International study finds schools’ teaching about sexuality out of touch, moralistic and unwilling to accept some students are already in relationships
Sex education in schools worldwide is so “out of touch” with pupils’ experiences that they find it irrelevant and switch off, research of young people in 10 countries including the UK shows.
Many students find lessons about sex and relationships negative, moralistic and too scientific to help them deal with the feelings and situations they are encountering, according to an analysis of young people’s views published in the journal BMJ Open.
The study, led by Dr Pandora Pound of the school of social and community medicine at Bristol University, found a surprising consistency in young people’s views on sex education regardless of whether they were in Britain, the US, Iran, Japan, Australia or elsewhere.
“It is clear from our findings that SRE [sex and relationship education] provision in schools frequently fails to meet the needs of young people,” Pound said. “Schools seem to have difficulty accepting [that] some people are sexually active, which leads to SRE that is out of touch with many young people’s lives.”
Pound and her colleagues reached their conclusions after examining 55 previously published studies that set out young people’s views of sex education between 1990 and 2015. It also included pupils and ex-pupils in the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil and Sweden.
SRE lessons too often left female pupils at risk of harassment if they participated and male students anxious to hide their ignorance about sex, they found. Some young men were disruptive in class in order to disguise their inexperience.
Many pupils believed that schools saw sex as a problem to be managed, that there was too much focus on heterosexual relationships and that females were often portrayed as passive and males as predatory, the researchers found.
Many pupils also found it uncomfortable and unhelpful that teachers they had for other subjects also taught them SRE. “They expressed dislike of their own teachers delivering SRE due to blurred boundaries, lack of anonymity, embarrassment and poor training,” according to the study.
A 2013 report into sex education by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate for England, found that just 19% of 18-year-olds believe that SRE should be taught by a teacher from their own schools.
For their part, teachers themselves often admit to “discomfort” at teaching SRE. Ofsted’s review also found that one in three English schools delivered poor quality SRE.
Schools could tackle these problems by instead holding some single sex SRE lessons and using sex educators from outside to deliver lessons, the authors suggest.
They also suggest that schools should be much more “sex-positive” – open, frank and positive about sex in a way that challenges negative attitudes in society to sex.
“It is disappointing that the pattern of inadequate sex and relationships education is repeated from country to country, with young people in England and elsewhere saying that SRE starts too little and too late and is often too biological with little attention to relationships, and lessons fail to reflect the reality of young people’s lives,” said Lucy Emmerson, co-ordinator of the UK’s Sex Education Forum.
“Teachers have repeatedly said that they need subject-specific training so that they can teach good quality sex and relationships education, but in England there has been a failing on the part of government to require that SRE must be taught in every school, so there are huge gaps in provision with some schools not teaching the subject at all,” she added.
The study, which was funded by the NHS’s National Institute for Health Research, also found that SRE often does not give pupils practical information such as what to do if they become pregnant and the pros and cons of different methods of contraception. In addition it found that sex education is often delivered too late for some pupils.
Without an overhaul of SRE, “young people will continue to disengage from SRE and opportunities for safeguarding and improving their sexual health will be reduced”, the paper warns.
“The international evidence is clear, comprehensive SRE taught early by trained educators results in improvements for young people’s sexual health and reductions in sexual violence,” added Emmerson. “But too many countries are failing to respond and take action and provide children and young people with the education they need and deserve.”
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