Can peer-led teaching help improve sex education in schools?

The government has announced that sex and relationship education will be made compulsory in schools from September 2019

Sex and relationship education will be made compulsory in all schools from September 2019. Photograph: Alamy

“Sexting is probably one of the biggest issues in my year,” says Elise*, a 14-year-old student from London. “Everyone has had issues with it. We’ve had girls leave my year because of nude photos [being shared] – it’s really damaging for people’s education.”

Sexting – where someone shares sexual, naked or semi-naked images or videos of themselves or others, or sexually explicit messages – is on the rise in schools according to teaching union NASUWT, the Labour party and the government’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.

It’s often coercive, with pressure to participate coming from peers, a study by the NSPCC [pdf] discovered. It can influence entire networks of young people and have a particularly negative effect on girls.

For these reasons, some schools are trying to influence attitudes by using peer education, training young people to speak to each other about healthy relationships, sex education, and digital issues like sexting. But how do these partnerships work? And in what way can they supplement traditional sex education?

A broader approach

Education secretary Justine Greening has said that sex and relationship education, which will be made compulsory in schools from September 2019, currently “fails to address risks to children that have grown in prevalence over the last 17 years, including cyber bullying, sexting and staying safe online”.

Most adults also believe a new sex and relationships curriculum should cover digital issues – such as sexting and pornography – as well as healthy relationships, according to recent research by Plan International UK. Lucy Russell, Plan’s campaign manager, says sex education “needs to be about what’s happening right now, because young people are living as much in the digital world as they are in the physical one”.

Straight-talking

Peer educators are particularly well placed to talk about non-traditional, digital issues and relationships, says Sexpression, a student-led charity that runs sex-education workshops in schools.

At Sexpression, university student volunteers who want to give something back to their community talk about healthy relationships in schools. Teachers can request a session from their local branch. Jennifer Dhingra, a student at University College London and external director for the charity, says teachers are the best people to present facts, but peer educators can be effective at changing values.

“Peer education provides a valuable and unique perspective and can really encourage young people to participate,” she says. “Peers also relate to current issues that affect young people. For example, with topics like sexting, the key messages we want to get across would be on consent and safety and protection against sexual exploitation.”

Elsewhere, charity Straight Talking employs parents aged 17 to 25 to lead workshops about relationships. The young parents are paid employees – meaning they benefit from the programme too – and they talk in schools about issues that have affected their own lives. “We run two modules on grooming, coercion and healthy relationships,” says Hilary Pannack, the organisation’s chief executive. “Very often they’ve experienced these things themselves.”

The parents are trained and supported in the classroom by teachers. “They are never left alone in the classroom and we have meetings with teachers beforehand, so we know that what we’re covering fits with the curriculum,” Pannack explains. Training includes equality, diversity and sexual health.

Challenging norms

In Scotland, the Scottish government and the Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation are funding an exploratory peer-education trial that will take place across six schools.

In each school, a group of 14- to 16-year-olds is nominated by their year based on their leadership skills, then trained to talk to classmates about sex and relationships. “We’re touching on topics that are harder to cover within a limited classroom session but are really important to young people, like sexting and pornography,” says Kirsten Mitchell, who leads the project. “We want to try to change norms and attitudes.”

Once trained, the peer educators can send links to resources and advice through private Facebook groups, which include an adult trainer, when people in their year ask for advice. They can also talk to other students about relationship issues in person.

But is peer education effective?

The biggest study into peer education, carried out in 2004, focused on its impact on teenage pregnancy and found that pupils in the UK seem to like peer-led sex education but it didn’t cause significant behaviour change.

However, David Evans, who previously ran Added Power and Understanding Through Sexual Education (Apause) programmes in schools, is currently researching a PhD in peer-led education and says he’s found it can help change attitudes and transform the social environment. Apause also suggests that “peer education can offer an economic and effective mechanism to protect young people from bad decision-making in their relationships”.

But education in this area shouldn’t be led by peer-to-peer teaching, says Glen Wiseman, a freelance sexual health educator and counsellor in the Bracknell Forest area, working for both charities and the public sector. In terms of its impact in schools, it doesn’t create “a large cultural change, but a drop in the ocean”, he explains. “The day sex education is delivered by well-trained and experienced sex educators who have a passion for the topic is the day we can start looking at ways to supplement it.”

Peer education, then, should complement good sex and relationship education. “It’s certainly not a replacement for it,” confirms Alastair Mackinnon, chief executive of the Scottish Peer Education Network. “I think the main thing is to ensure there’s safety and boundaries. Adults need to be careful about the preparation they do with the young people, to make sure they’re not giving advice on things it’s not suitable for them to give advice on,” he says.

Ultimately, effective sex and relationship education has a combination of elements, Russell says, including “a conversation with young people about what they want, conversations with parents, so they know what’s involved, and delivery from different sources, including peer educators.”

* Name has been changed

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