Vice Nation – Sex VI: Sex Education

(Title Image: PBS)

It’s inevitable that at some point – whether you’re a teacher or a parent/guardian – you have to teach children about sex. But once “the talk” is over and done with, there needs to be an ongoing process of discussing issues around sex and relationships that the education system and parents are perhaps failing to do adequately.

The State of Sex Education in Wales

“Sex education” is legally defined in the Education Act 1996 as lessons specifically about AIDS or HIV or other sexually-transmitted diseases (Part V).
There’s nothing statutory relating to sex itself or relationships, while schools are expected to provide information on the importance of marriage in family life. Teachers are also allowed to be protected from teaching anything that’s inappropriate for the age, religious or cultural background of pupils.The latest Welsh Government guidance on sex education was published in 2010 (pdf), and is set to be updated in 2018.

It says it’s part of meeting obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) for children to access health and education services and have their opinions listened to. The guidance says the purpose of sex and relationship education (SRE) is to enable pupils to “understand the importance of a stable, secure and loving environment for family life” and to “respect differences” in a diverse society.

All schools are obliged to maintain written sex education statements, and parents have the right to withdraw children from sex education lessons (except those mandated under the National Curriculum).


  • Primary schools – Until 2018, there was no legal requirement for primary schools to include sex education in their basic curriculum, but they had to cover sex if it’s part of the compulsory National Curriculum (i.e. in a science lesson). Individual schools are allowed to develop their own policies to suit the character/ethos of the school (i.e. religious opt-outs). The guidance recommends sexual relationships and pregnancy aren’t taught until pupils are somewhere between the ages of 7-11. Girls should also be taught about menstruation/periods before puberty. Sex education was made a statutory part of the school curriculum in the 2018-19 academic year.
  • Secondary schools – Schools teaching secondary school age pupils (11-18 year olds) – including special schools and pupil referral units – are legally obligated to include sex education in their basic curriculum as well as to teach sex if it falls under the National Curriculum. The SRE curriculum guidance is more varied, and should include topics like personal feelings, contraception, STDs and risk-taking behaviour.

There’s a great deal of flexibility in terms of how sex education can be delivered (i.e. single-sex classes are allowed). However, schools have to have a designated member of staff to deal with child protection issues if pupils raise something with a teacher than may signal possible abuse.
SRE is supposed to include “open and non-judgemental” discussions about relationships, sex and personal well being, with schools encouraged to set ground rules appropriate to the age group and circumstances and whilst avoiding sharing personal information. 

While the guidance also says sexual orientation should be discussed in a sensitive and non-judgemental way, there’s no specific guidance on how or when sexuality/sexual orientation should be discussed, while there’s nothing relating to transgenders/gender identity. 

Parents are allowed to be actively involved in SRE, while schools are allowed to use health professionals to deliver SRE, or direct pupils to health professionals for advice. Most schools now have counsellors too. Older pupils may also be trained as peer educators, particularly if they come from different cultural backgrounds or live with STDs like HIV/AIDS. 

Sex Education & The Donaldson Review

As you probably all know, Wales is in the process of creating a new National Curriculum based on the report of Prof. Graham Donaldson (pdf).One of six areas of the new curriculum is Health & Wellbeing, which amongst its key aims is for pupils to: put into practice their “knowledge and understanding of social, physical and emotional health in their own lives”, “understanding the consequences of actions that affect others and themselves” and “developing and maintaining positive relationships”.

It’s currently unclear what this will mean in SRE terms, though there’s political support for making sex education compulsory in primary as well as secondary schools, and there were calls from the Communities Committee last year to make relationship education compulsory with respect domestic violence.

Considering Prof. Donaldson led the way for curriculum reforms in Scotland, it’s likely Wales will follow something similar, but that’s not the only template, as I turn to next.

How do other countries approach sex education?

The Netherlands – Arguably the most comprehensive and lauded sex education programme in the world due to incredibly low teenage pregnancy rates and high levels of contraceptive use amongst young people. It starts at age 4 and not only focuses on sex itself, but self-identity, gender roles, sexual diversity, sexual pleasure and intimacy. It’s compulsory in all primary and secondary schools.

Republic of Ireland – Despite historic opposition from the Catholic church, sex education is included in the the Irish equivalent of the PSE curriculum, becoming mandatory in primary schools and the junior phase of secondary school in 2003. Sex education is also taught in biology and religious education classes, but parents have a constitutional right to withdraw their children from classes focusing on sexuality. 

Scotland – Pupils are provided sex education that’s “appropriate to their age”, starting in early years of primary school and carrying right through to the final year of secondary school (Year 13/S6). It covers not only sex itself, but contraception, sexuality, accessing health services and how to raise children. Schools are encouraged to discuss the content of sex education lessons with parents in advance, with parents having a right to withdraw children from lessons. 

United States – Sex education is decided at a state level with funding provided by the federal government. Most pupils receive sex education at least once between the equivalent of Year 6 and the final year of secondary school. 37 states require that abstinence-based sex education be provided, while 13 states require that sexual orientation be discussed, 4 of which may only provide “negative information”. 

What should we expect from sex education?

Everyone will have different ideas on this based on their personal beliefs, but as the Dutch have proven, sex education can make a significant social and public health impact when it’s comprehensive and compulsory.

I’m going to assume many of these things will be discussed as the new curriculum takes shape, and there’ll be arguments as to when precisely children should be taught and things like a parent’s right to withdraw children from lessons. Barnardo’s recently called for compulsory sex and relationship education to start from age 5.

A number of guiding principles:

Metaphors and euphemisms are no good

The “birds and the bees/stork”stuff has to stop as soon as children are old enough to tell the significant differences between males and females, which will probably be very early into their school life. They should be told the truth, but the subject can still be approached in a non-explicit way – discuss the differences first, then move onto the“mechanics”.

Abstinence-only sex education is a failure

Promoting (secular) sexual abstinence to teenagers isn’t an inherently bad thing, but SRE should always be approached on an assumption that older teenagers (even if they’re under the age of consent) will “experiment”. We’re somewhat fortunate abstinence-only sex education hasn’t taken off here, but in the current political climate I’m not sure that’ll last forever. Research from the University of Georgia (Stanger-Hall, Hall; 2011) showed US states with abstinence-based programmes had teenage pregnancy rates up to 20% higher than states without abstinence-based programmes – even after education and socio-economic background were taken into consideration.

LGBTs should be included in the SRE curriculum before secondary school

It’s why Section 28 was scrapped. This isn’t “promotion” but acknowledgement that nobody chooses to be LGBT and, as a minority, they’re protected for a good reason. As for why this this has to happen before secondary school, a Stonewall Cymru report (pdf) revealed 87% of secondary school teachers reported bullying of LGBT pupils, up to 60% of primary school teachers hear homophobic language from pupils while 23% of teachers hear it from other teachers. (See also: Born That Way).

SRE doesn’t need to be solely about the biology of sex

It’s true that sex and sexual health will need to be addressed, but there are plenty of other issues that need to be discussed that perhaps aren’t at present (in addition to LGBTs as mentioned), like: personal safety in real life, being safe on the internet, what makes a good relationship, the reasons behind divorce/separation/relationship breakdown, the realities and practicalities of having children, domestic abuse (called for by the Assembly’s Communities Committee last year) and consent (Part I).

Break down sexual stereotypes and stigmas

In order to change attitudes to sex, myths need to be busted. There needs to be open (age-appropriate) discussion of things that would almost certainly be uncomfortable but need to be addressed before the playground and internet takes over that job – fetishes, masturbation, body image, penis size, using pornography, virginity/not enjoying sex/asexuality.

Also, some of the stigmas and stereotypes attached to sex need to be covered. For example, there’s a stigma about straight men using sex toys (like Fleshlights and Tenga Eggs) that doesn’t apply to women; women can happily buy sex toys from the high street, men will be seen as some sort of deviant (sexual frustration could be one of the reasonsbehind radicalisation of young men – seriously, look up “Incels”).

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea to talk about how to enjoy sex properly, with recent survey suggesting heterosexual women have fewer orgasms as a group than all other people. As someone with a background in human anatomy I’ve already provided useful advice in that area and, as said many times before, the Welsh birth rate needs to increase. Put 2+2 together.

Plus, there are other unhelpful stereotypes like “butch and femme” lesbian couples or the effeminate “mincing queen” gay man, the latter of which may contribute to homophobic abuse in sport.

SRE should be cross-curricular

PHSE/PSE is a Cinderella subject with only an hour or two dedicated to it each fortnight (or was when I was at school) which simply isn’t enough time to cover everything. That means other academic subjects will have to address SRE in their courses.

Science/Biology is obvious (and it’s already in there), but the proposals for a new subject to replace religious education (O Ye of Little Faith) could work in attitudes to sex as part of the syllabus, as well as issues like abortion, divorce/relationships, family life and the reasons some groups may not accept LGBTs and same sex marriage for religious and cultural reasons.

English literature/Welsh literature can obviously include romantic themes, while PE can address body image, sexual health and – perhaps most importantly – how to check yourselves for things like breast and testicular cancer.