Select Committee on Health Third Report


Visit to Manchester Young People's Council

Friday 15 November 2002

As part of its inquiry into sexual health, the Committee met with six representatives of the Manchester Young People's Council to discuss their experiences of and views on sex education and sexual health promotion.

Experiences of sex education in school

Young people's experiences of sex education in school varied widely. Most reported that the subject of sex education was split, with the factual, physical elements of the topic covered in science lessons, and social and emotional issues addressed in Personal Health and Social Education (PHSE) lessons, which were generally taught by form tutors rather than specialist teachers. The group were all in agreement that talking to their parents about sex was embarrassing. Several of the group had not had any school sex education prior to secondary school.

The group felt that having sex education in single-sex classes led to more openness and less embarrassment. One council member described a positive experience of sex education at his single-sex school during Year 9 (aged 13-14). A whole term of lessons was devoted to sex and relationships issues, led by a PHSE teacher who was not embarrassed or afraid of talking about delicate issues. This inspired confidence in the students who took the subject seriously and made good use of the facility provided to ask the teacher anonymous written questions.

However, several people felt that the position of sex education within the school curriculum was weak. The lack of exams meant that it was not classed as a 'real' or 'respected' subject by pupils or by teachers, with PHSE sessions frequently used by students as 'free periods' in which to complete coursework for other subjects. One member of the Council described her school's attempts at sex education as a 'fashion statement', a brief token effort driven by an urge to keep up with initiatives in neighbouring schools, which was soon forgotten.

Attitudes towards sex and sexual health

The group felt that an attitude of 'it won't happen to me' was widespread amongst people their age. Amongst girls, pregnancy was seen as a bigger fear than that of sexually transmitted infections, which were largely viewed as illnesses which could be easily treated, as opposed to having a child, which is a life-changing event.

When asked about the impact of peer pressure on sexual behaviour, the group reported that the concept of getting drunk and 'getting off with as many people as possible' is now such an accepted part of youth culture, for girls as well as boys, that young people are unlikely to have the opportunity to reflect on whether they are making the right decisions for themselves. The idea of direct 'peer pressure' is simply no longer relevant, with young people assuming that sexual activity from an early age is the norm, although of course young people may be subconsciously put under pressure by wider cultural influences.

Service provision

Some schools promoted an active awareness of sexual health services to their pupils, with posters for Brook advisory centres on display and visits from Brook sexual health nurses forming part of the sex education programme. It was generally felt that going to a GP with sexual health concerns would be harder than a clinic targeted at young people, because of perceptions that staff would be older, and may also have contact with their parents.

However, a few of the council members felt that the services provided by youth clinics were not necessarily striking the right balance either. One member described going to a clinic for advice and having large quantities of free condoms pushed on her without any supporting advice and guidance. There was a feeling that this type of approach promoted sex inappropriately, making it seem 'too easy, too casual' and risked normalising promiscuity among young people without paying enough attention to the emotional support that might be needed when making important decisions about sex and sexual health.

Beyond sex education

The group felt strongly that although sex education could be improved, the impact of school sex education on young peoples' sexual behaviour would always be limited in the face of other influences. Alcohol and the media were identified as two key factors in influencing sexual behaviour. The group described some teen movies as promoting sex in an inappropriate way (for example 'American Pie' and 'Road Trip'), and the teenage soap opera 'Dawson's Creek' was mentioned as providing a more positive take on teenage sexuality. The group also discussed a creeping sexualisation of society, with younger and younger children wearing 'sexy' clothes, and childhood being eroded. Adverts promoting the message that 'not everyone is having sex' had been positively received by the group.

Possible future options

Sex education typically centres around negotiating sexual encounters within established relationships. However, according to the representatives from Manchester Young People's Council, young people are now having many more transient sexual experiences outside traditional relationships which sex education does little to prepare them for.

Unsubtle 'scaremongering' tactics (the group described teenage mothers, drug users, and prison inmates visiting them in school) were not seen by the group as effective deterrents. One option suggested by the group was to train up 'peer advocates' within each school year to act as a source of information and guidance to fellow students.

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