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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.

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

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