Sex education continues to be a delicate, if not difficult, issue in schools. At the same time, it is one that regularly appears on the political scene as it speaks to the public’s emotional, social, moral and religious mind-set. This year, it is Switzerland’s turn. Some of the conservative parties are seeking to make it an electoral topic. Their concern: sex education is introduced too early in school and is in danger of corrupting innocent minds.
If one takes the Geneva model, however, sex education is delivered in public schools by a team of specially trained professionals. They follow a gradual programme that aims to raise awareness of one’s body and, more importantly, one’s right to privacy. This builds up to answering any questions teenagers might have, later touching on wider issues such as sexual identity, tolerance, health and safety.
Yves Cencin of Artanes, a sex education association in the Suisse Romande, emphasizes the importance of reinforcing self-esteem in order to prepare children for peer pressure. The programme starts in primary school with abuse prevention for eight-year-olds; it then moves on to how it works for 10-year-olds before opening up to answering any questions 12-year-olds might have. The idea is to de-mystify an issue that some parents are unsure how to approach, while debunking playground myths.
Contraception and safe sex are only introduced in secondary school where, as before, there is an emphasis on sexual health. The Swiss aim to equip children and young adults with the ability to make an informed judgement. So far, this approach appears to be working. One indicator is that Switzerland has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe.
As an education professional, I recognize the importance of informing children and teenagers in order to prepare them for adult life. This is why I feel there is cause for concern. This is not because sex education may be introduced too early. On the contrary, it is because among the expatriate community with kids attending private schools, students may not be given an adequate level of education when it comes to sexual health and other matters.
Often, these students are not francophone. The result is that they have restricted access to government and other established institutions, such as helplines or free medical aid and advice. Anglophone students may find themselves isolated, with their school the only source of guidance and information outside of the family.
Dr Michelle Wright of HealthFirst is often asked to deliver sex-education classes in Geneva’s private and international schools. She believes that spot sessions are not sufficient to educate youngsters fully. Nor are they nearly enough to raise awareness on varied topics, such as peer pressure or sexual harassment. Dr Wright indeed suggests that sex education should be incorporated into the curriculum, so that it accompanies children through puberty and helps them cope with age-related concerns, including preparing them for life.
Some supporters of the initiative to change Switzerland’s sex-education programme argue that it is the parents’ responsibility. Unfortunately, not all families provide the right environment for such conversations, due to emotions, embarrassment, taboos, or lack of information. Personal and cultural bias are also factors that can make family-based sex education less than ideal when it comes to informing young people about sexual matters. This highlights the need for trained and objective professionals to do the job.
Given that the Swiss population will soon be voting on this continuing debate, perhaps now is a good time to open a dialogue with schools as to what form sex education should take, what questions should be addressed and who is to deliver the programme.
Sabine Hutcheson, Academic Director and Educational Consultant at TutorsPlus