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Blog post Covid-19, education and educational research

Identifying the potential impacts of Covid-19 on school-based sexuality education

Joshua Heyes, University of Birmingham

The ideas presented in this blog were developed in dialogue with a number of English sexuality education organizations, including acetUK, It Happens, Susie March, Think for Yourself, Teaching Lifeskills and Outspoken Sex Ed.


Despite its controversial and contested political status, there is a growing body of evidence showing that the association of school-based sexuality education with a variety of positive outcomes for children and young people (Poobalan, Pitchforth, & Imamura et. al., 2009). Of central importance is an inclusive, culturally sensitive approach covering a range of topics beyond the biological (including healthy relationships). However, as with all aspects of education, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have significant long-term effects on school-based sexuality education worldwide. While at this point we cannot be entirely confident of what these effects will be, research can help us anticipate some of them, thereby helping schools and sexual health organisations to anticipate and respond to the challenges we can expect to face going forward.

1. Impact on transitions to secondary school

In England, sexuality education programmes are often delivered in the final term of primary school (ages 10–11). The timing of the pandemic means that the 2020 cohort of transitioning pupils are likely to have missed this provision. Along with the onset of puberty, transitions to secondary school (ages 11–16) accompany an increase in cross-sex interactions, exacerbating instances of bullying and sexual harassment (Pellegrini, 2010). Good quality sexuality education provides opportunities to discuss the challenges of transition, including anxieties about the intensified sexual culture of secondary school. Where students have missed this opportunity due to Covid-19, we may see an increase in these negative behaviours, with disproportionate effects on LGBTQ+ youth. Even where a full programme might not be possible in the coming months, schools should consider the importance of at least putting resources towards effectively engaging those who are transitioning into secondary education. It is also important to note that an integrated, whole-school approach is more effective than occasional ‘drop-down’ days (Pound et al., 2017).

2. Impact on allocation of resources

As has been explored extensively elsewhere, it is highly likely that money, time and energy will be devoted to ‘core subjects’ once schools return to full capacity. This will result in the inevitable neglect of other areas of curriculum, including non-‘academic’ areas like sexuality education. Research has already indicated the extent to which teachers feel unprepared to teach sex education (Abbott, Ellis & Abbott, 2016), and it is likely that the allocation of resources to training will be badly hit. Furthermore, schools may be unwilling to seek out external organisations and visitors to supplement their programmes, given concerns over virus contagion. There will be a need for schools to consider creative approaches to facilitating effective sexuality education in conditions of resource scarcity, perhaps drawing (temporarily) on remote learning approaches.

3. Impact on inequalities in accessing sexuality education

The effects of the pandemic in terms of exacerbating educational inequalities of race, gender, class and sexuality will be well documented by educational research in the coming years. In general, marginalised populations are likely to be more heavily impacted by Covid-19, which will in turn affect their participation in education, including sexuality education. It may take time for young people to return to full school attendance, and their family or living situations may have changed dramatically in the meantime. Potentially vulnerable young people are the most in need of sexuality education, which, when taught effectively, can have a positive impact on attitudes and behaviours, including those related to gender-based violence (Haberland, 2015). In the aftermath of Covid-19 it will, therefore, be more important than ever during for schools to recognise the role of sexuality education in meeting their responsibilities in safeguarding all children and young people.

Conclusion

Despite the likely negative impacts of coronavirus on sexuality education, there are also some potentially positive developments. Sexuality education organisations are being forced to innovate remote methods of training and delivery which may increase access to vital resources post-quarantine. Furthermore, a lack of resources may lead schools to consult more extensively with young people and the wider community, leading to more engaged and contextually sensitive practice. The recommendations I’ve made here may help schools to see the importance of sexuality education in engaging with the range of problems young people may face in a post-coronavirus world, taking steps to mitigate the risks of reduced access and capitalising on new opportunities.


References

Abbott, K., Ellis, S., & Abbott, R. (2016). ‘We’ve got a lack of family values’: An examination of how teachers formulate and justify their approach to teaching sex and relationships education. Sex Education, 16(6), 678–691. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14681811.2016.1169398

Haberland, N. A. (2015). The case for addressing gender and power in sexuality and HIV education: A comprehensive review of evaluation studies. International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 41(1), 31–42. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25856235/

Poobalan, A. S., Pitchforth, E., Imamura, M., Tucker, J. S., Philip, K., Spratt, J., Mandava, L. & van Teijlingen, E. (2009). Characteristics of effective interventions in improving young people’s sexual health: a review of reviews. Sex Education, 9(3), 319–336. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14681810903059185

Pellegrini, A. D. (2010). Bullying, victimization, and sexual harassment during the transition to middle school. Educational Psychologist, 37(3), 37–41. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15326985EP3703_2

Pound, P., Denford, S., Shucksmith, J., Tanton, C., Johnson, A. M., Owen, J., Hutten, R., Mohan, L., Bonell, C., Abraham, C., Campbell, R. (2017). What is best practice in sex and relationship education? A synthesis of evidence, including stakeholders’ views. BMJ Open, 7(5). https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/5/e014791