Britain has a problem with sex. Specifically, we have a problem
with sex education. It’s supposed to teach kids about reproduction,
safe sex and stable relationships. But it’s not working.
Our rates of teenage pregnancy are the highest in Europe and
sexually transmitted infections are on the rise. Young people are
having sex at an earlier age, and newspapers revel in stories of
teenagers with a stunning ignorance of the most basic information
about sex – except how to do it, of course.
But we shouldn’t be surprised when our sex education is ruined by
embarrassment, indifference and lack of specialist knowledge. As
our interviews show, what we like to think happens in the classroom
and what actually happens there are worlds apart. Too often it’s
blas’, a case of “This is sex education, read the sheet.”
Adults may think we should be protected from sexual knowledge, but
they need to face the facts. Advertisements, films and TV
programmes – all made by adults – bombard us with images of sex
from an early age. Then other adults complain that we know too
much, too young.
As Olivia says: “The way TV programmes and films portray sex, they
don’t show the pregnancy or the diseases. In most films they just
have sex and then they’re all right. So you think ‘Oh, you know,
I’ll do it then as well, I’ll copy my favourite actor or
The least you can do is give us the knowledge we need to protect
“Most things I learned off the TV”
by Tom Stratton, 16, Hull
“The sex education lessons were pretty useless. A lot of it is
learned in biology and the only things that were useful were the
infection and protection information.
“Most things I learned I picked up off TV, other people and
magazines. School did teach me bits, though, like going into more
detail. I didn’t find it particularly helpful. Most of my
information was learned on the streets. Most of it turned out to be
right, but some wasn’t.
“The stuff about sexually transmitted infections was most useful –
stuff that people just don’t talk about. Some children have no
idea, so it might make them think twice about unprotected
“Because of the amount of teenage pregnancies you can see a lot of
kids are not properly educated, so any advice they are given is a
bonus. It might make them think before jumping into anything.
“But I don’t think there is much that can be done about it.
Whatever happens, you always get the people that don’t listen or
think it won’t happen to them. There were at least six pregnancies
in my last year at school and they had the exact same sex education
as everyone else.
“Nothing can really prepare you for what happens in the real world
– it all depends on a person’s individual situation. But I suppose
it does help you little bits along the way.”
“I learned most from the school nurse”
by Marie, 11, Sheffield
“Boys are less mature than girls and should be taught about sex
later, about year 8. Girls should be taught in year 6.
“I’ve seen videos about how babies were born and about diseases. I
know about Aids. I think most people have ideas already, because at
my school people talked about sex even before the videos and stuff.
But we learned some things that we didn’t already know – more
“I don’t find it easy to talk to my teachers about sex issues.
Maybe the school nurse, but not the normal teachers. I learned most
about sexual health from the school nurse. My friends don’t teach
me anything, they just laugh all the time. I feel most comfortable
talking about personal things with my mum and my cousins.”
“They should start from the age of seven”
by Olivia, 16, Sheffield
“At my primary school we watched one video and it was just a little
cartoon of a man and woman moving about in a bed and then they shut
the curtains and that was it. So I don’t think we were told enough.
It was very limited. I mean, in primary school I learned more on
the street than I did from what school told me.
“They should start it from the age of seven and primary schools and
secondary schools should have a set package of what they’re going
to do throughout their school years. In secondary school we had a
pack that we had to get through, but it was a booklet and you just
did it and the teachers didn’t really help you. It was, like ‘work
through this booklet and you’ve done it’.” Everyone should learn at
the same age and learn exactly the same things.
“For stuff on infections it was one lesson with a work sheet and
you could read it if you wanted and if you didn’t nobody forced
you. We had special talks on periods, but what happens if the
teachers aren’t really comfortable with saying it? They’re not
going to tell you everything they know if they don’t feel
comfortable with it, so they should get a specialist, who knows how
to deal with telling kids.
“Each school should have a Connexions adviser on sex and sexual
matters especially in secondary school.
“Sex education has prepared us a fraction – maybe a quarter, maybe
a half – but not fully, not at all. You need to put the same
information that teenage girls’ magazines put in as well. They
actually do put a lot of information in it and you’d have to give
helpline numbers on a piece of paper or something, all wallet-size
ones. That would be handy.”
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to a teacher”
Saurice, 16, Sheffield
“I don’t think we learned enough in secondary school. Our teacher
actually said to us: ‘I don’t think you’re mature enough to watch
this sex education video, so I’m not going to let you watch it,’
even though other forms did get to.
“We covered sexually transmitted infections with our form teacher,
but I think she was a bit shy to talk about it a lot to be honest.
And you’re not going to want to go up to a teacher and ask him a
question are you? Because you’re going to feel embarrassed because
they don’t actually deal with that, they deal with school matters
really. I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to a teacher.
“In a way it’s not as useful to name parts as it is to tell you how
to use it all, what it does and things like that. OK, you know the
names, but in the end it’s not going to stop you from getting
pregnant. It’s not going to stop you from getting infections, so
you need to know also what could happen in different
“If you’re not taught about infections and Aids and stuff then
you’re not going to know, so you’re not going to think that
anything can come of sex.
“A lack of knowledge stops people from saying no. But if they don’t
know enough information then they’re not going to know that they’re
missing out on information.
“People need to be aware of all the main issues that sex involves,
that’s the type of lessons we need. Of course, it needs to be more
interactive lessons than putting them in front of a video for an
hour and saying ‘Did you get that? See you later’.”
This article was written by Natalie Ansell, 16, Wei-Jun
Chang, 15, and Lucas Davidson, 13. Children’s Express is a
programme of learning through journalism for young people aged
8-18. Please visit the website at
Tips from Children’s Express for improving sex
- Schools should employ sexual health specialists whose role is
to deliver sex and relationship education only.
- Teach sex education at an earlier age and follow a proper
syllabus that is the same for all schools.
- Integrate the primary and secondary sex education
- Make sure all the information is up-to-date, relevant and
- Give us more detail about actual sexual practices, such as oral
sex and masturbation.
- Teach girls and boys exactly the same things, so they
understand each other’s problems better.
- Give more detailed information on family planning clinics and
the services they can offer.
- Give free condoms to kids in sex education. You may not like
the thought of your kids having sex but if they do, surely
it’s better that they’re protected?
- Give out information cards with numbers young people can call
if they have any personal queries and problems.
- Find out what young people actually want to know and adapt the