Wednesday, 22 February 2012

"I didn’t know there was such a thing as an implant": Sixth Formers tell us about their sex education lessons

I recently visited a school in Essex to deliver EFC’s Talk About Choice presentation to the Sixth Form there. I was lucky enough to be able to speak to a few of the students afterwards to get their thoughts on the presentation and what they’d learnt.

I was surprised when the students told me that a lot of the information on contraceptive methods had been new for them:

‘The contraception methods I didn’t know about’

‘I didn’t know there was such a thing as an implant’

 ‘I didn’t know you could get injections’

‘We know the usual stuff like pills and condoms but we didn’t know the sort of more unconventional stuff’

As years 12 and 13 I had expected them to have covered basic sexual health topics such as STIs and contraception in earlier years but it seems that had been limited and worryingly, for most of them, had taken place in R.E lessons as a purely abstract discussion of religious views:

 ‘They did talk about some types of contraception but it was more about what religions thought’

‘It was sort of like, if you were Christian what would you think about abortion’

Sex education outside of R.E lessons had only been experienced by some of the students:

 ‘A good 60 people a year group don’t have that lesson so all they have is the RE side’

‘If you did triple science you don’t do it’

These students were articulate about what was missing from their sex and relationships education. Sadly, their clear need and desire for sexual health education was not being met thanks to patchy delivery. With little knowledge of their own rights and responsibilities, or practical information about local services the students recognised that they were less able to practice safer sex. As two pupils remarked on their lack of condom education:  ‘if you don’t use it properly then you’re gonna be at a higher risk’ and ‘if you don’t know how to do it then obviously you’re gonna worry when you do it and also then you might be more embarrassed and then you don’t use it’.

The students also gave an extremely mature and thoughtful take on what abortion education should look like. They appreciated having a talk about contraception and abortion which was not attempting to push a moral agenda but rather gave factual information:

‘(you)made it less daunting, like saying, don’t be scared to talk to who you need to talk to rather than saying like, I dunno, you’ll be punished and shamed’

 ‘I think when approaching the subject of can’t be biased, like ‘abortion is completely wrong’ or ‘abortion is fun, it’s really good’ you have to be neutral, it’s neutral territory when it comes to approaching teenagers I think’

‘It’s good when you’re not really presented with ‘a viewpoint’, because a lot of the time you already have some form of viewpoint and if you just give the statistics, ...then it’s more like making up your own mind’

They were also concerned about the effect a strongly anti-abortion speaker might have on a young audience. When I asked how they would feel if a speaker used images in their talk, one young man said:

Doesn’t matter as long as they’re not being biased, like if they’re using it to influence...then it’s a bit unfair. Cos if there was a girl in that room for example who was pregnant she might look at that and feel awful’

It was refreshing and heartening to hear them speak so enthusiastically and sensibly about the need for a non-biased approach to abortion education, but it’s disappointing that a school which clearly had good intentions had so clearly failed to provide the students with what they needed. I’d like to think this is a blip, but all the evidence from surveys, questionnaires and anecdotes suggests it’s pretty typical.

Brook survey shows almost half of secondary school students felt that their SRE was unsatisfactory


  1. Are you able to record their comments on audio now or were these written comments on an evaluation form? It's really great and helpful to see the words directly from students/young people's mouths.

  2. Yep, this was from a recorded conversation so all the quotes are real!