Preparing pupils for puberty

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
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What age should kids be taught about puberty?

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Young people say that they are learning too little, too late to prepare them for puberty and adolescence. Anna Feuchtwang looks at how schools can get it right

One might assume that pupils arrive at secondary school prepared not only for the academic transition but knowing something about puberty. But a survey of young people suggests that nearly a quarter of girls start having periods before the subject is covered in sex and relationships education (SRE). Almost 15 per cent of young people said they were taught nothing at school about menstruation.

Government guidance on SRE states that pupils should learn about puberty before they experience it, but this is clearly not happening in all schools.

It is easy to assume that “it will have been discussed at home” or “it must be covered in primary school”, but the reality is that many young people are missing out on vital learning to support their development, health and wellbeing.

This doesn’t just apply to learning about periods. The Sex Education Forum (SEF) survey found that 38 per cent of boys experienced wet dreams before having learnt about them. More than 50 per cent of young people go through school without this aspect of puberty ever being mentioned.

So what role should secondary schools play in preparing pupils for puberty? A good starting point is to find out what is covered by your feeder primary schools. You may find that there is a one-off session on puberty with year 6 pupils, perhaps to girls and boys separately, and this may be the only SRE provided.

If you are lucky you will find examples of a developmental programme of SRE with learning about puberty starting in year 5 or earlier. The SEF’s curriculum design tool shows what a developmental programme could cover.

Good-quality SRE includes learning about the body, relationships, feelings and attitudes, keeping safe and looking after one’s sexual health, all of which link with puberty. The key is that learning needs to be developmentally appropriate and provided in good time. In a secondary school, this requires a regular timetabled slot for SRE and PSHE from year 7.

A creative approach to teaching about puberty will address the social and emotional aspects of growing up too. Puberty is not just a biological process, it is something that happens in the context of a family and culture.

Pupils will value opportunities to explore these influences, for example through a “problem page” type activity on a puberty theme. Such an activity can also be a means of raising awareness about specific issues such as female genital mutilation. The Puberty Issue is a free resource from the SEF giving teachers lesson ideas for each key stage.

It is important that the curriculum meets the needs of boys as well as girls and that gender stereotypes are challenged through the choice and use of resources. All pupils will benefit from this approach and it is particularly supportive for young people who identify as transgender, non-binary or other genders, who have described puberty education as falling far short of their needs.

Beyond the classroom, there are practical measures that schools can take too. For example, when pupils do not have adequate facilities for menstruation management it can have a negative impact on education and may result in absence.

Providing bins in every toilet avoids singling out menstruators and asking pupils how and where they would like to access free menstruation products opens up a topic for discussion that is often quite taboo. Why not ask pupils their views on gender-neutral toilets too?

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk

Further information

The Sex Education Forum’s resources for schools, including The Puberty Issue and its Curriculum Design Tool, are available at www.sexeducationforum.org.uk


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