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Friday, June 11, 1999 Published at 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK

Let's talk about sex

The best lessons come from co-operation between schools and parents

The provision of sex education in England's schools is patchy at best and the lessons are of variable quality.

The biological basics are in the National Curriculum on science - which is compulsory - in the context of 'life processes and living things'.

Teen pregnancy
For the youngest, this includes learning that animals - including humans - reproduce. But anything beyond this is discretionary.

"Confusion over current legislation can create problems over confidentiality for teachers and pupils alike," said Gill Lenderyou, the Senior Development Officer for the National Children's Bureau's Education Forum.

"Although very few parents withdraw their children from sex education, fear of parental disapproval and adverse media coverage can undermine the confidence of schools in developing and delivering sex education policies."

The rules

The current curriculum for ages 11 to 14 covers thle physical and emotional changes that take place during adolescence, the human reproductive system, including the menstrual cycle and fertilisation, and how the foetus develops in the uterus.

At age 14 to 16, this is supplemented with teaching about the way in which hormones affect people, that sexual reproduction is a source of genetic variation, and how gender is determined.

Where primary school governing bodies decide to provide sex education, they are required to make their policy available to parents.

In addition, under the heading of personal, social and health education (PSE), publicly-funded secondary schools must provide a programme of sex education.

The most recent guidelines - just published for consultation - say pupils should learn about human reproduction, contraception, HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and high risk behaviours.

They should also be taught about the health risks associated with early sexual activity and pregnancy, and where and how to seek advice, and about "good parenting and its value to family life".

Risks and values

[ image: Many teachers feel under-trained]
Many teachers feel under-trained
According to the National Children's Bureau's Sex Education Forum, some schools do an excellent job but others regard sex education as an area where schools should be supporting parents and leave them to cover the issues of relationships and feelings.

The Forum recommends a partnership between teachers and parents. Adult education lessons might be arranged, or schools might let parents borrow videos, books and other teaching materials for use at home.

"We know that many teachers feel ill-equipped to deliver PSE programmes, and that sex education can often be sacrificed to the pressures of an overcrowded curriculum," said the Forum's Gill Lenderyou.

"The evidence shows that the majority of young people want sex education from their schools as well as from their parents."

Intercourse delayed

The Forum says good sex education does not encourage young people to have earlier sexual experience - if anything it delays the age of first intercourse. It also increases the practice of safer sex and the use of condoms, and it can help communication between young people and their parents.

Research carried out for the Health Education Authority recommends that traditional provision of sex education should be linked to access to contraceptive services, and that school-based programmes should aim "to empower young people, promoting sexual self-acceptance and a positive and open view of sex and sexuality."


The study also found that schoolchildren in Britain have an alarming lack of knowledge about sex.

More than a quarter of pupils in the 14 to 16 age group believe taking the pill will protect them from sexually transmitted diseases, while around the same number think that having a steady partner will do so.

The survey also shows that many 15- and 16-year-olds are ignorant about a number of diseases. While 92% were aware of HIV and AIDS, just one third had heard of syphilis, 39% of gonorrhoea, 51% of herpes and 14% of chlamydia.

One in six 15-year-old boys claimed to have heard of a non-existent sexually-transmitted disease called 'gonaditis', which was made up by researchers.

The Health Education Authority says sex and relationships education should be initiated before young people are sexually active - before patterns of behaviour become established.

Staff who provide sex and relationships education must have the information, skills, confidence, resources and support they need to talk about sex with young people.

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