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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 April 2007, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK
Why pupils need to talk about sex
Pupils want to talk more about sex according to England's school inspectors Ofsted.

Here, Ofsted's director of Education Miriam Rosen writes for the BBC News Website about why parents and teachers should not shy away from sensitive subjects.

It is perhaps easy to understand why some parents and teachers may find it difficult to talk about sensitive issues such as sex, drugs and relationships with their children and with pupils.

A new Ofsted report into personal, social and health education (PSHE) has revealed that many young people, interviewed in the course of the survey, felt that some parents and teachers were not very good at talking to them about these matters.

Miriam Rosen (picture from Ofsted)
Miriam Rosen urges parents and teachers to talk openly

It is essential that parents and teachers talk to young people about sensitive issues such as sex and relationships to equip them with the knowledge and understanding they need to make informed choices and resist peer pressure as they grow up.

However, teachers will find it hard to talk to pupils about these personal matters if they have not been specially trained to do so.

Parents, also, may find it difficult to talk to their children about sex, drugs and relationships if they feel they do not know how to and haven't received the support and guidance to help them.

They will have less confidence about handling these issues which could result in them feeling reluctant and embarrassed about talking to their children.

While most parents make every effort to ensure their children's personal safety, they need to consider whether they provide the advice and support their children need if they are to understand potential dangers, have the skills to cope with new experiences and know their parents' expectations.

Current data from the Schools Health Education Unit (SHEU) in today's report supports this view.

Lack of support

Young people were asked about who should provide advice and support and parents were generally less likely than previously to be seen as the main source of advice; the decline has been particularly marked for Year 8 girls, a group, in the past, who regarded their mothers as the prime source of advice on personal matters.

Young people told inspectors that parents and teachers often left it too late and did not talk about sensitive issues until they have reached puberty or have started feeling sexual desire.

Without sufficient guidance and support children are more likely to engage in a range of risk taking behaviours, such as experimentation with drugs and sexual activity.

couple exchanging rings
Pupils want to talk more about relationships

It would be of help if teachers and parents had greater confidence in talking about these issues.

One positive way forward is for schools to communicate more clearly to parents the content of PSHE lessons so parents could use this as a starting point for discussions with their children.

As Ofsted has said before, teachers, governors and parents need detailed advice and guidance on how to deal with sensitive issues.

It is important to stress that Ofsted is not expecting schools to become parents, nor are we being critical of parents. We are merely raising the issues that are of concern for young people.

Parents and schools have a major role to play together in promoting children and young people's well-being and personal development as well as in supporting their academic achievement.

I would also like to see schools doing more to ensure that they understand clearly pupils' needs in the way they organise the curriculum.

If you take drugs education as an example, we found that although some schools made good attempts to discuss drugs, a lack of understanding of pupils' needs causes problems.

Many adults are concerned about young people's involvement with illegal drugs but the overwhelming majority of young people identify that tobacco and alcohol are, in fact, the greatest drug-related dangers.


Evidence from surveys by the SHEU highlighted within today's report show patterns of behaviour of young people in relation to drugs and alcohol.

Smoking remains an intractable problem.

There has been some decline in smoking, especially among boys, but girls' smoking habits are a concern.

A school's PSHE programme is integral to developing young people's knowledge and understanding

However, the proportion of young smokers who want to give up has remained roughly the same between 1983 and 2005. Schools and others need to respond positively to the fact that two thirds of pupils say they want to give up smoking.

Of the pupils surveyed by the SHEU, about one third of Year 10 girls reported "getting drunk" in the previous week, some on more than one occasion.

Given that so many young people are aware of the risks associated with drug use but, nevertheless, fail to modify their behaviour, this finding is worrying.

Some were aware of the risks of consuming alcohol but did not understand the link between excessive alcohol consumption and a higher likelihood of unprotected sexual activity.

It is very important to teach children and young people about the dangers of illegal drugs but it is also important to make sure that we are teaching them effectively about the dangers of drinking and smoking as well.

PSHE lessons

Overall, the quality of PSHE has steadily improved over the last five years. Pupils' knowledge and understanding have increased, and teaching and learning in PSHE have improved.

Primary schools have been particularly successful. Role-play and circle time activities are often used effectively to counter the potential impact of peer pressure on pupils' behaviour.

couple kissing
Pupils have expressed a desire to talk about sensitive issues

Secondary schools have further to go. There is still some poor lesson planning and assessment as well as a lack of space in the timetable for PSHE.

Three quarters of secondary schools have developed specialist teams of teachers to teach it successfully. However, PSHE is taught by non-specialists in some schools and too much of this teaching is unsatisfactory.

It is important that sufficient time is allocated to PSHE and that good use is made of it.

Some school communities and their pupils are served effectively by local drop-in centres that provide advice for young people. But progress towards establishing such centres more widely has been slow, the establishment of extended schools which provide a range of services are beginning to meet these needs.

A school's PSHE programme is integral to developing young people's knowledge and understanding as well as in preparing them effectively for opportunities, responsibilities and experiences so they can make informed choices.

PSHE is of increasing importance and has a higher profile in the school curriculum because of the Every Child Matters agenda and the successful implementation of the National Healthy Schools Programme.

Therefore, I applaud schools for the steady improvements in PSHE that Ofsted has revealed today and wish them, and parents, every success in their efforts to help young people make informed choices as they grow up.

Pupils say 'Let's talk about sex'
11 Apr 07 |  Education

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