The Government is avoiding the controversial topic of sex education, saying it ‘trusts’ teachers to handle it, while giving teachers the freedom to flounder, writes Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. This is from the Telegraph…
As a father of young children, there are few things more precious than their innocence. It is a source of joy and energy. One of the things that is more precious, though, is their safety.
I also believe that knowledge is power; the ability to make wise choices and the confidence to stand up for yourself is at the heart of safety. However hard I try, I cannot always be there to protect them. They will venture out into the world and they will need to deal with the threats and the choices it offers. That’s what growing up is about.
I therefore cannot hide my deep conflict on the topic of relationships and sex education and I do respect people who may hold different views to my own. This is a minefield.
But if we don’t talk to our children and our pupils about relationships and sex then other people will. These people may be ill-informed peers or they may be faceless strangers in a chat room. Increasingly, boys get their views about sex from pornography, which can only provide a distorted picture. Young people will learn about sex and relationships whatever we do, they just may learn the wrong things.
These problems haven’t arrived with the internet, they are age-old, but technology adds some new twists. Our children are more adept at using it than we are, and so we find it hard to police. It reaches deep into their lives, so it can overwhelm. It offers anonymity to those whose motives are bad. I can lock down every computer in my house. I can insist that they are used only when supervised, but I can do nothing about the pictures shown on the school bus by the boy from down the road with a new smartphone. We’ve never been very good at dealing with these things, to be honest, but policies and guidelines created years ago have little hope of keeping up.
Teaching our children about these things responsibly – with caution, at the right time and age, and in the right way – is our duty. It is a job that parents and teachers must do together. The wrong choices about relationships and sex can define someone’s life (can end someone’s life, to be brutally frank) as surely as failure in mathematics and English. Yet debate about teaching these topics, and training for those who do, is way down on the list of priorities.
These lessons must be about more than biology. Relationships take priority over sex and it is in the context of relationships that sexual activity can either be healthy or destructive. We really need to talk to young people about consent and respect; we need to talk about privacy and discretion; we need to talk about self-respect and self-awareness, about doing what’s right for you, not what the crowd says or what you think everyone else is doing.
These are pretty awkward conversations to be having. We ask a lot of our teachers and, where the safety of their students is concerned, they are usually willing to have a go. I can only admire this, given how tongue-tied I get about these topics. But it is a minefield and the risks of a complaint or misunderstanding are real; they weigh upon teachers’ minds and restrict their action.
I am not a fan of giving schools more regulations but in this instance thoughtful, succinct and up-to-date guidance could be a real asset to the teacher on the front line – maybe with a bit of training and some specialist roles in large schools. It is wrong for the Government to shelter behind the teacher, avoiding controversial topics while giving them the freedom to flounder. The Government should be at their side; distilling the wisdom of experts and giving a powerful shield to guard against dispute and allegation.
The Telegraph Wonder Women campaign is asking the right questions at the right time. Teachers are up to the challenge; young people say they badly want guidance; parents say they want schools to play a role. There is one player missing from this picture so far.
Russell Hobby is General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.
Telegraph Wonder Women is campaigning for better sex education, urging David Cameron to bring sex and relationships education into the 21st century. Sign our petition atchange.org/bettersexeducation or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the campaign on Twitter: #bettersexeducation, @TeleWonderWomen
Your thoughts on @russellhobby‘s comments? Is he right that extra guidance is now required for teachers? How would you feel about it being introduced? Please let us know in the comments or on twitter…