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Secondary

Sex education – Why boys and girls should take RSE lessons together

close-up photograph of two mooncups

Is there a case to be made for single sex RSE classes – fewer distractions, a sense of being able to speak more freely – or are boys and girls better off learning together? Rachael Baker explains why she’d sooner opt for the latter…

Rachael Baker
by Rachael Baker
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Secondary

What the HELL is that, Miss?

Torjion (Y8, never known for his diplomacy) has just clapped eyes on his first ever mooncup. I can see his point – they are somwhat odd-looking, especially when held open side down so that they resemble a little rubber elf hat…

Cue Tilda, who leaps in with “Nah, they’re good. Pop it up your vajayjay and it catches all the… you know.” I thank Tilda for her contribution, and gently remind her that we should be using correct terms wherever we can. Torjion’s face has meanwhile morphed from shock to bewilderment. “But it’s massive!”

“Not as big as a baby’s head!” chimes in Letitia. “And they do fold up,” I add, while nimbly demonstrating two different ways in which a menstrual cup can be folded to insert and, with help from a life-sized model borrowed from biology, showing how they cleverly pop open once inserted.

Teaching by halves

I have a thick skin when it comes to RSE lessons. I’ve seen a lot of change over the many years I’ve been teaching the subject, but one development I’ll absolutely hang my hat on is the importance of mixed sex classes for RSE.

Far from being a horror show, the beautiful exchange highlighted above would only ever be possible in a mixed class. Without mixed teaching, how else is a young man like Torjion ever going to learn about the lived experience of his female peers?

The question of whether to opt for mixed or single sex classes has always been something of a hot potato in the RSE world, but the evidence so far is clearly in favour of mixed. It ensures that learners hear the voices of their peers, and while it can be tricky at times – as with most things in the classroom – that’s often down to us more than them. Done well, it’s marvellous.

That said, I do understand the anxieties that surround mixed sex groupings for RSE, particularly in the context of puberty education. I get it. It harks back to those covert ‘big chats’ children have parents or older siblings, in which every detail and practical consideration of the puberty they’re about to embark on is unpacked and analysed.

Boys hearing the brass tacks about erections, wet dreams and noticing sexy ladies. Girls getting a practical guide to ‘sanitary products’ (or ‘menstrual products’, as they could be more positively referred to, rather than embedding negative stereotypes about menstruation being unclean) and a firm warning to keep well away from boys, lest you get pregnant…

It doesn’t help, though, to only teach them half of it all. Boys and young men need to hear about sexuality from their female counterparts, and vice versa. They all need to hear about it from each other. Even if we taught the full RSE curriculum to single sex groups, they would still miss out on the brilliant process of hearing one another speak about their views, and the shape of the world in their eyes. Ultimately, they need to understand what sex and relationships mean to one another.

Misplaced assumptions

It’s also impossible to be truly gender inclusive and trans inclusive in single-sex settings. A potential risk of single sex groups is that RSE is imagined heteronormatively, which can lead to assumptions that girls and boys will only ever be attracted to each other, while failing to be inclusive of diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity.

Gone are the days of ‘all girls together’ and ‘boys will be boys’. Instead, let’s talk about how menstruation is something which affects most girls and women, and people with a uterus. Let’s talk about how most boys and men, and people with a penis will experience wet dreams and untimely erections. Let’s talk about the act of sex in terms of what consenting adults may choose to do with their bodies, rather than getting bogged down in those biology diagrams depicting ‘penis in vagina’ sex.

From our experiences of training educators and supporting schools at the Sex Education Forum, we hear that the reluctance some educators and parents have for supporting mixed RSE groups stems from concerns that teaching young people about sex is going to make them want to try it.

Actually, we know from many studies that this simply isn’t the case. Conversely, when people receive timely, evidence-based RSE, they’re actually less likely to experience first sex under the age of 16, and more likely to know how to
keep themselves safe when they do.

Tear down the stereotypes

One of the biggest issues facing our learners and schools today are the horrifying findings of Ofsted’s 2021 Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges (see bit.ly/ts118-se1), which found that over a third of female students at mixed-sex secondary schools have personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.

Sexual harassment, consent and the way we make others feel with our comments and behaviours needs to be openly tackled in schools. Rather than separating our learners, we need to bring them together. We need our learners to adopt a collaborative approach to tackling sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and biphobia, and create a generation of young people who are the change-makers. Let them tear down the stereotypes and raise their expectations for equality.

There is, of course, an authenticity that comes from learning about something practical from someone who has experienced it. But if we’re getting hung up on whether we need to have experienced the thing itself before we can teach about it, that means we’re not adequately distancing our teaching from our own personal lives. We’re not there to provide personal recommendations or reflect on our personal experiences – we’re there to facilitate our learners’ explorations in the subject.

If we don’t feel safe delivering content that doesn’t personally affect us, then I suspect one of two things is at play. Either we need to bolster our subject knowledge, or we require a more robust Working Together agreement to ensure that both we and our learners feel safe. We need teachers to feel safe in delivering RSE, because young people tell us that they want to learn from us, from role models, and want to be taught by men, as well as women.

Additions and exceptions

There may be times when it feels right to deliver certain content in single sex groups. That might include an intervention for boys based around exploring issues of masculinity; a one-to-one session for someone who has experienced assault prior to a whole class lesson; an extra lunchtime session for girls to ask further questions about periods. In those instances we should make these models available to learners, but they should serve as an addition, and be the exception, rather than the rule.

Supporting teachers and learners to feel safe in RSE lessons is a frequent topic in the teacher training that Sex Education Forum offers. We give teachers the opportunity to consider their values around the subject, explore ways of approaching triggering topics and learn how to plan effective lessons.

My advice here would be to make your learning space safe. Take the time to build your group. Create a ‘Working Together’ agreement that sets out how you’ll behave to one another, and how you can challenge views respectfully. Use inclusive language and include all learners in the dialogue. Challenge gender stereotypes, and teach
about consent.

These are the cornerstones of truly outstanding RSE, and are best delivered to mixed groups.

Rachael Baker is a senior RSE specialist at the Sex Education Forum, as well as a qualified teacher with extensive experience of teaching across various secondary, sixth form and special needs settings; for more information, visit sexeducationforum.org.uk or follow @sex_ed_forum

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