Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Sex Education: How Do Teachers Decide What Is Age-Appropriate?

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Sex Education: How Do Teachers Decide What Is Age-Appropriate?

Article excerpt

Advice on when the ‘right’ time is for young people to learn about certain aspects of sex is frustratingly vague – and it is teachers who have been left to fill in the gaps, finds Irena Barker

Is it OK to teach a Year 8 student about pornography? How about telling your Year 4 class about periods? Is 15 too late to learn about the negative consequences of unprotected sex? Everyone is likely to have a slightly different answer, different caveats and different specifications for each of these questions. Emotions, life experience, education, ideology and religion can all have a profound effect on how we feel about what pupils need to know and at what age.

That is why the government’s statutory curriculum for primary relationships education and secondary relationships and sex education puts schools and teachers in a very tricky position.

Rather than lay down, in detail, precisely what to teach and when, the guidance lists what has to be learned only by the end of each phase. It leaves it up to schools to decide when and how – and in what depth – each area is taught within that phase but specifies that teaching should be “age and developmentally appropriate”.

That phrase is a minefield for schools. While they generally welcome being given autonomy, how should schools interpret “age and developmentally appropriate” given the huge variability in the potential views among parents, teachers and the children themselves?

Route to clarity

A first stop on the route to clarity might be the Department for Education itself, but it does little to enlighten.

It says: “Our guiding principles have been that all of the compulsory subject content must be age appropriate and developmentally appropriate. It must be taught sensitively and inclusively, with respect to the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents.”

No help there. How about Ofsted? The inspectorate says that it does not set expectations for what should be taught or when “beyond that required by the law”, but that it would “take into account on inspection any concerns raised by parents – to the school or directly to Ofsted – about age appropriateness.”

That suggests the parents may get a big say in what “age appropriate” really means in practice but, as Grainne Hallahan explains on page 28, dealing with parents’ views is a world of problems in itself.

So, with only this to go on from officials, what does the research into child and adolescent physical, cognitive, social and emotional development say that might help schools and teachers make their judgements?

Well, it can provide a good guide as to when to talk to pupils about the way their bodies will change with puberty: essentially, earlier is better.

The biological changes of adolescence are observed in children as young as 8 or 9, and British research found that nearly one in 10 girls aged 11 had begun menstruation. This study, based on children born between 2000 and 2002, also found that girls from the poorest backgrounds were twice as likely to have had their first period by age 11 compared with girls from the richest backgrounds.

One aspect of development that is discussed much less is the “spermarche” (perhaps because it is less easy to measure) – the age when boys first start to produce sperm. Experimental research from the 1980s suggests that this happens at a median average age of 13.4 years old.

Talking about these changes when they have already happened is unlikely to be helpful, say the experts: we need to prepare young people in advance for the changes that are going to happen.

“Education about puberty is usually confined to grades 4-6 [ages 9-12],” writes Eva Goldfarb, in a chapter she co-wrote for the 2015 book Evidence-based Approaches to Sexuality Education: a global perspective. But the professor of public health at Montclair State University in New Jersey adds: “Given that pubertal changes can occur as early as age 8 … starting that conversation even earlier is appropriate and, depending on the curiosity and maturity level, even younger children can start to learn about the bodily changes of puberty so that they are prepared when these changes come about. …

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