Originally posted on The Guardian
It’s quiet in Paul Bray’s classroom; only the occasional exclamation from a student punctuates the aura of studiousness. At one table, a teaching assistant cradles the hand of a boy in an adapted chair comfortingly, while another offers gentle encouragement to other pupils.
(Special needs pupils at Doubletrees school in Cornwall take part in a sex education class. Photograph: Ben Mostyn for the Guardian Special needs pupils at Doubletrees school in Cornwall take part in a sex education class. Photograph: Ben Mostyn for the Guardian)
Each of the two groups in the room has been given drawings of naked male and female bodies and asked to use the smaller pictures supplied to label different body parts. There are labels for knees, legs, and faces, but also for the penis, vagina, testicles and pubic hair.
Bray, the behaviour and PSHE (personal, social and health education) lead at Doubletrees special school near St Austell, in Cornwall – which caters for those with severe and complex learning difficulties – is determined that as many of the students as possible should have sex and relationships education (SRE). Under a new policy, each class is expected to get lessons every year. Two staff have been trained to deliver workshops encouraging parental involvement, and a working group has been set up to monitor implementation.
But if PSHE – within which SRE sits – remains a Cinderella subject in mainstream schools thanks to its non-statutory status, provision for children with learning disabilities seems even further away from going to go the ball. Bray recently completed a master’s dissertation at St Mark & St John University in Plymouth on the barriers to quality SRE for special education needs (SEN) pupils, and found from a survey of three schools, including his own, that almost half the teachers questioned hadn’t provided any SRE (not even the small statutory bit – the biology of reproduction that’s in national curriculum science). Two schools he approached didn’t even want to take part.
Low confidence among teachers was a consistent finding, with only a small proportion having covered SRE as part of their initial training. The picture is no less patchy nationally, according to the Family Planning Association, which has long campaigned for those with learning disabilities to get better sex education.
Attitudes and a lack of resources are the problem, Bray concluded. Just putting the words sex and education together make people twitchy, he says; throwing in children and special needs triggers embarrassment and anxiety, even anger. “We’ve got a real blind spot when it comes to people with learning disabilities and their sexuality,” he says, sitting in the headteacher’s office. “Our guys can’t opt out of puberty.” Yet there’s a widespread misconception – including among policymakers at national and local levels – that turning into a sexual being simply doesn’t apply to them.
Some parents find their child’s developing sexuality hard to accept, or are fearful about the effects of focusing on it. “I think this is true not just of parents but of some staff as well,” Bray says. “It’s almost, if you’re going to start teaching our learners about growing up, puberty and sexuality, then it will encourage inappropriate behaviour. In fact all the evidence shows that it’s completely the opposite.”
While most parents at Doubletrees have supported the school’s work, some have exercised their right to take children out of the lessons. “We have had phone calls where parents have said, ‘This is disgusting, I don’t know why you would want to teach our kids this’,” Bray says.
Much of the work is aimed at keeping students safe, and at the end of the lesson the pupils use the labels to show where people should and shouldn’t touch them without permission. Children with a learning disability are more than twice as likely to be sexually abused than others, says Mencap.
When Bray sent questionnaires to parents of 14- to 18-year-olds as part of his research, none said their child knew the correct names for private body parts, and three-quarters thought their child didn’t have the skills to reject inappropriate attention – or understood their right to say no.
“Not knowing body part names leaves most of our guys unable to explain what’s happened to them, if they’ve got concerns about bodily changes,” he says. “It’s also a child protection issue. There have been examples of students with learning disabilities [who’ve been abused] being classed as unreliable witnesses because they can’t name particular body parts.”
The onset of puberty can be terrifying if you haven’t been warned what to expect or can’t ask questions about what’s happening. Bray tells a harrowing story of a male student who spent months ripping out the pubic hair he had begun to grow. Girls who’ve no idea what their periods are when they start can go through similar agonies.
Pupils are also taught when and where it’s acceptable to touch themselves. Several UK studies have suggested those with learning disabilities are over-represented among young people accused of sexual abuse, with one in 1991 showing that 44% of those referred to a clinic for young people who sexually abused others had a learning disability, with half of those having attended a special school. About 2% of the population are thought to have learning disabilities.
“Masturbating is an issue for a lot of our guys,” Bray says. “We’re trying to move the culture away from [saying] ‘no’ to ‘not here’.” One student began masturbating in the passenger seat as he was driven by a female transport escort. “Thankfully the escort came in to speak to me and we dealt with things how we could here, and with the family,” Bray says. “If that had been on a bus, or anywhere else in public, then the consequences for that young man would have been considerably different.”
Harry Walker, policy and parliamentary manager at the Family Planning Association, says: “At the extreme end you get people banged up in a secure setting because they haven’t been given appropriate education and therefore get involved with the law because they’ve been touching themselves inappropriately in an inappropriate setting – quite simply because no one’s ever told them otherwise.”
Making SRE statutory should force schools to take it more seriously, and improve teacher training, Walker believes. Bray hopes it will improve the availability of teaching resources, especially for those with profound and multiple disabilities. His research, he says, showed that with confident teachers, parental support and resources, pupils made “huge gains” in knowledge around growing and changing, keeping safe and body parts.
In 2013 the department of health produced a framework for sexual health improvement that recognised the lack of SRE for young people with learning disabilities, and recommended more accessible information and support. Yet there seems to be no way of measuring whether that’s being done, Walker says. “It’s partly to do with localism,” he explains. “The department of health will set a national ambition and then will hand it entirely over to local authorities and say, ‘You know best, we’re not going to tell you how to do your jobs’.”
“To put it frankly, the DH framework doesn’t have teeth. It’s a big suggestion document, so that’s a real problem.”
The Family Planning Association wants the health department to rule that sexual health and development should be included in health plans for individuals with learning disabilities. “Politicians are happy to be seen to be taking action to prevent abuse of young people with learning disabilities,” Walker says. “What they won’t want to talk about is sexual health and enjoying sexuality.”
Michelle Lobb, whose son Kieran is in the lesson I observe and is severely autistic, with a learning disability, epilepsy and a sensory processing disorder, thinks the work is brilliant. “For me it’s vitally important because if anything were to happen to Kieran that wasn’t so nice, he would need to be able to communicate that to me,” she says. “If he didn’t know how to, I would have absolutely no idea.”
What does she say to those who think sexuality is not an issue for these young people? “They need to walk a very long mile in a pair of our shoes,” Lobb says. “Kids are kids; everybody’s got these hormones in their body; everybody’s going to have those same feelings.”