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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Defining sex, upskilling parents and working with sharks: the 2019 Sex Education Forum conference

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

Nazir Afzal talking at a podium with one hand outstretched
“Don’t allow people to try and ensure that our kids be in the 19th century”: former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal

The Sex Education Forum annual conference – held this year on 29 November and entitled Final Countdown to Statutory RSE (relationships and sex education) – runs a provocative gamut of subjects from sex to sexting to sex education. And sharks…

“Last year,” explains conference chair and BigTalk Education founder Lynnette Smith, “we were happy to hear that relationships and sex education was being made mandatory so children across the country could get the education they deserve. We were ready to use it as a springboard. But now, as we dive in, there are sharks trying to derail the whole process. We are, however, working with the sharks.”

Instrumental in confronting those sharks and defusing the heated controversy over LGBT lessons was former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal OBE. He stepped up in May to mediate between parents and activists at Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham. Addressing the conference crowd, he says: “We are seeing a pushback against RSE. We’re now at the stage of saying: don’t let young people know gay people exist. Those protestors were insidious and misinforming. Incredibly there were men shouting at five-year-olds and showing them pictures of gay sex. The government was cowardly: why did they let this school take all the flak? There have been 21 staff in counselling. I looked at two books in question: one showed a boy dressed as a girl and the other was about a couple of penguins with an egg…”

He goes on to say: “Young people want to be listened to and informed, and they want parents to be informed. People say parents can provide RSE learning at home. I’m sure they can, but often they don’t. It needs to happen in the safe environment of school. Parents and RSE-positive parents go under the radar because they don’t shout and scream.”

“Good people need to get louder,” says Afzal. “They shouldn’t stand by and allow people to try and ensure that our kids be in the 19th century. Call them out. I am on the side of the people doing the right thing, trying to educate the next generation. There is merit in doing so. Why bother? Because we have saved lives.”

Young people listen to young people, Afzal says, joking that his children don’t listen to him anymore. “We need an array of young people – a group skilled up in issues like safeguarding, gender equality, good relationships, the things that keep us safe – to go into schools and colleges and be paid so they’re being valued,” he advises. “Find local funding to talk about these absolutely central issues, and I assure you that will bear fruit.”


Two amazing young people take the stage, Childnet Youth Ambassadors Afua Nkansah-Asamoah and Sophie Hextall. Tackling online sexual harassment among 13- to 17-year-olds via Project deSHAME, they learned by working alongside international counterparts that British young people aren’t as open with their parents as kids from Denmark and Hungary.

In sex education Nkansah-Asamoah learned to put on a condom, but there was no discussion about healthy relationships, setting boundaries or saying no. Consent is a big topic, agrees Hextall, that’s often only addressed at uni but that should start even when little kids are stacking bricks. They debate the benefits of splitting girls and boys in sex ed – each group might feel more comfortable about being open – but the downsides are that this segregation doesn’t best serve LGBT-questioning kids; it can perpetuate a sense of shame and the idea that some topics are off limits to some people; it leaves room for perio jokes and misinformation; it prevents sharing common knowledge about bodies.

“Young people want quality information,” says Nkansah-Asamoah.

“I learned about relationships through The Notebook and Titanic,” volunteers Hextall.

In a reverse-mentoring move, she reassures the crowd: “Don’t negate the value of your own experiences and skills around healthy relationships.”

But how much can adults really help young people with their sexual and relationships development when young people not included in conversations around sex ed? “Dialogue is at the heart of it,” explains Nkansah-Asamoah. “Create a space where young people can be heard and get them to critically engage.”

All the talk with young people about sex is negative – and that closes it off to young people, says Hextall. Sex should not be scary, stigmatised or taboo: “We must twist the dialogue so young people have healthy consensual safe sex and are not scared off by it. We need to talk about sexual pleasure.”


Sexual pleasure tops the list of subjects young people did not learn about in school, followed by FGM and porn. These are the results from the Young People’s RSE Poll published by the Sex Education Forum in November. Fewer than 6 in 10 young people learned all they needed to at school about healthy and abusive relationships, grooming and how to get help if they were sexually abused or assaulted and 18% learned nothing about LGBT+ issues. In terms of talking to their parents about relationships and sex education (RSE) issues, 47% said the quality of their conversations was “good or very good” and 19% said “bad or very bad”.

“Not all parents are terribly keen to have open conversations,” says Lynnette Smith of what she finds through her organisation BigTalk. “But through written feedback we know that for every parent who has a wobble about the RSE programme there are 10 to 50 who appreciate it and 100+ who don’t come to meetings because they have every faith in the school and our programme. We’re not just educating the children – it’s also the parents and grandparents.”

Lucy Emmerson standing near a microphone next to a drawing that says "tricky conversations"
Tricky conversations: Sex Education Forum director Lucy Emmerson

Sex Education Forum director Lucy Emmerson points out: “Unlike with other subjects, parents are necessary in developing RSE.” Involving them is ideally part of a whole-school approach. The government recommends delivering sex education at primary school, although not all schools offer it and parents have a right to withdraw their children or – to use the new, less forceful-sounding term – have their children exercise their “right to be excused”.

The reality, as Emmerson points out, is that the subjects of sex, relationships, science and health subjects are complementary and don’t always stay compartmentalised. Children might ask a question about sex during biology class. It’s a question of how teachers manage the questions. “We are hoping to build an understanding with parents,” she says, “so there is maximum participation and minimum withdrawal. Parents need to understand what is being taught in school and be empowered to take on a role at home. Transparency is in everyone’s best interests.”


Elegantly clattering to the stage with rulers strung around her waist, Emma Renold – professor in childhood studies at Cardiff University – explains that this ruler skirt reclaims the practice of boys lifting girls’ skirts with rulers. On the rulers are written inspirational messages and insults, highlighting young people’s experiences of unwanted touching at school. A similar initiative is the Runway of Disrespect – a strip of paper scrawled with hurtful words students have heard in school that they can then stamp on, and symbolically stamp out, as they leave the assembly hall.

“Gender and sexuality mediate children’s day-to-day lives in normalised, exciting, painful, pleasurable, political, visible and highly invisible ways,” Renold says.

Along with young people, Renold co-created the Agenda programme – subtitled A Young People’s Guide to Making Positive Relationships Matter – which uses creativity as a way for kids to speak up about things that are important to them. It has inclusivity, rights and social justice at its heart, Renold explains. Because its creative activities help children and young people influence what’s taught in school and how, she calls it a living curriculum.

In one 10-minute activity, these student thoughts came pouring out:


gender stereotyping, banter, catcalling me, joking about periods, assuming 2 people of the opposite sex are dating, sexualising girls’ bodies, saying men are helpless to their urges, saying women belong in the kitchen, weight shaming, slut shaming in the media – it’s not helping!, telling me how high/low our skirt can/can’t be, boys devaluing girls, criticising those who are from a different background, judging girls by their make-up, judging people for their interests based on their gender, stigma around mental health – we need more support systems!, abusing people for their sexuality, using the female body as an excuse for feeding rape culture, boys judging girls for not doing what they want, boys forcing girls and girls forcing boys to do sexual things, teachers ignoring bullying, objectifying me – I am not your property

One student declared: “Make it normal for anyone to speak openly about how they are feeling.” One boy revealed: “I would go out with Tom if there were no gender stereotypes.” Someone else said: “Apparently I’m not allowed to cry – who made up the rules?”


Sounding a note of caution is Dr Ritu Mahendru, whose July piece The backlash against sex education in the UK will ultimately harm children asks where the voices of young South Asian women are in the debate. “As a country we pay too much attention to religious groups,” she says. “Because male religious leaders do a disservice to women’s rights and LGBT rights, we need to unpack what community means in terms of sex ed. What if violations of rights are happening in the community and in its families? Don’t go to leaders – we need to hear girls and women’s voices. Women can speak for ourselves.”


One three-word question – “What is sex?” – brings up revealing results from young people. From their answers about what it really is, how it happens and what it means, says primary-school sex and relationships teacher Jonny Hunt: “You can find out what they’re watching, who’s gobby, who’s embarrassed, who parrots back ‘peer pressure’, ‘STIs’ and ‘consent’ and who says ‘fun’, ‘intimate’, ‘pleasure’. There’s always a boy who says ‘love’ – and there’s a swoon in the room. But if you only have sex with people you love, and then you don’t want to have sex with someone because you’re not ready, what does that mean about loving them?”

The founder of the sex-ed consultancy Going Off The Rails, Hunt advocates a sex-positive approach. He’s also alert to the differences between the relationships and sex-education messages that girls and boys are given and receive. Talks about puberty for girls are primarily about periods and contraception. Girls are also landed with the responsibility of giving consent. For boys talks about puberty home in on wet dreams, ejaculation, erections, masturbation. The issue is that everyone needs to know how bodies work. So rebranding a topic can give it validity for LGBT people too. Calling a workshop What Makes Sex Safe rather than About Contraception means that it can also cover STIs and be LGBT inclusive.

“Teen sexting is a very rational act with very irrational consequences” is the insight Hunt quotes from social-media expert danah boyd (who self-styles as lowercase).

About porn, Hunt says: “I’m anti being anti-porn because it’s not sex positive.” Porn isn’t one thing, he notes, just as films about war can recreate life in the trenches or be documentaries or be entertainment. What is our problem with porn, he says, and are there benefits for young people? To a 15-year-old gay kid in a village who can find out that there are other people like them out there, online access is a lifeline.

We can unpick the undermining messages that young people get from the world. Look at the social scripts around romance and how sex should work that we see in mainstream movies and TV shows or the messages behind the Police song “Every Breath You Take” and the stories of Sleeping Beauty (where’s the consent in that?) and even Frozen (“He convinces her that she’s into him because they both like sandwiches and he separates her from her sister – classic grooming”). Shows like Naked Attraction, Love Island and The Sex Clinic challenge social and sexual-health scripts by presenting diverse bodies, different sexual orientations and consent in a new light.

We can also unpick the undermining messages that young people get from us – because we can change what we say. From the start, we should use the correct terms for body parts. A girl not knowing the difference between her vulva and her vagina would be like a boy saying penis when he means testicles. Then there’s the point that everyone knows the word willy, but there’s no accepted jokey equivalent for girls.

“I tell kids: There’s ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ – but what about the bits in between?” says Hunt. “For girls it’s She Who Must Not Be Named.”

Two key messages that work equally brilliantly for young kids and young adults: “Your body belongs to you”(about respect, consent and having a mutually pleasurable time) and “Is my fun fun for everyone?”(about playing nicely, boundaries and personal space).

“When our kids were little and we dropped them off at a party we’d say: ‘Be polite. Don’t jump on the furniture’,” says Hunt. “But we don’t give our teenagers rules about how to have good sex. We don’t talk about rights and responsibilities, about our sexual values. Society says that sex happens to girls, guys do it to girls. The word for a lad who sleeps around is a lad. Actually sex means different things to different people.”


“Parents aren't always fully aware of what we are teaching with regards to RSE, which is why it’s important to share information and resources with them,” says Lindsay Gamble, headteacher of the multicultural Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Primary School in Doncaster. Being transparent from the start, she arranged a meeting to explain what would be taught in the RSE programme, when and why. The result: a good turnout of parents, staff and governors in a hall as packed as if for a nativity – and no challenges. To allay concerns that their children might hear something before they were ready, she tells parents: “Children will take the content they need and what’s relevant to them, and the delivery is always age appropriate.” Her emphasis is both on safeguarding children so they feel strong enough to speak out and on building trust with parents. The school’s mission statement includes: “We are all special and respect each other’s differences” – a mantra that applies to all irrespective of faith, gender, race, culture etc.


“We are tasked to connect with parents and work with them so they understand RSE. Part of that is upskilling them to be able to do a really good job at home themselves,” says Josie Rayner-Wells. Getting parents onside with relationships and sex education is partly about the approach. When she changed the title of a talk about relationships and sex education to Keeping Your Child Safe in the Modern World, parents came without anxiety and more dads showed up – an interesting shift.

A national PSHE (personal, social, health, economic education) and RSE adviser, Rayner-Wells encourages schools to champion LGBT inclusivity in their mission statement and to reference the Equality Act 2010: “Show that you celebrate diversity – and you don’t get to pick and choose which of the protected characteristics you protect.”

When talking to parents about LGBT inclusivity in lessons, schools should emphasise evidence-based facts: that the government requires it; that there are kids in every year who are questioning their sexuality or know they’re not heteronormative; that there is an increased risk of self-harm and attempted suicide among LGBT students.

Because parents can benefit from seeing the questions children ask, schools should do an anonymous student consultation and share it with parents.

With students, teachers can do a walk-through audit of the school – a temperature gauge – to observe things like what the range of library books implies, how diverse families are presented and what impressions the school gives about gender.

Rayner-Wells likes to get parents to reflect on the idea that: “We want something better for our kids.” Most parents agree with the sentiments of former education secretary of state Damian Hinds who said in February: “Now more than ever, it is necessary for us to give young people the knowledge that they need in every context to lead safe, happy and healthy lives.”

That includes talking openly about sex and relationships issues. “Even teachers need to find a way to be comfortable to use the right words,” says Rayner-Wells. “That doesn’t happen by happy coincidence – it happens by repetition and practice.”

Post-conference, a roomful of relationships and sex-education professionals chat over drinks. If 2019 was notable for diving into new waters and swimming with sharks, hopefully 2020 will prove to be smoother sailing…

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