BREAKING NEWS: Guidance does NOT say sex at 13 is okay.


The Education Select Committee met yesterday and appeared to get a little bit fixated on the Brook Sexual Behaviours traffic light tool. As a result subsequent reporting in the Telegraph the BBC, The Daily Mail, Metro and the Mirror are all now completely miscontruing the excellent Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic lights tool as a form of teaching guidance for SRE (it’s not guidance for teaching sex ed, it’s a safeguarding tool).

A collation of the miseleading headlines is as follows:

Teachers told: sex at 13 ‘is normal part of growing up’

Sex ‘normal at 13’ suggestion raises concerns

Sex between 13-year-olds is NORMAL, says controversial ‘traffic light tool’ sent to schools to teach about relationships (N.B this one is complete rubbish- the tool has never been sent into schools to teach about relationhships)

School kids having sex at 13 is ‘normal’ says controversial advice given by charity

Campaigners claim schools are teaching pupils that 13 is a normal age for sex

I am really cross and disappointed about this. Some of the (totally rubbish and written in a hurry churnalism) articles imply that the Traffic Light tool is the same as the non-statutory supplementary guidance for SRE (produced because the current statutory guidance from DfE was produced in 2000 and is now out dated). Brook have written an excellent response statement to the article here which clarifies things further and Ally Fogg at the Guardian has written an excellent piece on this issue here.  I also wanted to add a post from my perspective of a practitioner of Sex Education, because when I’m teaching SRE in schools, I also automatically have an additional responsibility for child protection.

TO CLARIFY (if I was an Education Editor of a widely read national newspaper my refuting headline would be!) :

SEX EDUCATION TEACHERS ARE NOT BEING TOLD (BY ANY GUIDANCE DOCUMENT OR ANYONE ELSE) TO SAY SEX AT 13 IS OKAY! 

The traffic light tool actually a safeguarding tool for practitioners (not necessarily SRE teachers but maybe youth workers, teachers, pastoral leads, child protection officers etc.) to assist in identifying whether a sexual behaviour is ‘normal’ for an age group or a ’cause for concern’. The age ranges are 0-5, 5-9, 9-13 and 13-17 deliberately because there are overlaps.  It has not been reported (because that destroys the anti-sex ed narrative) that in the 9-13 age range a red behaviour (ie. one that is a serious safeguarding concern) is:

And in the 13-17 age range one of the green behaviours (ie. one that is not usually a cause for concern unless there are other factors going on) is:

Obviously the tool is an aid to professional judgement but does not replace it.  We know there maybe 13 year olds having their ‘first snogs or fumbles’, and usually this is in line with normal development. However a disclosure of a sexually active 13 year old (ie. having penetrative sex) would, in most settings, trigger a referral to the child protection lead and probably further support/intervention being put into place to support the young person. We have mandatory reporting for under 13’s because under 13’s are not able to legally consent to sex but for 13-15year olds the law is not intended to prosecute mutually agreed teenage sexual activity between two young people of a similar age, unless it involves abuse or exploitation.  Therefore the tool is entirely reasonable (and not “illegal” at all as suggested by Sarah Carter from the Family Education Trust).

Yes, we all know that sex under the age of 16 is illegal, but we also know that almost 1/3 of our young people are having sex under the age of 16 (remember that most of these will be ~15, and most people have lost their virginity by 19. So erm it’s a no brainer that the teen years are vital for high quality accurate age appropriate sex education! D’uh!)Talking about this statistic doesn’t mean any practitioner of sex ed is encouraging or condoning underage sex (I regularly use it as a social norming approach- when I ask my classes what percetage of teens have sex under the age of 16 they all respond with “90-100%” and are suprised to find out it is far lower!). Teachers of sex education are not on some kind of crusade to encourage underage sex (urgh at the thought!) but we recognise our duty is to support young people and meet their needs, where they are at, and signpost where to get further help and support.

Yes, the Brook Traffic Light Tool does also mention in the 13-17 age range:

  • consenting oral and/or penetrative sex with others of the same or opposite gender who are of similar age and developmental ability

which the media has seized upon.  But as a professional interpreting this in practice, I would be looking very closely at the 9-13 behaviours and the 13-17 behaviours and in my experience if a sexually active 13 year old presented to me, then often they are not in consensual situations, or have chaotic home lives, and therefore more support and intervention is needed to support that young person. (Particularly if there needs to be a (potentially criminal) investigation into the often older partner).

(As an aside, I have actually never had consensual penetrative sexual activity disclosed to me in 13 year olds, but once had to refer on two horrific cases of 13 year olds who had been gang raped, one of whom thought it was some kind of ‘rite of passage’ and and minimised it as ‘normal thing’ to happen in her peers which absolutely broke my heart. This is also why I am so angry about this misreporting- the Brook Traffic LightsTool is invaluable in suppporting professionals to protect young people so how dare they twist it like this, to score political points!?)

Like most practitioners I would use the SRE guidance documents (both statutory and non-statutory) and my school policy to ensure my teaching was in line with all of these.  If I had a disclosure or something happened that concerned me in a lesson (likely discussion of an amber or red behaviour) –  then I would refer it to my child protection lead in the school who would also be hopefully using the traffic light tool to determine the level of intervention needed.  I am clear on this, many teachers of PSHE are clear on this, but some aren’t, and they won’t be helped by misguided and innacurate reporting on it from the press.

It’s such a shame that such inaccurate reporting about sex education works to damage the reputation of this really important subject and may make some teachers reluctant or fearful about teaching it.  I just hope the Education Select Committee who are currently hearing evidence about PSHE will be able to see through this poor sensationalist reporting (and selective presentation of evidence and innacurate statements about “legality” from the Family Education Trust to the committee) to understand that the difference between guidance documents supporting the teaching of SRE, and guidance documents supporting the safeguarding of children and young people. Ultimately the the safety and healthy sexual development of young people depends on us getting this right. So maybe just maybe the reporters could try and get this right too?

 

 

 

 

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