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Examining Sex and Relationship Education: How do teachers determine content and approach?

Sex and Relationship Education in schools will always be a contentious topic but to what extent do a teacher’s own views impact on what children learn? This project used a number of interviews and lesson observations to analyse the current focus of SRE teaching and whether it was fit for purpose in today’s society.

Researcher

Keeley Abbot

School of Psychology

Background

Since its introduction within UK secondary schools, Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) has been a highly controversial subject. Driven by concerns to reduce the negative consequences of young people’s sexual activity, SRE content has largely focused on preventing disease and pregnancy, while promoting sex within marriage.

While current UK SRE guidance highlights the importance of presenting information that meets a more diverse range of needs, the content actually presented to young people remains at the discretion of individual teachers and school governors. This often results in limited provision that fails to meet the needs of many young people. Although SRE as a subject has received much criticism, there is little focus on how teachers decide the content, which is problematic given the crucial role they play in deciding the nature and scope of what is taught.

Aims of research

This project aims to contribute towards increasing the quality and scope of SRE, based on the opportunities this presents in improving the sexual and emotional health of young people. It seeks to challenge the limited focus of SRE in order to promote more inclusive provision for young people through changes in practice and policy.

Method of research

This research examined how SRE is determined at the level of the teacher. More specifically, it focused on how teachers decide on their overall approach and core elements of their programmes.  The research took place within nine secondary schools in South Yorkshire, England. A total of eight teachers from a number of schools were interviewed (three males, five females) and observed within their SRE lessons. Teachers were interviewed about their SRE approach and content, SRE policy, and barriers to provision and to pupil/teacher evaluations.

Outcomes

The findings from this research highlight the fact that SRE content is almost exclusively biased towards biological and health-related facets of provision, based on teachers’ somewhat limited assumptions about young people's sexuality and their sexual health needs. These problem-based concerns contrast to those expressed by young people, including curiosity, experimentation and pleasure. Consequently, the content of SRE often serves key interest groups (parents, governors, religious groups) as opposed to the young people themselves.

Through identifying the barriers to inclusive provision and increasing awareness of good practice, this project aims to directly contribute towards the improvement of secondary school education and practice. The findings have been published in SecEd, a secondary education publication/digest distributed nationally, which will raise awareness among educators of the limited nature of sex and relationship education.