Parents or teachers: Who should deliver Sex and Relationship Education to children?
As defined within the most recent guidance, Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) is “lifelong learning about physical, moral and emotional development” (DfEE 2000:5). It concerns the “understanding of the importance of marriage for family life, stable and loving relationships, respect, love and care” and “the teaching of sex, sexuality, and sexual health” (p.5). SRE within the UK is notably influenced by government targets to reduce the alarming sexual health statistics of our younger generation (Donovan & Hester, 2008). In 2001, the UK had the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe (UNICEF, 2001). Ten years later, the estimated number of under-18 conceptions totaled at 31,051 (ONS, 2013). Additionally, whilst 16 to 24-year-olds made up only 12% of England’s population, they accounted for 65% of Chlamydia cases, 55% of genital warts, and 47% of gonorrhoea infections (HPA, 2011). SRE is therefore viewed as a tool to help reduce these statistics by supporting people through their “physical, emotional and moral development” (DfEE, 2000:3). However, the question of whether parents or teachers should deliver SRE is a controversial, on-going debate that has been prominent for many years.
Based on Levinson’s (2006) (cited in Stolberg & Teece 2011:70) characteristics of controversy, SRE is controversial as it promotes contesting views and cannot be settled entirely on the basis of evidence. This creates challenges for any provider, as the effects of controversy must be dealt with. As argued by Corteen (2006), SRE guidance attempts to resolve this controversy by claiming that parents and teachers should work in partnership (DfEE, 2000). However, the demands of controversy impede this desired partnership by creating various barriers. This essay will investigate some of the obstacles parents and teachers face when delivering SRE to children; these challenges will be presented as an argument in order to create a comparison between both providers. Based on the research used, the essay will conclude by offering an opinion of who should provide SRE, along with recommendations for current SRE policy and practice in the UK.
In order to understand SRE in contemporary education it is necessary to examine its importance in the curriculum over time. As outlined by Pilcher (2005), knowledge and understanding of SRE policy and practice is limited prior to 1979 due to the underdeveloped research within this area. One may argue that such limited prominence could suggest that the government was avoiding sex education and assuming full responsibility of the parent in providing it to their child. It is claimed that the origins of SRE exist within a ‘hygiene education’ provided until the 1940s (Pilcher, 2005). In 1914, the Board of Education encouraged parental responsibility to be aided with supportive ‘sex hygiene programmes’ (Hall, 2004 cited in Pilcher 2005:155), suggesting parents were the providers of sex education. However, in 1916 proposals made in response to Venereal Disease caused the government to accept that an introduction of sex hygiene was necessary in education (Mort, 1987 cited in Pilcher 2005:155). School-
Based provision was not firmly established until the 1950s; from then on, schools were to deliver a basic knowledge of the sexual and reproductive capacities of the human body (Pilcher, 2005).
Currently, SRE within UK schools is taught within the wider framework of PSHE and is non-compulsory. Therefore, parents are provided with the right to withdraw their child from any part except for those within the National Science Curriculum (DfEE, 2000). The initial version of the Children, Schools & Families (CSF) Bill 2010 would have made PSHE statutory within the National Curriculum and a foundation subject in Key Stages 2 and 3. However, this failed to receive enough support and was removed from the final version of the Bill. The National Curriculum reform, due to be implemented in 2014, has plans to remove PSHE so a school can devise an appropriate framework for student’s development within this area, if they so wish (BBC News, 2013; DfE, 2013). It is important to note that some of the statistics previously provided demonstrate a decrease from previous years (DoH, 2012), suggesting that current SRE is having a positive impact. However, a survey undertaken by the UK Youth Parliament (2007) found that 40% judged their school SRE to be ‘poor’, suggesting that children within UK schools are unhappy with current provision. This is further backed up by a 2012 poll, where 48% believed parents should deliver SRE, in comparison to 19% for teachers (The Guardian, 2012). We must also be aware that the latest guidance (DfEE, 2000) was produced under the Labour government, whereas any recommendations following 2010 are provided by the current coalition. Yet again, this adds to the complexity of SRE being taught within English schools, as perspectives are ever changing. However, the removal of PSHE in the reformed curriculum, under the coalition, offers no improvement from previous guidance. This, teamed with survey results, suggests that SRE is stuck within a time warp that is failing to serve the needs of children within schools. Therefore, an alternative provider such as parents may be necessary.
As Walker (2004) argues, “parents are a powerful socialisation influence” (p.244) and inevitably possess greater understanding of their child’s needs. It is thus logical to suggest that parents should provide SRE as they can deliver information built around the attitudes, beliefs and values they share as a family and as part of a certain culture (Turnbull et al, 2010). From a sociological perspective, Functionalists concur that the traditional nuclear family is the ideal agent to socialise a child (Haralambos & Holborn, 2000). This implies that, if SRE were to be delivered via socialisation, parents would be the ultimate provider. Socialisation inevitably requires a large amount of parent-child interaction; Walker (2004) argues that if this interaction is developed early, an “open on-going dialogue” (p.242) will be maintained for many years, allowing parents to successfully provide SRE on a daily basis.
However, Shtarkshall (2007) argues that, whilst parents are the primary socialisers, they may not be the best provider of sexual health facts and knowledge. This is demonstrated by Walker (2004), who found that parents are often guided by the notion of ‘the birds and the bees’ and place greater emphasis on the act of sex itself, thus failing to provide discussion about other aspects of SRE such as relationships.
Furthermore, a lack of knowledge can affect how the child interprets information; Shtarkshall (2007) found that parents and adolescents often disagree on what has been discussed, “suggesting that parents may not be communicating the messages they think they are” (p.117). Additionally, if SRE was provided via the Functionalist perspective of socialisation, we should be critical of the notion that the nuclear family is best. The UK is a multi-cultural society, consisting of diverse family structures and varying notions on the concept of marriage. It is therefore wrong to assume that every child is brought up within this framework and is socialised in a way that provides them with effective SRE. Consequently, SRE provided by teachers would ideally cater for children from all backgrounds, as “educators are crucial in creating an inclusive environment” (Donovan & Hester 2008:286). Therefore, SRE should be built around factors such as sexuality, disability, ethnicity and faith. The DfEE (2000) guidance acknowledges that the needs of all children must be met; they should not be stigmatised or assumed they live within the ‘ideal’ marriage model, and no sexual orientation should be promoted. Children are arguably the most important partners within SRE (Walker, 2004); therefore, SRE provided by teachers would ensure that no child is marginalised, as these factors would be accounted for.
However, research shows that provision within certain schools does not match up to this suggested guidance. Corteen (2006) found that many teachers used the prevalence of homophobia within their secondary school as an excuse to avoid teaching about homosexuality. She found that the approach used within these schools was out-dated, correlating with the 1977 recommendation that “sexual deviations should not be mentioned unless specific questions are asked” (DES 1977:18 cited in Corteen 2006:83). It is apparent that the needs of children are not always met when SRE is provided by teachers, causing us to be critical of how schools regard current guidance and the importance of children’s needs. The approach found within this research suggests teachers believe school is not the appropriate place to discuss particular matters, especially when individuals possess their own opinions. Once again, this demonstrates how teaching a controversial issue within schools can have negative consequences. Crucially, this research focused on three secondary state schools within the same district and the same local authority; it would therefore be wrong to generalise such research to all secondary schools in England. Furthermore, it raises the question as to whether the schools approach emanates from the local authorities own policies and initiatives, rather than the schools themselves. Yet regardless of this factor, the research does raise the issue that teachers can assume matters such as homosexuality will be dealt with by parents; however, it is also not certain that parents will discuss such matters, or be supportive in doing so (Donovan & Hester, 2008).
Vitally, teachers must be aware of the various cultural and religious beliefs that exist within the UK (Turnbull et al, 2010). For example, some faiths do not permit the use or teaching of contraception; teachers must therefore be mindful of this when delivering SRE. Although, the non-statutory status of SRE within schools does provide these parents with the right to withdraw their child from such information, ultimately providing parental control over what is taught to their child. Whilst SRE continues to be non-compulsory, it raises the concern that respecting parental wishes is considered more important than the child’s rights or needs (Walker, 2004). As Rose (2005) (cited in Turnbull et al 2010:278) asserts, religion can deter children away from information which they have a right to know. The individual choice of the child should be of the upmost importance, as underlined by the DfEE (2000) guidance, which encourages schools to listen to pupil’s views. If a child from a particular culture or religion wants to obtain specific information, the school should be seen as the safest place to provide this. If not, children should be provided with the control to opt out, rather than parents. Furthermore, as Corteen (2006) argues, there are additional problems with prioritising parents’ desires, leading to detrimental consequences for children. Harris (1996) (cited in Corteen 2006:87) believes that parents who abuse their children can exercise the right of withdrawal to their advantage by removing their child from SRE to prevent any discussion, which could potentially reveal their abuse, therefore highlighting the complexity of this subject being taught.
Whilst the non-statutory status of SRE may be beneficial for particular parents, it inevitably carries no more weight than a “mere suggestion for good practice” (Corteen 2006:81) for teachers. Consequently, provision and practice throughout UK schools can vary significantly, resulting in a wide scope in the quality and effectiveness of the SRE provided. For example, Strange et al (2006) found that whilst some secondary schools offered as many as 11 or 12 SRE sessions across three years, others offered none at all. It is crucial to underline how this research was undertaken before the implementation of the guidance in 2000; therefore findings may not be as valid now. However, the research does provide a good comparison for those studies, which followed the implementation of the guidance. Corteen (2006) found that all three secondary schools failed to revise and update SRE policies on a regular basis, suggesting that SRE is viewed as insignificant. This therefore implies that the guidance has had little impact; however, this conclusion can only be limited to this research. One thing we can argue from these findings is that, if a school is to provide SRE, then the value it places on the subject is vital as it affects the consistency of provision. However, it is crucial to contextualise this factor against the current pressures on schools in terms of Ofsted inspections and the demands of the National Curriculum. Whilst SRE is non-statutory then many teachers will treat it this way, especially when they are being “placed in an uncertain position regarding the content of compulsory and non-compulsory elements of SRE” (Westwood & Mullan 2007:145). Once again, this demonstrates the effects of teaching a controversial issue within schools, especially when paired with the lack of a blueprint teaching style for SRE (Walker & Milton, 2006).
As Walker (2004) notes, a considerable amount of literature places parents within a homogenous group who are unable to discuss sexual matters with their children. However, we must not generalise this to all parents, as there is research to suggest that some families do not fall into this ‘category’. Ingham & Kirkland (1997) (cited in Walker 2004:245) found that parents from professional and managerial backgrounds had more discussions with their children about sexual matters. A similar finding was made recently, where dual-parent families within the middle and upper classes possessed a close relationship with their children and were able to discuss sexual matters more openly and comfortably (Turnbull et al, 2008). A further critical point that we must raise about this assumption is that it can also apply to teachers. It is vital to underline how those who make such claims often fail to underline the commonalities faced by teachers and parents. Instead, the two groups are treated as separate, when realistically we must remember how a large amount of teachers are also parents themselves. Therefore, the following issues can be experienced by both providers of SRE.
A widespread lack of knowledge about particular elements of SRE can exist within the home and school setting, and this is further compounded by a lack of training for both providers. Within schools, Westwood & Mullan (2007) found that 66% of teachers felt they did not possess enough information regarding STI’s; 44% lacked information about contraception; and 73% felt they did not possess adequate knowledge regarding access to local sexual health services. It was suggested that this lack of awareness can derive from the teacher’s specialised subject, such as Science or Humanities, inevitably creating a large variation in the knowledge they individually possess (Westwood & Mullan, 2007). This would suggest that these children are not being provided with the necessary knowledge to protect their sexual health. However, we must not contextualise such research and limit it to the school environment; if teachers are also parents, this lack of knowledge will inevitably transfer to the SRE provided at home. A large amount of research fails to raise awareness of this issue.
As Walker (2004) outlines, we must be conscious that the provider’s past experience can influence the SRE they provide. In Westwood & Mullan’s (2007) research, “60% of teachers were aged 40 and above” (p.154); therefore, one may argue that these teachers could possess an outdated perspective and knowledge of sexual health. Resultantly, the information they provide may not be as applicable for today’s younger generation, as we are regularly familiarising ourselves with the emergence of new STI’s, developing forms of contraception, and evolving dynamics of relationships compared to 30 years ago. Inevitably, this barrier can also apply to parents; Allen (1987) (cited in Walker 2004:244) found that parents’ own experience of SRE, combined with inadequate communication, contributed to their difficulties in providing SRE to their children. Conversely, Turnbull et al (2011) found that because the topic of sex was not openly discussed during their upbringing, some parents used this as a motive to provide their children with better SRE than their own. In short, whilst past experience can limit SRE, it can also generate a positive effect by creating the desire to provide better knowledge.
It has been identified that the ‘birds and the bees’ syndrome has created a lack of cultural openness, ultimately causing embarrassment when providing SRE (Walker, 2004). Referred to as an “invisible form of emotional labour” (Walker 2004:243), many people invest a considerable amount of time in thinking about how to approach the matter and what to say. Western European countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden provide the blueprint that we are missing, and demonstrate how embarrassment can be avoided. Their liberal approach, combined with compulsory SRE, has resulted in STI and teenage pregnancy rates being much lower than those in the UK (DiCenso et al, 2002 cited in Turnbull et al 2008:188). Such countries have been praised for their approach to SRE, including factors such as easily accessible contraception counselling and cheap forms of contraception (Aggleton et al, 1998 cited in Walker 2004:249). Whilst the UK ranked fourth in birth and abortion rates among women aged 15-19, Australia was only two places behind (UNICEF, 2001). Similarly to the UK, SRE within Australia is also non-compulsory (Walker & Milton, 2006). It has been noted that similar feelings of embarrassment has led to a minimal coverage of issues such as STI’s and contraception, demonstrating similar findings to the UK (Walker & Milton, 2006). These international comparisons suggest that the UK, and countries that provide similar provision, need to refer to the liberal approach and compulsory status of SRE in Scandinavian countries. Walker (2004) recommends that parents and teachers should recognise embarrassment as ‘the norm’; this, along with a change in provision, may help to develop the liberal outlook required for a more effective SRE. However, we must also bear in mind that the UK is more multi-cultural than these comparative countries, and thus certain views and outlooks are more difficult to obtain.
It is evident that teachers and parents face a number of challenges; the findings explored within this essay underline how such challenges contribute to the on-going debate over who should provide SRE. However, a large majority of research focuses upon who delivers the most effective SRE, rather than providing advice for securing a pragmatic partnership (Walker & Milton, 2006). The government rightly encourages the idea of this partnership (DfEE, 2000); however, the limited value that is placed upon SRE, combined with a lack of knowledge and awareness, is impeding the ability to create this collaboration. The government has a responsibility to ensure that the nation’s sexual health knowledge is up-to-date, applying to both teachers and parents. Otherwise, current SRE will merely ensure that the younger generations obtain an inadequate knowledge of sexual health, thus contributing to the striking statistics that “continue to be observed in the United Kingdom” (Westwood & Mullan 2007:157). To improve SRE, the government must place a greater emphasis on the continuous development of teaching skills and knowledge if it is to provide a blueprint for this partnership (Westwood & Mullan, 2007). As Lawrence et al (2000) (cited in Strange et al 2006:44) assert, the most important recommendation is to make SRE a statutory part of the curriculum. This is especially important if we are to follow in the footsteps of Scandinavian countries to create a wider acceptance and more liberal approach. Such change in policy would raise the status of SRE within schools, ensuring it is treated with as much importance as it deserves. However, the complexity of SRE is further emphasised by the diverse student populations, which include various religions and cultures. This therefore makes it increasingly difficult to provide a firm solution, as this controversial topic needs to be taught in a diplomatic way that will please everyone, students and parents alike. It is also vital to remember that the pressures to meet academic targets inhibit the possibility of providing compulsory SRE. Whilst the National Curriculum reform for 2014 plans to maintain a non-statutory status for SRE, perhaps in the future policy-makers need to decide which areas of the curriculum should be compromised in order to allow for a compulsory SRE that, as illustrated by research, is necessary for the UK (Strange et al, 2006).
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