are not, acceptable.
Teachers may find that they have to be more explicit and plan work in different ways in order to meet the individual needs of children with special educational needs or learning difficulties.
Gender and cultural issues
Traditionally the focus for sex education has been on girls. Boys may have felt that sex education is not relevant to them and are unable or too embarrassed to ask questions about relationships or sex. There are particular concerns about the needs of boys in SRE and there is growing evidence that a failure to address these needs can have serious implications for boys' and young men's sexual and emotional health.
Sex Education Forum Factsheet II, supporting the needs of boys and young men in SRE, gives a wide range of ideas about good practice in this field.
Our sexual attitudes and values are shaped in part by our culture and, for many people, religious beliefs and experiences. Students need to understand that there are diverse views and behaviours in society. When handled sensitively, SRE can play a valuable role in challenging gender and racial stereotypes.
It is important to remember that any religious or cultural group will have a diversity of views, opinions and practices within their membership. This reinforces the need to talk to students and their parents/carers to find out what they want and about possible constraints, such as a preference to work in single gender groups. A recommended text is Religion, Ethnicity, Sex Education: Exploring the Issues (Sex Education Forum)