Nadine Dorries: Sex and Relationship Education expert

Until recently I hadn’t even heard of Tory MP Nadine Dorries (mid Bedfordshire) but her abstinence bill got Twitter all of a flutter yesterday. She introduced a ten minute rule bill that would require girls aged 13 to 16 to be taught about abstinence during their sex and relationship education (SRE) at schools. MPs worryingly voted 67 to 61, not enough to get the bill passed but enough to seriously worry SRE practitioners. I’ve written about the dichotomy of attidues to sex in the UKuntil I sound like a broken record but there is still such a huge misundertanding about SRE among parents, teachers and now it would appear, MPs.

NOT given to seven year olds!

Good SRE includes plenty of teaching about the emotional side of relationships and engages pupils in discussion. Discussion that includes the reasons that young people may feel pressurized and how to delay sex until they are older or in stable, loving relationship. It’s a given that we want children to be safe, healthy, protected and empowered.

Abstinence teaching is an American favourite (Sarah Palin is a fan. Her daughter got pregnant at sixteen) and is one way for young people, perhaps if they are religious or wish to make that choice. It doesn’t work for everyone, just look at America’s teenage pregnancy figures. They’re even worse than ours. I don’t understand why Ms Dorries hasn’t looked toward countries with exceptionally low TP rates to consider what they are doing right. America in this instance is really not a good example to be following. It’s like copying the kid who is bottom of the class rather than the A grade pupil.

To add insult to injury, Dorries appears very uninformed about SRE in schools herself:

‘The thrust was that girls as young as seven are taught about intercourse, safe sex, how to apply a condom on a banana, where to get condoms, how to detect an STI and that they don’t need to tell their parents anything,
’ she bleats on her blog. (Unfortunate use of the word Thrust Dorries’ own.)

I’ve been in many classrooms in primary schools and can say hand on heart than I have never seen or heard of seven year olds putting condoms on bananas. That would be just wrong. At seven, they’re still talking about healthy, happy relationships and how to keep safe and healthy. It’s exactly this sort of ill informed rubbish that has parents frightened to death about SRE. She also sadly says ‘sex education’ which sounds like it does just that, teach children about sex. We’ve used the title Sex and Relationship Education (or even Relationships and Sex Education) for years now, emphasising that relationships and sex go hand in hand.

‘In schools,’ she adds in her blog, ‘children are taught to base the decision whether or not to have sex on their feelings and wishes.’ All schools? Some schools? One or two schools? I do love a sweeping statement and I’d to know how many schools she’s visited to observe the SRE in action in order to make a statement like this. Urban schools? Rural schools? Faith schools?

I will be writing to my MP –who wasn’t even in parliament for the vote- to try and persuade him that legislation about high quality SRE that has support from the whole school community with the support of experts is what is needed in our schools and this not a pick ‘n’ mix approach by those with a flag to wave.

The Sex Education Show part two

I’m writing this in front of The Jeremy Kyle show. As per usual, there is wrangling over who’s the father, DNA testing and accusations flying around the room. People shagging other people indiscriminately and without contraception or feeling.

And I hear from schools, teachers, politicians and religious groups all the time that PSHE and in particular Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is a waste of time on the school curriculum. Right.

Congratulations to Channel Four then for The Sex Education Show. Show number two last night was very busy. There were the usual squirming, red-faced teenagers being shown real naked bodies. Surprise! They don’t look like they do in that porn you download. Human bodies are a bit wonky and lumpy and hairy and chances are you’ll be sharing a bed with one of them before you know it.

It was interesting to see the programme dealing with arousal, a topic that is a part of very few SRE programmes deal with. There was also information on what the law says about sex. That surprised the students, especially the information about ‘sexting.’

Parents and students were brought together for the excruciating sex talk. Well done to the parents for being frank and helpful but I wonder why they didn’t start talking to their kids before now. I always advise parents that sex and relationships should be an on-going topic of discussion, not a one off when the kids are well past puberty.

All this and Anna Richardson and her scary hair bellowing at WHSmith about putting lads’ mags on lower shelves where small children can see them. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: why is it ok to have magazines full of pneumatic soap stars and models but we get our knickers in a twist when it comes to talking to children about real sex and real relationships? Newspapers work themselves up into a frenzy  with salacious headlines , politicians whinge about teenage pregnancy and soaring STI rates but do nothing about them and religious groups tell us that sex is something that parents should talk to their children about. Absolutely, yes they should. But do they? All of them? With the guidance and support they need?

I was exhausted after watching last night’s episode which may have something to do with the fact that I was at twisting my creaking joints into unnatural positions at yoga but may be more to do with the programme being rather crammed. It feels like the researchers wanted to cover too much but were only given three programmes.

Being The Sex Education Show, it covered just sex but I’d love to see Channel Four coming up with a relationships programme. But I guess that’s a hope too far. Meanwhile on Jeremy Kyle it’s,  ‘You had a one night stand at a party- prove your baby’s mine.’

Sigh.

The Sex Education Show is back: episode one

A while ago, before I was deleted, I got a phone call in the office. Did I know of any local secondary schools that would be willing to take part in the next series of Channel Four’s Sex Education Show? I said I was sure I could rustle one up and, being a good public sector team player, phoned the Teenage Pregnancy Coordinators of the three boroughs where I worked. As far as they were concerned, Channel Four might just have been asking us to club baby seals to death with the quarterly under-eighteen conception stats live on TV.

'I want a hairdo like yours, Auntie Anna.'

But they agreed that I could pass the details on to one or two schools that would make a good fist of it (‘scuse the pun) and I duly did. Imagine my excitement to see one of those schools- Raynes Park High- as the featured school in the first episode. I’ve trained up two of their staff on the PSHE certification programme and they have some really excellent PSHE staff so they understand the importance of good Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). I used to be deputy head in a local feeder school so I spotted an en ex pupil or two in the crowd of squirming youngsters.

Parading a bunch of naked men in front of teens is not the usual SRE lesson I would advocate and I felt for the girl puce with embarrassment who managed to squeak, ‘it looks funny,’ when confronted with a giant penis. Poor kid.  Actually I thought the scariest thing about the programme was Anna Richardson’s weird pageboy hairdo.

Elsewhere in the show the retro-coiffed Ms Richardson took to the streets (‘scuse the pun again) to complain about tarty clothing for little girls. Back in the Autumn, Sophie Raworth did an excellent Panorama investigation about the same subject which I blogged about. Matalan and Primark seemed to be the biggest culprits with their sloganned knickers and padded bras for under eights. Richardson spoke to some pre-teens about what they consider attractive and they loved the sparkly pink tat.

A quick aside: when you’re a teacher you get given some brilliant thank you gifts. I’ve received many thoughtful gifts over my years in the classroom but you get some absolute crackers too. The novelty teapot: ‘someone gave this to my Nan but she hates it so my mum said I have to give it to you.’

But my favourite ever gift was the electric picture of a waterfall. Plug it in and the water seems to fall down the blue sparkly plastic. ‘Ooh, ‘ sighed my class, ‘it’s so beeee-yooou -tifal.’ I selflessly offered to keep it in the classroom rather than take it home so we can look at it any time we wanted. The children appreciated my sacrifice and the thing duly came out at the beginning of every day for a whole term.

The point of the story is that small children like gaudy and sometimes, jsts sometimes, we adults have to steer them towards what is sensible. Padded bra, no. nice vest, yes.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode which promises to show how heated one gets when getting it on and how lads’ mags full of tits are displayed at toddler height. It’s that weird British attitude towards sex I’ve blogged about before.

Great first show but Anna, please get a haircut.

No sex please we’re British

Panorama last night focused on the premature sexualisation of children. Sophie Raworth, newsreader, journalist and mother of three young children looked at how high street fashion encourages girls to become sexual objects at a young age and how youngsters use social networking sites to post up pictures of themselves in provocative poses. Sensibly, Raworth didn’t go for the panic option but emphasised that, as parents and educators, we need to be more aware.

There’s a strange dichotomy in this country about sex and it’s peculiarly British. We do like a bit of oo-er matron and saucy seaside postcard humour but when it comes to teaching children and young people about safe and responsible sexual behaviour we get all squeamish about it.

The government has promised support responsible advertising to children but there’s a lot of advertising to adults that children are exposed to via television and billboards. A couple of years ago a product aimed at men was promoting a competition on their website. On the sides of buses they advertised their website using three sets of leopard skin bikini-clad breasts for the www. Hilarious and oh-so-cheeky for the young men it was aimed at but not so much for the youngsters taking that bus to school.

Now I’m not being prudish about bodies in advertising but I’d feel much more comfortable about this if I knew that really good Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)- note the relationships bit- was being taught at school and at home. Good SRE teaches knowledge, skills and attitudes equally and gives children and young people a really solid base of understanding. Parents often worry that knowledge alone (the facts in isolation) is being taught in the classroom and that lessons are value-free. Skills (how to say no, being able to be a good friend, how to ask for help etc) and attitudes (how I feel about relationships, what my cultural/ religious/ familial values are etc) are also crucial but are often missed through poor teaching or lack of training and embarrassment by teachers and parents alike. Schools have no obligation to teach any elements of SRE that don’t fall under the Science National Curriculum.

And inflammatory headlines like this, ‘Ministers force through compulsory sex education for five-year-olds without asking parents,’ (Daily Mail November 2008) tend to throw everyone into a blind panic and have us envisaging small children making inapproriate models in play dough.

This puts the SRE agenda back and ensures that children aren’t taught the skills the need for the modern world until it’s often too late. The previous government was all set to make SRE compulsory in schools but years of prevaricating meant that the bill didn’t make it past wash-up at the beginning of the year and the current government have no plans to put SRE on the curriculum.

The perception of women and girls also seems to a problem. While the women of past generations fiought for the right to vote, the right to be educated and the right to be respected, we seem to be giving this generation mixed messages.

In the Panorma programme Sophie Raworth looked at sexualised clothing and fioud a cute pink t-shirt with the words ‘future footballer’s wife’ on the front. Since when has footballer’s wife been an ambition for a girl? What happened to standing on your own two feet and having aspirations of your own?

A colleague and I ran an activity with teachers on a training day last year. We bought some tweenage magazines aimed at the nine to fourteen market and asked the teachers to imagine they were from another planet and had no understanding of human culture. We then asked them to note down what the magazines alone told them about humans. Most of the answers were to do with pink and shiny and how to attract boys. Next time you’re in a newsagent, take a peek at what’s out there for pre-teens and what messages they’re getting. Hide your copy of Sugar in a copy of The Times or something.

There’s a dark side to the sexualisation and objectification of girls. There’s a real rise in sexual bullying among young people. It’s a fairly new phenomenon so there isn’t a huge amount of research about it and schools are having to learn on the hoof. The local authority in which I work is worried about this rise and is working hard to address it. Sexual bullying can be linked to gang initiation but it can also be as simple as boys seeing girls as simply sexual objects rather than human beings with feelings and having no undertanding of approriate behaviour. And it’s not just girls and boys. Same sex bullying is also out there.

Womankind Worldwide, who campaign against violence against women define sexual bullying as:

‘Any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality is used as a weapon by boys or by girls. It can be carried out to a person’s face, behind their back or by use of technology. For example:

  • Using words that refer to someone’s sexuality as a general put down (like calling something ‘gay’ to mean that it is not very good)
  • Using sexual words to put someone down (like calling someone a ‘slut’)
  • Making threats or jokes about serious and frightening subjects like rape
  • Gossiping about someone’s sex life – including the use of graffiti
  • Touching someone in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable
  • Touching parts of someone’s body that they don’t want to be touched
  • Forcing someone to act in a sexual way’

If we want to empower children and young people to make safe decisions and to have happy and fulfilling relationships, then as a society we need to work harder at teaching self respect and respect for others and it starts with every one of us.

PSHE- the forgotten subject?

In the comments on my post about student demonstrations, ‘Citizen CW’ drew my attention to the website of the Campaign for Real Education so I dropped by and had a look. As an educator who is passionate about excellent learning in the state system I was horrified. I haven’t read such fantasy since Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the CRE have attacked PSHE in particular.

 PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) is the forgotten subject of the national curriculum. It’s non-statutory so schools don’t have to teach it but I’ve yet to meet a school that doesn’t have PSHE on the curriculum even though there aren’t any qualifications in it and in these legaue table-driven times that’s saying something. Where it’s taught well, students are engaged and interested and learn the knowledge, skills and attitudes that support them in life.

 The previous government wanted PSHE to be a statutory subject area in schools but they waited until 2009 to bring in a bill and this was lost at wash-up at the beginning of this year.

 We didn’t have PSHE when I was at school because it was expected that our parents would teach us the stuff we needed but the world has changed immeasurably since then. PSHE is essential in order for all students to be well informed on all aspects of health including learning about sex, relationships, drugs, alcohol, money, food, bullying and mental and emotional health and wellbeing. Problems we simply didn’t experience a few years ago are now part of our children’s lives and need to be tackled via PSHE: cyber bullying and online safety is a massive issue for young people and sexual bullying is on the increase. Knife crime and hate crime are daily occurrences in all children’s lives and not just those living on sink estates in cities.

 Good PSHE gives children the skills to deal with these issues and offers them the space and time to reflect on their own attitudes and learn skills to cope. It shows them how to access support and help if these are not available at home and gives young people the tools to be safe and healthy in all aspects of their lives. 

Sadly, where PSHE is taught badly it’s a waste of everyone’s time and this is why teachers- particularly those in secondary schools who are not PSHE trained- need support, networking and training. Try teaching a class of teens about contraception if you’ve not had the training or answer questions about how harmful the latest legal and illegal drugs are.

 But the CrE have their own ideas and these are absolutely not grounded in fact. It describes Sex and Relationships Education (SRE, the word ‘relationships’ is absolutely key), an integral part of PSHE as being ‘value free.’ The most recent government guidance on SRE is from 2000 and clearly states that SRE should include these attitudes and values:

learning the importance of values and individual conscience and moral considerations;

learning the value of family life, marriage, and stable and loving relationships for the nurture of children;

learning the value of respect, love and care;

exploring, considering and understanding moral dilemmas; and developing critical thinking as part of decision-making.

Not so ‘value-free’ after all.

It also calls SRE ‘a disaster’ as teenage pregnancy rates have remained stable (nationally) despite SRE being taught in schools. Good SRE is one factor in teenage pregnancy but only one. There are many more factors including social housing and deprivation. Where I work we have reduced teenage pregnancy significantly through a huge joint operation and partnership working but it’s an uphill struggle. Blaming schools and one subject area in particular for teenage pregnancy is way too simplistic. We may as well say that every sixteen year old should be a Maths genius because they’ve been taught it at school since they were five years old.

The CRE also mistakenly lump together PSHE and Citizenship and call it ‘PSHCE.’ This is incorrect. Citizenship is a separate subject and has been statutory since 2002. They also state that PSHE is a ‘secular alternative to Religious Education.’ Again, incorrect. RE is a different subject again and PSHE does not replace RE and never will and there is certainly no campaign among teachers to see that this happens.

In a section on advice to parents the website states that, ‘although all schools may need to pay lip-service to PSHCE, the better ones will give it little time or credence,’ and when it comes to SRE, ‘good primary heads will almost certainly decide they have more important priorities.’ This it rubbish. I work with excellent head teachers and superb schools and the best teach PSHE as both a discrete and integral part of the school day. All teach SRE well and communicate effectively with parents and carers about children’s learning. I haven’t even begun to explore how good PSHE raises school attainment and grades.

It’s difficult enough being a parent without campaign groups like this adding fuel to the fire and it’s bloody hard growing up as a child in the 21st century. PSHE teaches children about the real world in a supportive and age-appropriate climate and enables them to be considerate and emotionally intelligent adults and I for one can’t see anything wrong with that.

Further reading:

Sex and Relationship Education Guidance. DfEE, 2000.

The MacDonald independent review into PSHE, DfE 2009.

PSHE Association- the subject association for teachers of PSHE.

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