Sex and special needs: Why new schools guidance must embrace pupils with learning difficulties

Sex and special needs: Why new schools guidance must embrace pupils with learning difficulties

There’s a coffee-morning atmosphere in the classroom at Oak Field School, Nottingham, as teacher Tom Hall sits with six teenage boys, offering stories, encouragement and light relief. This is a sex education lesson. Laminated “OK/Not OK” cards are scattered around the table which, along with illustrations of sexual anatomy, show actions such as “touch,” “cuddle,” “masturbation”. The boys do not smirk or titter, but point and sign: it is OK to cuddle your sister; it is not OK to kiss your friends.

“Is it OK at your age to have a boyfriend or girlfriend?” Hall asks. James, 16, says yes, with vigour, but something is playing on his mind: “Can you get married twice?” he asks. “You mean at the same time?” James nods. “No,” Hall smiles, “That might be a risky business.” It’s a lesson in love learned sooner rather than later.

Relationships and sex education (RSE) is taken seriously at Oak Field special school, which caters for pupils with severe and complex learning and physical disabilities. Hall, the PSHEE (Personal, Social, Health, Economic Education) lead, is adamant that all pupils should receive comprehensive sex education throughout their school life. Each week, his students learn about hygiene, anatomy, puberty, contraception, consent, and LGBT issues, or what the boys call “gay pride”. With parental consent, Hall even brings in balloons and foam to teach the boys how to shave, helping them to take pride in their appearance.

Outside Oak Field, however, the commitment to sex education for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is less resolute. Although these are among the most vulnerable young people – nearly three times as likely to be sexually abused as non-disabled peers, says the NSPCC – some pupils are being deprived of all sex education and many more of lessons that are tailored to their needs.

Last year, the Department for Education announced plans to make sex education compulsory in all schools, using a new teaching framework, in 2019. This has been delayed until 2020.

Now, teachers and campaigners are calling for the new curriculum to include tailored compulsory guidance for those working with pupils with learning disabilities in special and mainstream schools.

David Stewart, headteacher of Oak Field, explains that sex education for those with SEND is, on a national level, “a real mixed bag”. “In some schools there is absolutely nothing,” he says, “and when I do teacher training, I think, none of this is going to make any difference: the headteacher isn’t there, there’s no support from school leadership.”

This is especially true, Stewart explains, of mainstream schools, where there is no additional training for teachers supporting pupils with SEND. “We’ll have teachers phone us up and say, ‘we didn’t know they do this sort of thing’ – like inappropriately touching themselves in public or hugging strangers. But it’s not about them ‘doing these things’; it’s that they haven’t been taught otherwise.”

Better education about sexuality and the rules of society is about ensuring personal and public safety, Stewart points out. Not only are young people with learning disabilities over-represented as victims of sexual abuse, they also make up 40% of those classed as sexual offenders – yet they form only 2% of the population.

But attitudes toward the developing sexuality of people with learning disabilities are not always pragmatic, Stewart says, and he sees this as partly to blame for the slow adoption of quality RSE for vulnerable learners like his.

“We have a lot of children with profound and multiple disabilities, and so a lot of people will think, ‘oh, we don’t need to worry about them’. But they’re sexual beings, too. They can be exploited, they grow, and though intellectually they may be working at a very young age, their bodies are not.”

“If this was about students washing themselves or making a cup of tea, everybody would accept that you have to break the skills down. This is no different. We work in a society which for all sorts of reasons sees sex as taboo, but when you break it down, it’s just another life skill.”

Paul Bray, whose consultancy, Insight, offers RSE SEND training in social care and health – fears such attitudes and anxieties can translate, in the minds of teachers, parents and policymakers, into denial of the need to educate in this area.

“Why do people get twitchy when you put ‘sex’ and ‘special needs’ together?” he asks. “I’ve expressed so many times that our youngsters can’t opt out of puberty any more than the rest of us. It’s going to happen to them. That’s a fact.”

“We’ve spent years and years being creative and adapting a poorly designed national curriculum to suit the needs of our learners,” he says. So what’s preventing the national picture from being recoloured? “It must be that there’s a moral or political issue. Otherwise, it’s just embarrassment.”

For Bray, RSE is not just a classroom subject, but a “duty of care” to pupils with SEND that, under the current guidance, is not always being fulfilled. Bray surveyed three schools and found that up to 46% of SEND teachers had not provided any RSE – even through the national statutory science curriculum. In a recent panel interview of adults with learning disabilities, Bray found that five out six interviewees had received no RSE at all. “The one man who could remember something happening,” Bray says, “told me it was rushed and scary”.

The DfE’s draft guidance, published last month, at least made explicit reference, he points out, to “all schools, including non-maintained and maintained special schools”. “As for the actual guidance for SEND schools,” though, Bray says he’s still looking for it. “Three short bullet-points regarding pupils with SEND give no real guidance except, ‘you know what you’re doing, get on with it.’ It’s like pushing someone out of a plane, but not giving them a parachute,” he says. “A little dramatic, I know, but you see what I mean.”

He believes the guidance must contain specific topic pointers such as self-esteem, friendship, changing emotions and coping techniques, safe touch, masturbation, menstruation and wet dreams.

Stewart says there must also be ring-fenced RSE training. “Where is the appropriate training for staff on RSE and SEND and where are the resources? Years of neglect by central government in this field of education is going to require a tremendous commitment if the guidance is to be meaningful.”

Guardian

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