We need to talk about genitals

You can't teach sex education without using the proper words, although schools minister Nick Gibb seems to think otherwise.

How can you teach sex education without saying the words "penis" and "vagina" - or perhaps even talking about sex? We are about to find out.

The Society For The Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) has published a letter from Nick Gibb, the schools minister, where he writes:

"I can confirm that neither the current National Curriculum nor the new draft programme of study requires the naming of internal or external body parts with reference to reproduction. The current National Curriculum level descriptions and the new draft notes and guidance make clear that this is not included when pupils are taught to name the main body parts in KS1/Year 1"

and:

"Whilst the new draft includes a little more detail about reproductive processes than the current curriculum; it requires a pupil in Year 6 to be taught to compare the life process of reproduction in plants and animals; the programme of study itself does not require pupils to be taught about the mechanisms by which fertilisation takes place."

As a qualified Secondary Science teacher and Sex and Relationships Education Advisory Teacher, and a parent, I was very surprised by this. 

The SPUC have interpreted it to mean “schools are not required to teach children about sex in science lessons”, which a spokesperson for the Department of Education has stated is misleading and unhelpful (they also reminded us that the document is draft and not yet finalised). 

However, concerns remain. There are so many misunderstandings about what Primary School Sex & Relationships Education (including the Statutory Science National Curriculum) is and is not, with existing primary school provision being extremely variable between schools.

The Science National Curriculum (which is under review) currently mentions reproduction should be covered in both Key Stage 1 and 2, and the current draft version states, under “All Living Things for Year 6 (10/11-year-olds)":

“Examples that can be used include: animals reproduce sexually: fish: eggs are externally fertilised; birds: eggs are internally fertilised and laid as a shelled egg; mammals, including humans: eggs are internally fertilised and young are born alive.”

So it is actually ambiguous whether teachers should cover the “mechanisms by which fertilisation takes place” – also known as "sex" to most people. 

Meanwhile, although pupils at KS2 are expected to know more complicated organs such as “lungs; nose, throat, trachea, bronchi, bronchial tubes, diaphragm, ribs”, nowhere in the document is "penis" or "vulva/vagina" mentioned for either KS1 or KS2, with the only the names of the main “acceptable” body parts being mentioned: “head, neck, arms, elbows, legs, knees, face, ears, eyes, hair, mouth, teeth, etc.”

That leaves it up to the teacher whether they dare to mention the genitals under the ambiguous “etc”. In light of Nick Gibbs's letter to SPUC, it is a worry whether teachers will feel confident enough to do so. 

Personally, I would say it would be somewhat tricky to teach human reproduction without naming the reproductive organs or mentioning sexual intercourse - but this absolutely can and should be done in an age-appropriate way. It's also important to remember that while parents should be involved in these conversations, some may be reluctant or embarrassed, or may lack the sufficient scientific knowledge themselves.

And why is using the proper words so important? Let me give you two examples. First, I heard of a child abuse case where the abuser called his penis a "lollipop", as no one would think twice about a child talking about lollipops. Second, a father was apparently investigated by police for months after his daughter said "Daddy hurt my Noo Noo".

Noo Noo, it turned out, was her toy rabbit - which her father had put in the wash. 

This kind of confusion is exactly why using the right words, in an age-appropriate way, is vital. By stating that teachers don’t need to cover body parts or the science of fertilisation, the draft guidance makes an already confusing unclear area of the curriculum even more so. This will make the secondary school science teacher’s job so much harder, as they have to go back to the real basics (which we simply don’t have time to do in an already packed curriculum). 

As a secondary science teacher, I could tell the primary schools that covered reproduction well and those that didn’t. A scary amount of Year 7 children (aged 11-12) who I taught still had an idea that babies either came out of a woman’s anus or urethra (although obviously they didn’t know those words- “bum or where you wee from” being the only language they could use).

These children had no idea the vaginal entrance existed. Being so behind in the basics they simply couldn’t grasp the notion of a woman being fertile for a few days a month, compared with a man being fertile all the time, and other crucial knowledge about human reproduction. 

I find this incredibly scary in a time when puberty is happening earlier and earlier and we have issues with some girls getting pregnant under the age of consent quite simply because they don’t understand how their bodies work. 

When writing this post, I realised I had blogged about primary school sex education, SPUC and the Science National Curriculum almost exactly a year ago and I am disappointed that a whole year on I am still having to say the same things

However, instead of moving forward on the issue, it seems we are going backwards. In the last year we have had sex education teachers being likened to paedophiles (another one here). Popular Sex and Relationships education resources for primary schools are being amended or even pulled.

A vocal minority have the ear of the government, it seems, and it is time for the silent majority, who are supportive of school sex and relationships education, to start shouting back.

I would urge everyone, as an individual, to write to their MPs about this. Don’t let us take a big step backwards for science and a big step backwards for our young people and their entitlement to sex and relationships education. Please, won't someone think of the children?

Alice Hoyle, a sex and relationships advisory teacher, tweets @sexedukation

If we don't use the right words, confusion can reign. Photo: Getty Images

Alice Hoyle, a sex and relationships advisory teacher, tweets @sexedukation

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.