Yesterday I read this article from SPUC (Society for protection of the unborn child) about primary school science and sex education. I felt compelled to respond as a qualified science (Biology) teacher (with specialisms in reproductive physiology), a sex and relationships education adviser and also as a mother.
Firstly I am curious as to who these “furious Parents of primary-school children from across the country” are? It makes it sound like they are in the majority when in actual fact they are in a minority. I do appreciate that some parents do have very strong feelings about sex education which is absolutely their right and they do still have the right to withdraw their child from SRE (but fewer than 1% actually do especially once they have explored the content of the lessons with the school– I will come to the science vs. sex ed issue in a bit). but several surveys tell us that parents actually want schools to teach their children sex education as well as want support in how to have such discussions with their children (link). Many young people report they would prefer not to learn about sex education from their parents! (I do have the rest of the references somewhere but I am trying to write a quick blog post response rather than a referenced essay but they are all on the Sex education Forum Website)
Now to the law relating to SRE and the sciencey bits.
Primary schools are required by law to have a sex and relationships education policy stating whether or not they intend to teach it. They don’t have to provide any sex education other than the scientific aspects found in the National curriculum (bear in mind this applies to England only- Wales and Scotland follow slightly different curricula but FPA provide a fab overview here) . Also bear in mind that academies are exempt from statutory requirements.
The KS1 Science National Curriculum for England is found here and the main aspects relating to SRE are (Please note this is being reviewed and may change):
- that animals, including humans, move, feed, grow, use their senses and reproduce
- to recognise and compare the main external parts of the bodies of humans and other animals
- that humans and other animals can produce offspring and that these offspring grow into adults
- recognise similarities and differences between themselves and others, and to treat others with sensitivity
and the KS2 Science National Curriculum for England is found here (Please note this is being reviewed and may change):
The main aspects relating to sex education are:
- that the life processes common to humans and other animals include nutrition, movement, growth and reproduction
- that the life processes common to plants include growth, nutrition and reproduction
- to make links between life processes in familiar animals and plants and the environments in which they are found.
- about the main stages of the human life cycle
- about the parts of the flower [for example, stigma, stamen, petal, sepal] and their role in the life cycle of flowering plants, including pollination, seed formation, seed dispersal and germination.
Now most children will be aware that boys are different from girls and that mummies have babies and cows have calves and sheep have lambs etc etc. This is “sex education” that is all around them. They will also be aware that grown up bodies are different from children’s bodies and that as they grow they change. There is NOTHING in the science national curriculum that I would not be happy about teaching my daughter and based on all the recent threads on Mumsnet about primary sex education I don’t think I am in a minority in this feeling (here and here) (although I appreciate there are other parenting sites and mumsnetters maybe a specific demographic ;)). Having reproduction education as part of the science national curriculum at primary level is essential. The curriculum is developed in a “spiral” so future years build on previous years and if children are to have any hope of scaffolding their learning and really understanding how their bodies work then it needs to start early. I know from experience of teaching year 7 reproduction- you can tell the primary schools that covered this aspect well and those that didn’t. I am always surprised by the amount of children aged 11/12 that still have an idea that babies come out of your bum! The fact is that children are going through puberty younger and younger and some girls are starting their periods in Y5 and Y6 and so they need the information about what is happening to their bodies and how to deal with those changes.
SPUC’s issue seems to be specifically with the Living and Growing DVD produced by Channel 4 learning. This DVD is not a standalone resource and should be used carefully with age appropriate groups with a planned lessonplan with specific outcomes. Unfortunately we know this doesn’t always happen and many teachers don’t feel comfortable addressing sex education in primary schools so revert to video resources to help them. This is not always ideal and really highlights the need for teachers to be properly trained in this subject. The Christopher Winter Project do fab work working with primary school teachers to increase their skills in SRE delivery, and would definitely be worth contacting if you are a primary teacher looking for help in this regard.
Personally I would be happy for my daughter to watch the clips of Living and growing suitable for her age group. (It used to be available on teachers TV so I would link to it if I could but unfortunately it is no longer available). Yes there is a brief cartoon clip of sexual intercourse- but one of the most common questions once reproduction has been covered is how do sperm and egg actually meet then I am quite happy for a cartoon image to be shown to briefly explain rather than teachers getting a bit flustered with the “in’s and outs” (pun intended 😉 of “mummy and daddy have a special cuddle, a penis gets inserted into a vagina” type of thing! Which can often lead to more questions when often children are satisfied with a simple picture representation. I appreciate not all parents would share my view on that particular clip which is totally fine and reinforces the need for primary schools to work closely with parents and share and discuss the intended materials and agree collectively on the scheme of work. In fact I know of many primary schools that although they use Living and Growing they always miss that clip out (and sometimes the bit where clitoris is mentioned!) or they would use that clip in Y6 rather than the age 7-9 age group the clip is intended for. Most importantly is teachers cover what they are comfortable with and what they feel is age appropriate for their class with the support of parents and the wider school community.
Finally in terms of what Nick Gibb said on the 5th July re. not changing the law relating to sex education in science this is how the law has been for over 10 years now, so actually nothing has changed and the announcement has simply been used by SPUC to drive their anti-sex ed agenda into the media spotlight again (as an aside I am not sure I see the logic in an Anti-abortion organisation being against sex education but there you go!). As you can see from above the science national curriculum aspects are not explicit or scary- they are simply human biology. However I do think there does need to be clarity of this overlap between science/sex education for teachers/parents and other stakeholders so that parents can work with schools to define a sex and relationships education content that the majority are happy with. The non-sciencey aspects of primary school sex education is a focus on self esteem, being a good friend, managing emotions etc. all good stuff too! In terms of right of withdrawal (that less than 1% of parents utilise)- I personally feel that all children have a right to a science education about changes in growing up and where babies come from. I think it is wrong to deny them this. If a parent didn’t want this to be delivered at school then there should be an understanding that the parent will deliver it at home. I think parents should totally be allowed to withdraw their children from material they consider explicit or not age appropriate for their child but honestly primary school sex education in the vast majority is very basic necessary stuff, and the majority of schools are doing sterling work in this regard. If you are a parent I advise you to work with the school to develop a curriculum that you are happy with.
P.S As an aside Tower Hamlets by the way is brilliant at working with parents and the local community to develop sex and relationships education and personal social and health education. At the recent PSHE association we heard an inspirational speech from a secondary head in Tower Hamlets about their work in PSHE. Really impressive.
I hope that has clarified things somewhat for worried parents or teachers who read the SPUC article.