Andi Cope
RSE Lead for Spectrum

Confidence in RSE: how to teach sex education

When I arrive in a classroom, I am often met by the teacher saying, ‘I’m so glad you are teaching this’, or ‘How do you talk about this topic? I couldn’t do it’.

Students are likely to be more interested in the resource bag I am holding at this point, and wanting to know if I’ve ever been stopped by police with condoms and ‘demonstrators’ in my boot. “I haven’t been stopped” is the answer to that question, but I have had a tyre changed at a garage and forgot about the need to access my boot for the wheel nut! I think it’s funny, my family think it’s not so funny! So, what can you do if you’re worried about facing challenging questions?

Distancing techniques

De-personalising discussions, questions and reflective tasks can massively reduce fear caused by a common misconception about RSE – that a good teacher of sex education shares personal stories and has relatable anecdotes for all RSE eventualities. In my experience, what young people want is an honest, factual, simple response to their question. They might have asked me when I first had sex or what is the most awful STI I have ever had, but actually what they want to know is far deeper than information about my personal history.

If you find yourself confronted with a question like, “When did you first have sex?”, you can respond by telling students the up-to-date average age of first sex within your area, which can be found using local public health data. In my area, the average age of first sexual intercourse is 16 – which leads nicely into conversations about the law and if people are conscious of the law or whether other factors contribute to the age of first sex.

It also lends itself to talking about if their perception of age of first sex is sexual intercourse, or if young people are sexually active before that age. In our area, we have data that revealed that when people did have sexual intercourse, they were between the age of 16-23. This introduces themes of culture, diversity, delay, sexuality, self-esteem and choice. All this without me having to reveal anything about my sexual experiences as a teenager in the late 80s, thank goodness!

Understanding the real issue

The second question about “the worst STIs” is to do with the side-effects linked to infections – as more often than not, the Internet has given a pupil the impression that all infections are linked to the most horrific of symptoms. This question is a good platform for introducing the fact that infections may or may not have symptoms and that it is very common for someone to feel fit, healthy and well but still have an infection because they have had sexual contact with someone who passed it on to them. The young people are interested here in what infections are an issue locally, how you protect yourself and your partner from getting one and where you can go for help or advice as a young person.

No self-disclosure is needed and the young person probably didn’t intend to make you feel uncomfortable by framing their question as a personal question. If you do suspect the young person intentionally asked a probing (and therefore inappropriate) question that stepped outside of your class agreement, I would remind the person of the ground rules, that I would not be answering that question but what I will talk about are STIs more generally.

Using case studies

Case studies, scenarios and clips from TV programmes can all provide the opportunity to use distancing techniques, and support learning in a safe and comfortable way that adheres to your classroom working agreement of no names or personal stories, whilst still reaching the depth of discussion you are looking for.

These example distanced questions are taken from the PSHE Association and could be used following case studies or film clips used for critical thinking and unpacking themes;

  • What is happening to them?
  • Why might this be happening?
  • How are they feeling? What are they thinking?
  • What do other people think of them?
  • Who could help them?
  • What would you tell them to do if they asked for help?
  • What could you say or do to persuade them to act differently?

About the author

Andi Cope leads Spectrum’s RSE provision and has been working in Relationships and Sex Education since 2008. She is passionate about the personal, social and health education of young people, and creating innovative resources that address sensitive topics in an interactive and inclusive way.

Andi has a background in creative arts and youth and community work, and is also a doctoral student focusing on RSE policy and practice. Materials developed by Andi for a prison-based RSE programme were awarded the Pamela Sheridan Sex and Relationship Award in 2015, and in 2016 her resources for the Learning Disability RSE Programme were shortlisted for the HSJ Patient Safety Award. Andi works closely with young people as the co-producers of the RSE materials and supports schools and youth services to deliver RSE in line with Government guidance. To find out more, email PR@spectrum-cic.nhs.uk.

Andi Cope
RSE Lead for Spectrum