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Teaching students about sexuality, relationships

A good programme must take into account the sensitive, social, moral and sometimes controversial issues that surround sexuality.

A good programme must take into account the sensitive, social, moral and sometimes controversial issues that surround sexuality.

Recently a number of articles have been written in various newspapers criticising the way adolescents are being prepared to face their sexuality and relationships through the teaching of sexuality and relationships education in local schools.

First and foremost, I would like to point out that in Personal and Social Development (PSD) lessons students do not only learn about sexuality and relationships, which form only a part of the whole PSD syllabus. The main aim of the syllabus is to help students learn about themselves as developing individuals and members of their communities. The topics presented in class help students to build on their own experiences and those of others in order to learn skills and develop the right attitudes to keep themselves safe and healthy.

Secondly sexuality and relationships education is not only about sexually transmitted infections or the good use of condoms but is also about values, relationships and respect for oneself and others.

There are many differing views about what is the best type of sexuality and relationships education in schools. In her 2004 study 'Measuring effectiveness in school sex education' published in the British Educational Research Journal Judi Kidger describes three main approaches towards sexuality and relationships education.

One is the use of 'moralistic discourse' which equates sex with reproduction, and advocates the teaching of abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage. Within such discourse sexuality and relationships education is viewed with suspicion because it is believed that teaching about sexuality will encourage young people to be more sexually active.

Another approach is the 'harm reductionist discourse'. This is also based on the 'harmful' aspect of sexual activity and it is based on the fear of the spread of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy. Within this discourse it is believed that sexuality and relationships education should provide students with information that will help them avoid the undesirable consequences of sexual activity.

Thirdly there is the 'empowerment discourse' which does not view adolescent sexuality as problematic but it sees it as an integral part of the development of adolescents' identity. In this approach, Kidger says sexuality and relationships education "tries to equip young people with the necessary information and skills to take control of their own lives and experience them positively".

A good sexuality and relationships education programme must therefore take into account the sensitive, social, moral and sometimes controversial issues that surround sexuality. The National Minimum Curriculum in 1999 clearly stated that students should acquire not only knowledge and information about sexuality but also the necessary skills to make responsible, positive decisions that respect both their own individuality and that of others.

In PSD, many topics related to the individual self and health education are tackled in the various years, including, for example, myself, growing up, physical development, relationships, responsible decisions, sexual awareness, responsible behaviour in sexuality, interpersonal relationships, child development, health and sexuality, and social and sexual health issues.

These topics are treated in different depth at the various stages of the students' development and try to meet the specific needs of each particular age group. The topics are also discussed within a pedagogical model which allows attitudes and skills to be acquired through experiential learning and individual and group processing.

In fact, PSD sessions are held in groups of not more than 16 students so as to ensure that they learn experientially rather than through the transmission of knowledge and facts. The sessions revolve around brainstorming exercises, role play, discussions, and group work.

PSD teachers are trained to translate these activities into acquired skills through processing. This involves the PSD teacher making use of the group's skills, presence and participation to motivate them to reflect, analyse, air their views, debate, challenge another individual's point of view and act upon their participation.

For example, in the case of sexuality, the PSD teacher can set up a role play in which students in the class take on the role of being asked to engage in sexual activity for the first time. Within this safe environment, the PSD teacher becomes a facilitator of learning where mutual exchange and learning takes place. This kind of teaching is very evident in local state schools where teachers use different methodologies and various resources which enable the students to discuss freely and express their views and opinions on such an important topic as their own sexuality and sexual behaviours.

PSD, however, is not the only influential element in the student's life and a mere 45-minute lesson is not enough to counterbalance all the negative and conflicting messages adolescents receive from various sources.

There is a need for more PSD lessons; there is also the need to ensure that all students are properly educated about sexuality. A national ongoing campaign in the media, at schools, and in entertainment spots is also a must.

Mr Camilleri is PSD education officer at the Directorate of Quality and Standards in Education.

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