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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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