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.

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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.

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