Sex education in schools – it’s not about sex

10 Feb 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 10 Feb 2017

Mark Breslin, Director of the FPA in Northern Ireland
Mark Breslin, Director of the FPA in Northern Ireland

Scope speaks with the Family Planning Association about how and why they think local sex education – or, rather, relationship and sexuality education – is inadequate.

Sex education isn’t really sex education.

What it is, or what it is supposed to be, is a way to help our young people grow into their own maturity and enable them to make appropriate choices for themselves, according to the Family Planning Association (FPA).

The FPA spoke with Scope this week about what they feel are the positive aspects of local provision – as well as some deep-rooted shortcomings.

Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE), as the FPA says it is more properly characterised, is “about teaching young people about who they are, and how they are, and it is not about teaching them values.”

It is supposed to be independent, even dispassionate, support and advice – but by its very nature, especially when dealing with teenagers, it can involve extremely difficult and awkward conversations.

Mark Breslin, Northern Ireland Director of the FPA, says there are some fantastic training services available – citing the Belfast Trust’s sexual health team in particular – but that there should be much more support and guidance for teachers.

The context is unsurprising; sexual health across Northern Ireland could be improved while polling shows that people still feel uncomfortable discussing these matters.

Around the start of the 2011-16 Stormont mandate, RSE was placed under the standard pastoral care remit of schools - where staff and teachers have to balance many interests, and these sometimes clash, through no-one's fault.

Walk the line

Being a teacher is not easy.

It seems straightforward to assume that a geography teacher is knowledgeable about their subject and also able to communicate and discuss its ideas in a fluent and clear way.

But that is not the only part of the job.

Pastoral care, general support, guidance of the children and young people under your care – none of these are simple or straightforward – nor are they anything whatsoever to do with geography – but it is all part of the role.

That doesn’t mean it is easy. If a young teenager comes to speak to their geography teacher, for example, about personal matters – perhaps they are gay, perhaps they think they are transsexual, maybe they are simply heartbroken – this is not only a delicate matter that requires a lot of the teacher, it furthermore results in a fine balancing act thereafter.

If a pupil comes to a teacher with a deeply personal and difficult matter, it does not happen in isolation. That pupil and teacher will have an existing formal relationship; that relationship will continue. Even if the teacher has done a brilliant job in helping the pupil, will that be upended if they have to punish them for not doing their homework a week later?

Of course, teachers still have to fulfil the central aspect of their job – teaching – but this just illustrates the line they have to walk. This is not just about RSE; the same also applies to any difficult personal circumstance – bereavement, for instance.


Mr Breslin is open minded about how we improve this part of RSE.

Permanent independent advisors – whether based in one school or in a number of schools in one area – would, on the face of it, remove the need to balance day-to-day teaching with helping pupil’s with difficult personal matters, but could be extremely expensive.

The FPA director posits the idea, however, of whether RSE should actually be a dedicated school subject, rather than simply part of their pastoral care. Given that it is about teaching children to make the best choices for themselves, why not teach it?

But, he says, neither of these things would completely solve the problem. If nothing else, it is not possible to predict when any given pupil will open up to a teacher, or with which teacher.

“Young people pick you for a reason. They have developed a relationship with you, they trust you, and then they come and speak with you. It is important that teachers know how to deal with this. If they get it wrong it is unlikely that individual child or young person will come back to them.”

Therefore, he says, it is essential that all teachers are better equipped to handle these situations.

He says the FPA itself provides support on these matters, and that other “truly excellent” programmes exist – again citing the Belfast Trust’s sexual health team, which he says is brilliant but “given the need, there could be ten of them.”

A necessary part of the solution, he says, is in teacher training. “When teachers are learning their trade, when they are at college or university, the ability to handle RSE matters should be a necessary module for everyone. This would benefit the teachers themselves and, ultimately, the pupils they have in future.”

Values versus information

The difficulties don’t end there. Too much and too often, says Mr Breslin, schools are not able to separate their own values from the guidance and support they are supposed to offer in RSE.

This does not mean that RSE and a school’s ethos have to clash; if the former is dispassionate and not laden with any values, there should be no necessary contradiction.

Currently, while there is a statutory duty for schools to provide support, this is “vague and has far too much wriggle room.”

According to the Department of Education: “[The Department] requires all grant-aided schools to develop their own policy on how they will address Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) within the curriculum. A school’s policy should reflect the school’s ethos and should be subject to consultation with parents and pupils and endorsed by the Board of Governors.”

The FPA has its own factsheet available on the current law regarding RSE – which highlights some of what it says are the issues with the current approach.

This nod to values allows schools to shear off what the FPA says are necessary aspects of RSE, or to approach them in a value-driven way.

Some of the difficult areas of discussion are obvious: homosexuality, consensual casual sex, abortion, transsexuality.

“I know of some schools that have opted out of discussing puberty because they think it is too sensitive. If you opt out of that it’s very difficult to actually talk about any of these issues at all.

“If you are delivering RSE properly then you are covering all aspects and you are allowing young people to challenge, to ask questions.”

Facts for the future

Mr Breslin says fact-driven, objective and open-ended discourse is the only way to deal with all matters within RSE. And, when it comes to facts, he says this cannot stop at basic biology – noting that some schools even struggle with this – but also full and frank information about the wider context.

“And when I’m talking about facts, what I mean is proper, verified data about health – the World Health Organisation should be the standard.”

What the FPA says are the wrong approaches occur on a sliding scale. There is the outrageous use of pseudoscience, or outright lies, that should be obviously wrong (not that he is accusing schools of doing this). Examples include the bogus claim that having an abortion can cause breast cancer – a lie so common it has its own Wikipedia page.

But it does not stop there. There are ways to present your values in a passive aggressive, or indirect, way – and this too should be avoided.

Mr Breslin brings forward some examples of Q&As that have apparently been done with local school children as indicative of what he says is an incorrect approach.

One answer, responding to a question from a girl about whether she should have sex with her boyfriend, says: “You may think you are in love but is that enough? The average person falls in love seven time or more in their lifetime! Imagine the consequences if you slept with everyone you fall in love with.”

Another, in response to the questions of what losing your virginity means, says: “If you lose your virginity you can never become a virgin again and so it is something precious to give to another person who respects you, love [sic] you and is ‘big time’ committed to you. The best commitment is ‘life long’ – two people waiting for each other and being faithful sexually to each other.”

A third answer, following a question from a girl about the fact that she masturbates, states: “Masturbation/Self genital stimulation for personal pleasure is not as common with girls as it with boys. It does occur however amongst some girls and can be associated with anxieties, worries and even guilt.”

The FPA Director says schools need to shy away from answering questions in this way, even if it tallies with the values of the institution, be that a faith school or otherwise.

“Ultimately a factual and not value-based approach of course is the best approach, and is fully compatible with faith-based approaches. There is no reason for faith-based settings to be scared of facts.”

Northern Ireland has a long way to go in framing its approach to supporting young people as they mature.

Currently we do not even have an active sexual health strategy. Hopefully this can be fixed as soon as possible.

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