Young people are full of contradictions. Confident, yet uncertain. Outgoing, but easily embarrassed . Streetwise, yet naïve. Talk to them about S E X and all their contradictions all roll into one.
At a time when UK teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in Europe – in England alone 90,000 girls and young women under 19 get pregnant every year – and the incidence of sexually transmitted infections are increasing, someone needs to talk about “it”. But who? The obvious answer is parents. Research by the Sex Education Forum (2011) supports this, finding that young people say that parents are an important source of information about sex and relationships. Research also shows, however, that parents underestimate just how much their children want to communicate with them – two-thirds of parents believe their teenagers have no desire to discuss sex with them.
a first year engineering student dropped his trousers in front of her and the full class so that she could determine whether or not he had “VD”.”
If parents are unable, or not willing, to talk to their children about sex then someone else has to. That “someone” is often to be found in a college or training provider. A colleague re-counts a story of how a first year engineering student dropped his trousers in front of her and the full class so that she could determine whether or not he had “VD”. Unphased, but unqualified to comment she calmly asked him to zip-up and referred him to the college nurse.
Such stories are not unusual. Young people place an enormous amount of trust in those they see as being in a position of responsibility. How far this responsibility can be taken without guidance and resources is, perhaps, a different issue. A recent survey by EMFEC as parts of Sexual Health Programme with Colleges in the East Midlands, identified that 48 per cent of FE staff were not aware of any guidelines for staff involved in providing sexual health information to students. Supported by the East Midlands Strategic Health Authority, the survey also found that 59% of providers did not have access to an on-site health professional. Encouragingly, 76 per cent of those surveyed knew where to refer a young person if there was no on-site provision.
Regardless of any social or moral obligation to ensure that young people in colleges and other provider organisations are given the best advice possible, there is a strong business case for doing so; recognition in the Common Inspection Framework, for example, that attendance, retention and achievement improve when learners are healthy. Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) also enhances the overall quality of provision and reflects favourably on Leadership and Management in terms of safeguarding.
It is clear that some form of sexual health provision in provider organisations offer young people flexibility, convenience and support which benefits both the individual and the provider. At a time when there is a shake-up of the NHS and public sector services face financial cutbacks the extent to which providers can address the sexual health needs of their learners is uncertain. What we can do, however, is to advise, provide guidance and know where to refer young people for professional help.
Paul Eeles is Chief Executive of EMFEC and tweeting as @pauleeles