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.

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