According to a study led by Pandora Pound of the School of Social and Community Medicine at Bristol University, sex education in schools all over the world is of such poor quality that students find it irrelevant.
The research carried out on young people in Ireland and nine other countries including Britain, the US, Iran, Japan, Australia and others found that sex and relationships education (SRE) is so often “out of touch with many young people’s lives”, that students switch off during lessons. There was a consistency in the young people’s views regardless of from which country they belonged to.
The results were published in the journal BMJ Open after Pound and her colleagues examined 55 previously published studies that set out young people’s views of sex education between 1990 and 2015. The views of pupils and ex-pupils from the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil and Sweden were included in these.
Researchers found that young people find it uncomfortable to have their own teachers deliver sex education, and said specialist teachers should be brought in to conduct the classes. “They expressed dislike of their own teachers delivering SRE due to blurred boundaries, lack of anonymity, embarrassment and poor training,” according to the study.
A 2013 report into sex education by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate for England, had also found that 81% of 18-year-olds believe that SRE should not be taught by a teacher from their own schools. Teachers themselves are often uncomfortable at teaching SRE.
Students also expressed that schools seemed to see sex as a problem to be managed, that there was too much focus on heterosexual relationships and that females were often portrayed as passive and males as predatory.
Students were also of the view that lessons were negative and moralistic. Young people criticized the overly scientific approach to sex, which ignored pleasure and desire, and instead presented sex as a problem to be dealt with. They said that there was too much focus on abstinence and not enough focus on the actual emotions and problems that they were going through.
In the SRE lessons discussion of gay, bisexual or transgender relationships was totally absent. Schools also seemed not to accept the fact that some students were sexually active and also failed to address the full range of the sexual activities that students might be engaged in. This led to sex education being out of touch with the reality of many young people’s lives, they said.
“It is clear from our findings that SRE [sex and relationship education] provision in schools frequently fails to meet the needs of young people,” Pound said. “Schools seem to have difficulty accepting [that] some people are sexually active, which leads to SRE that is out of touch with many young people’s lives.”
Researchers found that SRE lessons caused disruptive behaviors in male pupils in class in order to hide their anxiety and ignorance about sex. It also left female pupils at risk of harassment if they participated, indicating that this smartphone generation is not proper sex education.
Students suggested that schools should be much more “sex-positive” – open, frank and positive about sex in a way that challenges negative attitudes in society to sex.
Schools could tackle these problems by instead holding some single sex SRE lessons and using sex educators from outside to deliver lessons, the authors said.
“It is disappointing that the pattern of inadequate sex and relationships education is repeated from country to country, with young people in England and elsewhere saying that SRE starts too little and too late and is often too biological with little attention to relationships, and lessons fail to reflect the reality of young people’s lives,” said Lucy Emmerson, co-ordinator of the UK’s Sex Education Forum.
“Teachers have repeatedly said that they need subject-specific training so that they can teach good quality sex and relationships education, but in England there has been a failing on the part of government to require that SRE must be taught in every school, so there are huge gaps in provision with some schools not teaching the subject at all,” she added.
The study, which was funded by the NHS’s National Institute for Health Research, also found that SRE often does not give pupils practical information such as what to do if they become pregnant and the pros and cons of different methods of contraception. In addition it found that sex education is often delivered too late for some pupils.
Without an overhaul of SRE, “young people will continue to disengage from SRE and opportunities for safeguarding and improving their sexual health will be reduced”, the paper warns.
“The international evidence is clear, comprehensive SRE taught early by trained educators results in improvements for young people’s sexual health and reductions in sexual violence,” added Emmerson. “But too many countries are failing to respond and take action and provide children and young people with the education they need and deserve.”
Read more on debate corner: Are we open to sex education in this society