Survey on sex education - Results
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Although sex education – or “sexual and reproductive health” education – is, and always has been, a sensitive topic, the findings of our latest study suggest that most teachers, parents, and educational stakeholders alike support sex education in schools, and that it should start before the age of 15. However, with limited support available and unclear procedures in schools, teachers may feel left to fend for themselves when it comes to teaching sex education.
In most countries in Europe, national ministries of education are responsible for creating, implementing and managing sexual and reproductive health curricula, while lesson content is decided mainly by schools. According to UNESCO, effective sexual and reproductive health education adopts a comprehensive approach, a “curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality”. Programmes can tackle a wide range of topics, including sexual orientation, sexually transmitted diseases and youth pregnancy. The underlying premise is that schools can play a crucial role in helping young people to develop respectful and safe emotional and sexual relations.
The survey on Sex Education was open on School Education Gateway from 10 October to 27 November and gathered a total of 320 responses. Teachers made up 41% of respondents. The other participants were mainly other educational stakeholders (37%), parents and researchers (22%).
1. In your opinion, at what age should sexual and reproductive health be discussed with young people in school? Choose one option.
Although almost every respondent (99%) agreed that sexual and reproductive health is a topic that should be discussed with young people, it is the age at which this discussion should take place that divides opinion. Most of the respondents (89%) believe that this should be before the age of 15, 42% saying it should be before the age of 11 and 47% between the ages of 12 and 15.
A small but significant minority – 1 in 10 respondents – considered that students should be over the age of 16 before starting sex education at school.
2. In your opinion, who should discuss sexual and reproductive health with young people? Choose all that apply.
When asked about who should teach sexual and reproductive health to young people, more than three quarters (81%) agreed that parents and caregivers are the right choice. School counsellors (74%), doctors and health services (72%), and schoolteachers (68%) are also seen by some as good options. Participants indicated that responsibility should also be shared between youth movement educators and after-school educators (nearly 42%).
One in six respondents stated that youth should consult online sources, such as experts and social media communities. Fewer participants (9%) felt that other organisations or individuals should be teaching about sex and reproductive health.
3. In your region, who supports teachers in discussing sexual and reproductive health with young people? Choose all that apply.
Although over half of respondents (53%) reported that there is no relevant support regarding teaching sexual education at school, one third (33%) said teachers are provided with guidelines and teaching materials by their Ministry of Education. Furthermore, a quarter (25%) indicated that some support also comes from local health professionals.
Around 1 in 5 respondents said that teachers are supported by in-school health professionals such as counsellors or school nurses (20%) and local organisations (19%).
Only one in ten local or regional authorities provide professional development for teachers regarding sexual education and reproductive health.
4. What topics are covered in sexual and reproductive health education in your school or a school you know of? Choose all that apply.
This list comes from UNESCO’s publication, International technical guidance on sexuality education: an evidence-informed approach, available online: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000260770
The vast majority of respondents (86%) indicated that the human body and its development is the most frequently covered topic in their school or a school they know of. Less frequent, but still largely covered, is sexual and reproductive health (58%).
In about one third of schools, relationships (34%) (e.g. families, friendship, love and romantic relationships), and violence and staying safe (31%) (e.g. consent, privacy, bodily integrity) are discussed as part of sex education.
The topics least covered in schools – but still in a significant proportion of them – are values, rights, culture and sexuality (23%), skills for health and well-being (21%), and understanding gender (20%).
5. Does the school/staff have a clear process for helping individual pupils who have concerns about sexual and reproductive health?
When asked how their school or a school they know of addresses student concerns about sexual and reproductive health, about half of the participants (51%) responded that no relevant process exists. Nevertheless, 40% of participants said that teachers choose to take matters into their own hands and often address those concerns on a case-by-case basis.
Only 8% responded that teachers are provided with concrete procedures when it comes to helping students deal with their issues, questions and concerns related to their sexual health.
The survey reveals a broad consensus that sex education and reproductive health should be discussed in schools. Additionally, most respondents – nearly 9 in 10 – feel it is best to start the conversation before the age of 15.
While sex education is mandatory by law in most of the European Union, the topics covered vary across countries and even between schools. For instance, topics that were found to be more frequently covered in schools are the human body and development, and sexual and reproductive health. On the other hand, issues of sexuality and sexual behaviour, values, rights and sexuality, and understanding of gender are less frequently addressed in schools.
Furthermore, parents and caregivers, as well as teachers, are perceived to be capable of discussing such important issues with today’s youth. Despite this, half of the teachers do not have adequate support in this endeavour, with only about a third receiving teaching material from the Ministry of Education and about a tenth receiving training in this area.
In addition, only a small minority of schools are reported to have a clear process on how to address student needs and concerns about sex education. However, this lack of procedures in schools does not stop teachers from addressing those issues, with more than four in ten acting alone to provide students with the help and answers they need.
Annex: Role of respondents