This blog post comes from Ellie Simpson, PhD student at the University of Winchester, and the History of Education Society (UK) postgraduate representative.

In September 2020, for the first time in British history, sex education will become a compulsory subject within British secondary schools; with it, new official guidelines for schools and teachers will be released, replacing the previous guidelines from 2000. The new government guidelines states that this change has been brought about because ‘today’s children and young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world and living their lives seamlessly on and offline’ (Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education, 2020). The prevalence of online pornography and its effect on young people’s sexual morality is frequently referred to within these guidelines. 

Rab Butler, President of the Board of Education
RAB Butler, President of the Board of Education (1941-44)
Unknown author / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

However, the sense that children are growing up in a new and complex world is not isolated to the concern raised in the 2020 guidelines. Moments of perceived unprecedented change have marked the development of formal British sex education over the past 100 years and have culminated in a number of government interventions. The ‘changing times’ that bring about government interventions within sex education are related to the effects that these perceived changing times have on the sexual morality of young people. 

The motivation for the government to respond to ‘changing times’ is also demonstrated in Sex Education in Schools and Youth Organisations published in 1943. Like the new government statutory guidelines that will make sex education compulsory for the first time, the 1943 guidelines also mark a first in the history of British sex education. These were the first official guidelines on sex education and the first official statement of support for the teaching of sex education in schools. Despite earlier calls for sex education to be taught in schools, the prefatory note and introduction to Sex Education in Schools and Youth Organisations details that the circumstances of wartime and the social dislocation arising from it were liable to break down sexual constraints. Therefore, these circumstances drew increased attention to the question of sex education in schools. 

The motivation to respond to ‘changing times’ by intervening within sex education is often stimulated by broader social and moral panics, related to perceived changing attitudes towards sexuality as a threat to society. There are many continuities between these official government guidelines, including discussions about when to educate children about sex and their bodies, how to do this, who should do this and how sex education will address the social or moral issues of the time. 

The identification that sex education in the past and in the present has been organised around ‘changing times’, which are often embedded within social or moral panics, raises an interesting focus for discussion. What could, should or would sex education have looked like if it was not designed as a solution to historically changeable moral and social concerns? Rather, what could, should or would sex education look like if the education of the body was the central concern?

In addition to continuities, there are some profound changes between these documents, especially in regard to who should educate children about sex and their bodies. The position of the teacher as an authority on sex education has been contested and devalued between 1943 and 2020. This de-valuation has occurred within a historical process. However, a comparison between these documents shows the extent to which the authority of the teacher has changed. Unlike the few references to the teacher which can be found in the 2020 statutory guidelines, Sex Education (1943) firmly placed the authority to teach sex education in the hands of schools and individual teachers. 

National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

It did this by constructing the contents in accordance with accounts from teachers which were collected by H.M inspectors. Teachers were not only positioned as having authority to teach sex education, but were positioned with the authority to construct their own versions of sex education, to plan and to deliver it. The authority of the teacher to envisage their own version of sex education is demonstrated when the document stated that ‘each teacher will draw upon his own wisdom and experience of life, or the religious and moral resources upon which he himself has relied’ (Sex Education, 1943). Although there is an acknowledgement within the document that many teachers felt that sex education was not their responsibility, or that they were inadequately trained to deliver sex education, the guidelines continued to make statements of support for the teacher-focused teaching of sex education in schools. 

The support for teacher-focused teaching is demonstrated by a message of reassurance which immediately follows a list of teachers concerns, which states ‘few, if any, teachers who have embarked upon this subject seriously, regret that they have done so and most of them have received ample evidence of appreciation’(Sex Education, 1943). The authority of the teacher is further bolstered by the comparison the document makes with the authority of the parent. The guidelines acknowledge that parents have the ultimate responsibility to educate children about sex and their bodies. However, throughout the document, references are made that illustrate the reluctance of parents to undertake the task. Parental reluctance and inadequacy are juxtaposed against the pro-active (and often female) teacher. 

This division was made explicit in an account which recalled a teachers’ horror following a parent/teacher meeting. A teacher is quoted as being horrified ‘by the pathetic stories told to her by the mothers afterwards as to their own ignorance when they married’. The document continues to recount that ‘this strengthened her belief that some teaching was necessary at school’ (Sex Education, 1943). The document is littered with examples that point to the authority of the teacher. It could be argued that placing the authority for sex education onto schools and teachers provided a welcome distance between sex education and an already reluctant government from making any authoritative statement about how sex education should be taught in schools. 

The comparison between Sex Education (1943) and the government’s interventions, guidelines and policy surrounding sex education in the latter part of the twentieth and twenty-first century reveals a stark difference in the suggested approach to the teaching of sex education – not necessarily always in the content, but in the authority of the teacher to construct, plan and deliver sex education. This raises a question over how we understand the role of the teacher in sex education today.

Further Reading 

Board of Education (1943) Sex Education in Schools and Youth Organisations.London: HMSO. 

Department of Education (2020) Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education

Ellie Simpson is a PhD candidate at the University of Winchester. Her project seeks to enrich present day debates around sex education in school by exploring the formal sex education of girls from 1920-2020. The changing role and representation of the teacher as a sex educator has been an important focus of this work. Ellie’s email address is [email protected]