Visit to Manchester Young People's
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
Experiences of sex education in
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
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.
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.