The news that the Government is to mandate sex education lessons for primary school children prompts a fond recollection of my time in Government. Policy wonks from inside and outside Whitehall were gathered in Admiralty Arch to discuss strategies to tackle the UK’s stubbornly high levels of teenage pregnancy.
I recall a very detailed and authoritative presentation from leading social policy analyst Leon Feinstein. But what really sticks in my memory is the contribution of a young German researcher from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (don’t worry, Axel, I will protect your identity). His contribution to the debate was evidence both of the poor levels of basic sexual knowledge among the young and of the greater levels of resistance among British parents to talking to their young about sex. In precise language reinforced by his clipped German accent, he asked why it was that the British seemed to be so embarrassed. Was it, he asked, to do with the British tradition of smutty comedy exemplified by the Carry On films?
I sensed that some in the room were becoming rather irritated by being lectured by this foreign upstart. But before anyone could rebut his impugning of our national character the young man offered a specific example of the kind of thing parents should teach their children. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it may have involved the words penis and condom. As he said these words he looked around at this room of senior civil servants and academic researchers and, yes, several of us were suppressing giggles. I will never forget his look of total mystification as he realised that even in this august body the mere mention of naughty bits exposed our inner Sid James.
Anyway, it looks at though he stuck to his argument and eventually won through; if parents can’t be trusted to overcome their embarrassment schools will have to do the job. Which is all well and good. Indeed, we hear that as well as lessons in sex and relationships youngsters are also to be given advice on money management (certainly something they could usefully take home to their indebted parents), all as part of a curriculum aiming at giving people the practical skills they need to thrive in the world.
Given the RSA’s role in developing and successfully disseminating Opening Minds our own competencies based curriculum, the Society should be fully supportive of these announcements. But I have a caveat. As any parent knows, children forget most of what they are told and are much more likely to retain something if they see its immediate relevance and applicability. So we need to be realistic about how many of these new life skills will be retained if they are taught in abstract (some would say this is the big lesson of the mixed impact of the citizenship curriculum). Instead the best way to teach these skills is to attach them to activities which engage and stimulate young people. So, for example, the best way to develop financial literacy may be to explore how schools can establish their own micro-businesses or token economies in which children apply their knowledge to motivating and fun tasks.
Which is fine for financial literacy but a great deal more problematic when it comes to sex education. I’m just glad I’m not a primary school teacher. I can imagine the child’s hand going up and the question being asked:
‘Sir, if it is important that we know all this and that we don’t get embarrassed, why do you keep blushing and giggling?’
Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Foresight Lead)
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