Saturday, 25 October 2014

Healthy Relationships Education

Advice sheet for parents
from All Wales 
Sexual Health Network
In another life, I do research on identity politics and equalities. My most recent project was a study of government policy on Sex and Relationships Education. I had a great opportunity to go and present on this work to my local Labour Women's Group. We had a good discussion about why education in schools should consider supporting children's growing social skills and self-esteem, as well as their 3 'R's.

Here in Wales, there are multiple reasons why a young person in some areas is more likely to need booster self-esteem innoculations. The economic deprivation of areas from former mining villages in the Valleys to coastal strips in North Wales has been the subject of report after report. There are bleak spots of high unemployment rates, high teenage pregnancy rates (South Wales) and inexplicable high youth suicide rates (Bridgend). In order to maximise chances of winning work if there is any available, and supporting their flagging spirits if it isn't, young people need to have robust self belief. Ditto, if we are expecting those young people to build a more positive society.

I am a passionate believer in the importance of relationships education for more personal reasons too. Bringing up a 10 year old girl is enough to make anyone long for professional help. In two areas, I find myself constantly talking to Piglet about how to manage interactions with other human beings.

From FCS Internet
One area is internet safety, about which I've written here. Although rules and guidance are being drafted for how children should safely surf the net, these are just the same kind of rules and guidance which ought to regulate their social lives generally. If someone is mean, dump them.

That brings me on to the 'Real Life' relationship dramarama. For years now there has been a stream of 'she said this' and 'I only did that'. Lots of this can be discounted, and how nice it would be if Piglet learned a more measured attitude to her friends suddenly flouncing off. Just wait till Monday and they will have forgotten about it.

However, owing to Piglet's oversized bump of compassion, I have also had several years' worth of helping her manage more difficult relationships. There are a number of children in the Piglet universe whom I feel very sorry for. Their life chances are immeasurably lower than Piglet's, their parents have never had good social skills and unsurprisingly, they also struggle to engage well with teachers and fellow pupils. However much I want Piglet not to ignore or discount their troubles, I also want her not to come home sad because teachers told her off for talking. ("I was telling so-and-so not to whisper to me, she asks me the answers to things because the teachers tell her off so often she is scared to ask them.") I want her not to come home sad because someone pulled her hair all day. ("I know why she did it, mum. She is having a hard time." "Yes, but is she going to stop doing it? Spend a little time with her but most of your time with kids who treat you well.")

I want those children to have better support, and I am telling Piglet to be more savvy and less sympathetic about who she chooses to play with.

There is the bullying too. Not the light racist bullying or normal bullying, the school is very good about those. The bullying by adults, ie teachers. I know this is rare, but I did have to tackle one teacher whose idea of the best way to get kids to learn was what we could politely term 'old-fashioned'. The misery for small children of being told all year they are lazy, stupid or otherwise not a good learner is horrible to witness, and when they get the message that kind of environment just has to be tolerated, it makes it hard for them to have self-esteem. For a little while, I said: "Well, I am sure she means well," and other awful things because it's a big thing to go and interfere in your child's education. But I kept listening and finally I lost my patience with what I was hearing from Piglet.

Respect for others, yes. Self-esteem, yes. Compassion for others, yes. Insisting on others behaving with respect, YES. 

I'm afraid I finally got so cross that I went in the school and tore a strip off that teacher in the corridor. Kids came up to Piglet in the playground afterwards and said how glad they were I had done it, and I am too since it sent them the message that behaviour like that is not acceptable. A better way to support the children, though, would be to build it into lessons that they should expect from as well as give respect and consideration to adults.

From The Express
Relationships Education is usually called Sex and Relationships Education, although not everywhere. (In Northern Ireland, it's called 'Relationships and Sexuality Education'.) This does have the unfortunate effect of making it sound as if it's all about SEX!!! Tabloid papers can run rabid with headlines about toddlers being taught the missionary position. Parents can freak out and refuse to allow their children to watch 'that film'. Secondary school teachers' brains go on holiday at the prospect of talking to a class full of hormonal teenagers about SEX!!! At one workshop a young lad confided that he had learnt to put a condom on a banana five times in school. (As the joke goes, "I don't know how you got pregnant! I put the condom on the banana just like they showed us in sex ed.")

What he had not had, were lessons on having the self-esteem to insist a sexual partner considers him and uses protection, or the respect for others which would lead to him making sure he protected them against pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted disease. 

When I go and present on my work at academic conferences, people sometimes sidle up afterwards to ask questions. I always hope they will talk about my methodology or what a good broad base of evidence I have got. Instead they tell me about their son or daughter and ask if there is anywhere they can go to get advice and support in talking them through some difficult sexual situation. Being propositioned by the man in the chip shop who is three times their fourteen-year-old's age. Coping with homophobic bullying. These are highly educated and concerned professionals. Yet even they are struggling to help their young children.

People often say I'm brave to have had 'the talk' with Piglet. I feel that if I can't explain where she came from to her, who can! She is still at the stage of going 'ewww ewww!' when there is kissing in films but soon I will start leaving condoms discreetly around the place. To be honest, as an older mum, I would quite like it if we had another baby in the family in the next ten years before I become too old to enjoy it. But I would prefer Piglet to have some responsible fun and get qualifications first. 

I would be totally gutted if Piglet had to go through what one of my students went through. I was only asking the kid why she had flunked so badly on her essay. She suddenly began to cry and revealed that she had had to have an abortion in the Christmas holidays. She had not been able to tell anyone-else . She couldn't bear to tell her family or friends. The boy in question had not been mature enough to give her support. She was racked with guilt and conflicted feelings. I was not her personal tutor, and I wasn't even supposed to tell her personal tutor what had happened without her permission which she wasn't in a state to give. I could only assure her she had done the right thing, that she would get the chance to have a family in happier better circumstances, and try to persuade her to seek some appropriate support. I will never know if she did manage to get through it, and pass her degree. 

If only that lad had used a condom, if only she had had the confidence to insist on it, if only her family had been more approachable on such a subject, if only she had had the self-esteem not to be bamboozled into thinking it was all her own fault.

If only both he and she had had a good Healthy Relationships Education.

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