RSE – let’s talk about sex (and babies)
How to teach your Year 6 class about the birds and the bees without the ‘eeuwws!’ and ‘errghs!’
- by Matthew Lane
Relationship and sex education. You might know it as RSE, SRE, sex ed, or ‘The Talk; whatever you call it, it’s a topic that can bring dread when seen on your medium-term plan.
But why? In science we cover many other body systems without as much fuss (although all that talk of poo in the unit on digestion can be giggle-inducing).
RSE can be an emotive and personal subject; the Department for Education received over 60,000 responses and contacts when the consultation on the new guidance was assembled in 2019.
It can be confusing when starting at a new school as there is far more autonomy over what is taught in this subject than in many other curriculum areas, so approaches can differ significantly.
Even schools in the same local authority may differ in what they teach from the prescribed scheme.
So, the first job is to find the member of staff that is responsible for the curriculum and check through your school’s documentation in detail.
Book in a meeting; this is not something that should be done in the middle of lunch.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are some suggested talking points:
- What is the prior learning? From where am I teaching?
- Does this need to be taught in the summer term and in isolation? Can it be folded into our PSHE and/or science lessons in the spring term?
- What MUST be taught?
- What can I cover if a question is asked?
- What most definitely cannot be taught? This is especially important with any content linked to human reproduction and contraception.
- What vocabulary should and should not be covered?
Some schools will have very specific vocabulary that can and cannot be used. It is surprising to see curriculums pre-2019 that specifically did not want teachers to use the word clitoris nor make any reference to it when teaching female anatomy.
In other schools, contraception may be on the county’s model curriculum but not taught by the school.
It is helpful to make a table with the MUST, COULD and BANNED words or topics which can then be shared with the other adults in the room before teaching begins.
This is especially important when covering LBGT+ content, as terminology and best practice are evolving and this content needs careful consideration.
Make sure you’re using the correct terminology, too. A penis is a penis. The vulva is external, the vagina is internal.
If we expect children to take a responsible approach to their RSE learning, it will be hobbled by talking about “boy bits” and “flowers”.
Like many other parts of teaching, our own personal experiences can shape our planning and delivery of RSE lessons.
Having had a good look at the curriculum, take time to reflect upon your own worldview and how this makes some content easier or more difficult to teach.
Since 2019, relationships have taken centre stage in the primary curriculum. What is your own experience of friendships and romantic relationships? Do you as an adult know what makes a “healthy relationship”?
As a child, your own questions about sex, sexuality or relationships may have been met with red faces and vague descriptions.
Historically, England has underperformed in the teaching of RSE compared to our European neighbours, with this often attributed to our seemingly Victorian views on the subject as a nation.
Just like you would with other subjects, take time to reflect on where you need to improve subject knowledge.
Call in support
As a man who has spent the last 10 years in Years 5 and 6, I’ve taught a lot of children about periods.
Once upon a time, we would have split children into groups according to their internal or external plumbing, with girls taught by a female teacher and boys by a male. It was quite improper for boys to know about “that time of the month”.
Now staff teach what the curriculum asks of them, which can mean we meet content of which only have an academic understanding, and where practical experience could be of benefit.
So, how can you overcome this? The best place to start is to ask your colleagues or friends.
While it’s not appropriate to discuss any personal experiences with children in any aspect of RSE, you can refer to your “friends” and share what they have said.
For instance, my class initially found it surprising I had asked my female friends what might be helpful to teach about periods, but appreciated hearing the views of real people alongside the content on the flipchart.
Human reproduction KS2
While it makes up a small part of the primary RSE curriculum (nor is compulsory to be taught until KS3), human reproduction is the most awkward topic to teach for many.
It can leave us all a bit red faced, but it’s important to begin the learning as we would in any other areas.
Start by asking children to share what they already know. This prior knowledge can range from parents having already explained; garbled explanations from older siblings; playground gossip about “boys weeing inside girls” (this is suggested more often than you would think); or vague references about special cuddles and other euphemisms.
From this, explain how a man’s penis goes inside a woman’s vagina and this is the start of making a baby. And say it to your class, rather than leaving it to a video or a worksheet.
If we as the adults in the room cannot bring ourselves to verbalise the content, how can we expect children to ask thoughtful questions or speak up about sexual content when in need of help?
Check that resources are of good quality. Is the video you’re using 20 years old? Are the anatomic diagrams far too cartoonish and missing vital details?
I once was given a resource that the made a penis look like a spatchcocked chicken, where any real-life male would have been in need of medical attention if his anatomy was arranged in such a way. The boys found it hysterically incorrect; the girls were very confused.
Answering questions can be minefield with human reproduction, too. Before you begin, be honest with children that there is content you can discuss if asked and some you are not allowed to.
There is also the backstop of “that is a brilliant question, but I’m not allowed to answer it. Please go home and ask a trusted adult.”
Some teachers use a question box and bits or paper, others prefer hands up. A mix of the two is helpful as some children will not want to put up their hands, but others will benefit from the ebb and flow of an open discussion.
RSE is a topic we can all find tricky to teach. It can bring up emotive content and make us question our own opinions on the relationships we have and our own attitudes to sex and sexuality.
Let’s stop thinking of RSE as simply “Sex after SATs” and give it a proper place in curriculum planning.