Charlotte Hayden, a 22-year-old medical student, is cool, calm, and competent. She’s the sort of person you’d want running a hospital, or performing delicate surgery on your internal organs. Instead she’s teaching a class of 13-year-olds about sex.
Hayden runs the Leicester branch of Sexpression UK. Hers is one of 29 student-led organizations that make up a national network of trainee medics. Their mission is to improve young people’s access to sex education.
"We provide evidence-based, non-judgmental environments to discuss sex, relationships, anything our local communities need," explains national coordinator and fourth-year medic Matthew Tuck. Tuck oversees the provision of hundreds of peer-led sessions delivered to young people, by young people, across the UK. His teams of volunteer sex educators are trying their best to fill a gap that government reform hasn’t touched in 13 years.
"Parents are actually really shocked that schools don’t have to cover things like contraception,"says Tuck. "They assume the school’s doing it, schools assume the parents are doing it. In fact no one’s doing it."
Sex and relationships education is not currently compulsory in UK schools. In the absence of government guidance, schools are left to decide for themselves how to educate their pupils. According to Simon Blake, sex education, where it occurs, is often "too little, too late, too biological". Blake is the CEO of Brook, the UK’s largest sexual health charity for young people, an organization that has close ties with Sexpression.
"Sex education doesn’t focus on emotions, real life dilemmas and problems that young people face," he says. "Often teachers aren’t trained properly and aren’t very confident in delivering sex education."
Sexpression’s activists are not the first to use peer-to-peer education to try to solve this problem. Blake’s organization has also brought young people into schools to discuss subjects like pornography. But Sexpression is the first organization to use this strategy on a national scale.
Tuck is proud of his network’s USP: "young people can associate with us, and that is a powerful tool. What we say is tantamount to a friend’s older sibling, and it’s taken with a lot of weight".
Hayden and her team have been drafted in to Bushloe high school, a suburban comprehensive in Wigston, to deliver sessions on self-esteem and relationships.
"Initially they came to us as an all-medical students organization. We thought that’d be ideal to tap into their resources," explains Bushloe’s PSHE coordinator Mark Bachelor. "But once we invited them in we realized that the age range means that the children relate so much better to them."
Back in the classroom Hayden has organized the kids into groups of five or six to complete the assigned tasks. She hopes they will take the chance to open up to her, and feel comfortable asking questions they would normally find embarrassing.
"When do you think most people will settle down with a partner and have children?" asks Hayden.
"18?" suggests one kid. "22?" guesses another.
The kids are then given scenarios to discuss in groups. As well as asking questions, it’s important to Hayden that the kids get the chance discuss between themselves.
In one of the scenarios Ann, 14, has a boyfriend and they enjoy kissing each other. Her boyfriend wants more and said that he’ll break up with her if she doesn’t. What should Ann do?
One girl raises her hand. "She should break up with him, he’s blackmailing her," she says confidently. The other kids nod their heads in agreement. "If he forces her to have sex, it could be rape," says another boy.
"We already provide throughout Years 8 and 9 all of the basic relationships and sex education, so having Sexpression in is really about how we enhance that," Bachelor explains.
Brook and Sexpression will continue to campaign to make sex and relationships education a compulsory part of the national curriculum. For this to occur the UK will have to develop what Blake calls a "non-hysterical attitude" towards young people and sex. In the meantime, Blake is a pragmatist. Waiting for government guidance isn’t going to help get the important information to those that need it.
Voluntary provision of sex education by student groups is not going to solve the UK’s problem. But since the government has left so much up to local schools, the role of local student volunteers and activists is bigger than ever.