‘Students deserve accurate information and unequivocal guidance about sex and relationships’

12 January 2017
Posted by Heidi Salmons

TES, 12.01.17, with the government considering making sex education compulsory, and pupils demanding proper guidance, it is up to schools to share best practice in SRE, writes HMC Chair Mike Buchanan, headteacher of Ashford School in Kent.

No Sex, Please: We're British might be an enduringly popular comedy but it is a potentially disastrous approach to take with today’s young people.

When it comes to education covering sex and relationships, students deserve accurate information, unequivocal guidance and space for honest discussion at home and school.

As ever, the pressure is on teachers and school leaders to deliver.

Whilst many schools are already doing great work, pressure is mounting on the government to make sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory, and it seems that demand is there from pupils; a poll this week from children's charity Barnardo’s shows three-quarters of 11- to 15 year olds would feel safer if they had such lessons.

But it’s one thing to stick it on the curriculum and quite another to make it work for teenagers subjected to enormous personal pressure in our modern, always-on, internet-of-everything world – a world in which they can find out anything, at any age, and be connected with anyone, real or virtual.

Never before have both the opportunities and threats to children been so great; so how do we, as teachers and school leaders, go about arming them with the knowledge and skills to help them flourish and keep safe?

Well, as a rather straight-talking Australian, I start with trying to create an atmosphere in which sex and relationships can be discussed openly and sensibly, rather than giggled about behind whatever the online equivalent of bike sheds happens to be. Easier said than done, and only possible if the head and staff model the attitudes and behaviours we want to see.

While that doesn’t mean oversharing, it does mean a matter-of-fact approach to sex and relationships which arises out of a culture which promotes the self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-discipline and self-respect that are the building blocks to healthy sexual and other relationships and which take years to nurture.

Compassion, sensitivity, respect and love for the individual nature of other people and their rights are both difficult and critical to teach and it will only happen if they are woven into lessons and co-curricular activities – the very life of the school.

And what of personal responsibility and resilience, distinguishing right from wrong, accepting responsibility for one’s own behaviour? If they are not in place, then the chances of a young man thinking "no" means "yes" are greatly increased.

'We need to engage parents'

The role of parents in inculcating some of these values is obvious and the need to engage them in active teaching and learning even more so.

This is all very well, I hear you cry, but what about the day job? Constant change in the academic arena? Lack of funds for even the current responsibilities?

All true, but there are some fantastic joint projects going on between the state and independent sectors which I hope are worth sharing more widely.

Highgate School, for example, is bringing in parents of sixth-form students to help teach younger families how to support children in navigating the teenage years. They will pass on tips about helping teenagers to deal with everything from sex and relationships to social media, cyber-bullying and getting enough sleep.

This follows a well-documented and successful pilot scheme by the school in partnership with three local state schools in which sixth-formers were trained to teach 11-year-olds about topics including relationships and good mental health.

At Hampton School, they have developed a teenage toolkit to help young people navigate the adolescent years which they are sharing actively with state schools. And there are many more examples which we all need to find ways of sharing more effectively.

Of course, many children come from homes where parents lack the skills needed. As governors, teachers and school leaders, we can bemoan this reality and be hamstrung by it or we can take steps to share what we know with parents and use our schools as hubs to help parents share their experiences.

Too many heads are reluctant to tell a parent when their behaviour is failing their child – I have been guilty of this myself, mostly because it's awkward and uncomfortable for me. However, not to do so is to compound the failure for that individual child and to neglect their needs.

So if we all need to reassess our role in this regard, I’d argue we should aim to:

  • provide clarity about our expectations in terms of behaviour, attitudes and the characteristics we expect to see in our students;
  • consistently demonstrate and model these same behaviours, attitudes and characteristics to them every, hour of every day and in every circumstance;
  • fanatically address failings and praise appropriate behaviour;
  • ensure parents and families are providing the same at home.

Most children and young people successfully navigate their way into adulthood instilled with a good moral compass based on positive values gained from a rich home and school experience. Surely, this must be our aim for all and we should be uncompromising in our pursuit of it.

After all, the stakes are high.

Last time I looked, it wasn’t dangerous to get a low grade in an exam. It could be very unsafe, however, not to know how to behave in this up-for-it new world.

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