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Guest blog: Primary school sex education

There’s lots of debate at the moment around how young people are taught about sex. My own sex education was fairly decent, if a little patchy, but focused pretty much entirely on the basics. Trains in tunnels, how to avoid a tiny baby train coming out of the tunnel, that kind of thing.

This week’s guest blog is a fantastic overview of why the more emotional aspects of sex education are so vital, and is a call to arms for those who work with younger children, to make sure that they are given a good emotional grounding rather than just a quick, embarrassed talk about the birds and the bees. Tasha is a primary school teacher who is keen to get better age-appropriate sex education on the curriculum. When she emailed me, with the example she uses in the piece below, I thought it was such a perfect example of the odd views society has on things like consent, and why it’s important to help children understand issues like this early on.

Primary school sex education

My sex education at primary school boiled down to one video; a video starring a naked couple, coolly walking around their flat allowing us to check out some of the physical changes that our bodies, on the cusp of puberty, would soon experience. I was then given a special copy of Mizz magazine that came with a couple of pads and instructions on how to get along with my mum. No follow up lesson was planned for, no opportunity to ask questions or explore any of the revelations that the video had given us a snapshot of.  This picture remained the same through secondary school, where, while I was taught about the mechanics of sex, important emotional and sexual health details remained untouched.

Begrudged by the memory of my own scrappy sex ed, I knew I wanted to deliver some kick-ass lessons of my own when I started teaching upper primary a few years back.  By giving children access to honest information, I hoped  the sessions would enable them to feel confident and knowledgeable about both the physical and emotional aspects of sex and relationships. The importance of the latter became clear a few weeks ago during a chat with the girls in my class on puberty.

After these girls had cooed over some bras (it took three attempts to explain the difference between the number and the letter on the bra’s label), we checked out some hypothetical problem scenarios together. One of the scenarios told the story of how a girl, in year 6  (10-11 years), felt unready to kiss her boyfriend, but was scared not to do so in case he dumped her. Almost all of the girls in the group deemed this to not be a ‘real problem’ and unanimously agreed that she should just suck it up and kiss him, lest she become a laughing stock and, heaven forbid, become single at the age of 10.

These girls, aged between 9-10, believe that being a girlfriend equates to existing as somebody who will indulge a man’s desires regardless of their own insecurities and needs. Will this same group of girls in a few years time think that a girl should suck it up and have sex due to fear of being dumped? To suck it up on the street when cat called? When groped in a bar? By no means is this exclusive to females, boys at a young age are subject to very similar pressures. Interestingly, when the boys in my class were posed with the same scenario, they responded much more compassionately, suggesting that they should both ‘have a bit of a chat’. Supposedly, a mix of peer pressure, the endless objectification of women in our media and personal insecurities help to cultivate these dangerous ideas at such a young age.

Recently it has been revealed that Cambridge University is considering sexual consent classes in a bid to educate students on sexual violence. While it’s great  to see that universities are becoming proactive in educating their students on consent, it is evident that legislative steps need to be made to ensure that all children receive quality sex and relationships education at an early, albeit appropriate stage of their school careers.

Unquestionably, all  personal, social and health education must be age appropriate and delivered in an environment that is safe and inclusive. Children are curious about sex, therefore as a practitioner it is important that you teach accurate, honest information to avoid misconceptions and mystery around the subject, so that they are equipped with the knowledge to make informed choices as they grow. The more confused a child becomes due to lack of information, the more likely they may be to seek information from unsuitable sources that may misguide them.

The conversation that took place in my classroom that day shows that children in primary school need to be taught skills that will enable them to nurture safe, positive relationships. While it can be necessary to separate boys and girls for some aspects of sex and relationships education, it is valuable to run mixed lessons that encourage discussions between males and females. Take the example above, for instance, where girls and boys separately discussed their thoughts on the girl in the story who was unready to kiss her boyfriend. On reflection, I would now teach this as a mixed session, where both sexes can critically analyse a range of views on relationships and sex in society. Exercises like these will teach children how, through negotiation and discussion with one another, positive solutions can be reached. Hopefully, providing they receive quality sex education that promotes this mutual respect between the sexes throughout their school careers, they will begin to recognise gender inequality within relationships, fully equipped to make their own, informed decisions that will keep them safe.

Sex and relationships education is currently only compulsory to those aged 11+. There is an argument against teaching sex education in primary schools, since there is the unfounded belief that it encourages the early sexualisation of children. This bullshit stems from ministers in our own fragmented government, who are neglecting children by failing to ensure that they are educated on happy, healthy, sexual relationships. Without question accurate, factual information provided through sex and relationships education will prevent uncertainty about sex and encourage children to respect themselves and one another.  In a society that struggles itself to clarify the blurred lines surrounding sexual violence, can we really afford to keep sex and relationships as a non-compulsory part of our primary curriculum?


  • Yingtai says:

    That is HEARTBREAKING … except that the boys were so sensible about it! And it shouldn’t surprise me so much. It reminds me of the conversations where woman tells man about female conundrum and man responds, “You do realise that was rape, don’t you?”

    I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s because they’re better at saying no. Maybe it’s because they’ve thought about what they would let themselves do, and what they wouldn’t. Maybe I need to ask some guys what they think. Whatever the explanation, it gives me hope!

    • Desire on wheels says:

      With those conversations, in my experiences it’s more that the person who was raped hasn’t called it that yet, for a variety of complex reasons about how people react to that trauma, and someone else gently points it out to them. Gender doesn’t seem to be the issue. I’ve been the woman being told, “er, I think what you’re describing is rape,” and I’ve also said that to a male friend.

  • Blogwars says:

    Why can’t children just be children at the age of 9-10 without the pressures of growing up “fast”. Before long they will be worrying about kissing etc at nursery age. The media has a lot of blame!

    • Artemis says:

      I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but when I was that age some of my peers had started kissing. This was over 20 years ago. I’m not saying that every nine year old knows how to give good tongue, but they all at least know what snogging is in theory.

      Kids are much less innocent of sex than adults like to pretend. Some of the reason for this is without a doubt because of mass media. A lot of it though is because they want to be knowledgeable, because their bodies are making increasing demands on them. We forget, as adults, what it was like, and of course we all develop at different scales and times. But we do them a disservice by doing so, whatever the age of the child. They are wiser than we usually notice.

      • Valery North says:

        Exactly, Artemis! It’s closer to 30 years ago now, infant school kids when I was that age knew about kissing and more. The concepts of “girlfriend/boyfriend”, “kissing” and so on where common topics, although not (yet) serious topics – not until we were 8 or 9 (a whole three years on!)

        Heck, there was a skipping rhyme sung by the 6 year old girls at my school called “When Susie Was A…” and the verse “When Susie was a teenager” went, “She says ‘ooh, ah, I lost my bra! I left my knickers in my boyfriend’s car!'”

        Kids see far more than grown-ups like to admit about what grown-ups do, and they always have done. That’s how they learn relationships, if we don’t take the time to teach better.

  • Blogwars says:

    Your last statement of “In a society that struggles itself to clarify the blurred lines surrounding sexual violence, can we really afford to keep sex and relationships as a non-compulsory part of our primary curriculum?” sounded almost like Carrie at the end of a Sex in the City episode… Embarrassingly I’ll admit to seeing it once or twice..

  • Molly says:

    My daughter is 11 and has just completed her last year in Primary School which included her one sex ed lesson which was given in the last week of term. They watched a video and there was a Q & A session and that was it. In my opinion it was woefully lacking in anything of substance and the focus, as is so often the case was on puberty, periods and reproduction.

    My daughter came home with one question for me which was why did the teacher say she couldn’t answer the question about masturbation and that we had to ask our parents about it. She asked me if I thought the teacher didn’t know what it was which made me laugh. She did say she thought about putting her hand up and telling the teacher but decided against it as she felt like there was something happening that she didn’t understand.

    In my opinion, in that moment, the fact that the teacher was not allowed to answer the question meant that her actions just taught a whole load of 11 year olds that masturbation is something secret, something that has an agenda they don’t understand yet, rather than something natural and healthy and something to fully explore before starting to have sex with another person.

    Both my children (ages 15 & 11) know that the primary function of sex in their lives is pleasure and that reproduction is in fact a rather irritating and inconvenient side effect but that they live in a time where there are lots of ways they can go about controlling that side effect so that they can have enjoyable, happy, healthy sex lives. Sadly none of this has ever been supported by anything they have ever been taught in sex education lessons.

    I think you sound like a fabulous class teacher, as I believe my daughters was too but she was constrained by a curriculum that is still far to closely linked to a Christian agenda of control and ignorance.


  • I have a relative who teaches 9-10 year olds at an academy status primary school.
    She has endless rows with the governors and the head, due to their reluctance to allow her to teach the kind of vital information mentioned in this piece.
    They think it’s “unnecessary” for 9-10 year olds to get taught the stuff on objectification, emotional abuse, peer pressure etc. Anything but the mechanics, basically.
    It’s an uphill battle for lots of teachers I think. Must drive them nuts.

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