“How do we decide when to teach the names of private parts in Primary School?”

Debating whether to teach the names of genitals in Foundation Phase/Stage education (ages 3-7) is a nuanced discussion that encompasses considerations of child development, cultural norms, parental preferences, and educational goals. Making this discussion more complex is that in most countries (England and Wales included), when to introduce the names of genitals in Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is not specified to a single age, but within a range (generally 3-11). In both England and Wales, schools are expected to teach the names of body parts, but which body parts, in which order and at what age, are not referenced. This is needed to provide schools flexibility to teach children at a stage appropriate to them, but has also resulted in a wide range of interpretations with some schools introducing the terms as young as 3, with other schools only teaching them when introducing lessons on puberty in upper KS2. I get regular questions about a particular RSE providers who provide lesson plans on the names of genitals in year 1. The rationale given by the organisation is not based in research, but in their own experience and through conversations with practitioners and so although a scheme has this lesson in, there are considerations that need to be made when deciding when to follow this guidance.

One of the reasons that it is difficult to make firm decisions about when to introduce terminology is the difficulty of finding peer-reviewed research in this area. For the most part, schools are led by either out of date research or guidance from organisations that is based on opinion and experience, rather than corroborated research. Introducing vocabulary in RSE and in areas of diversity is part of many studies and research projects and it is expected that in years to come, we’ll have more clarity in this area.

So with these difficulties in mind, what should schools do and how can we make decisions that is best for our pupils?

Arguments for Teaching Genital Names in the Foundation Phase/Stage:

Promoting Body Positivity and Autonomy: Teaching children accurate anatomical terms for genitals fosters a healthy understanding and acceptance of their bodies. By using correct terminology, some believe that children develop a sense of body positivity and autonomy, enabling them to communicate effectively about their bodies and recognise inappropriate touch.
Facilitating Safety and Awareness: Knowledge of proper anatomical names empowers children to articulate discomfort or instances of abuse more accurately. It is suggested that learning the correct names for genitals, like any other body part, have names helps break down taboos surrounding discussions of sexuality and promotes a culture of safety and awareness.
Preventing Misinformation: Using euphemisms or avoiding discussions about genital names may lead to confusion and misinformation. Children are naturally curious and may seek answers from unreliable sources if not provided with accurate information in a safe and supportive environment.
Normalizing Discussions about Sexuality: Introducing genital names in early education may usualise discussions about sexuality and reproductive health. When presented in an age-appropriate manner, such conversations may lay the foundation for future learning and promote healthy attitudes towards sexuality and relationships.

Arguments against Teaching Genital Names in the Foundation Phase/Stage:

Cultural Sensitivities and Parental Preferences: Some parents may feel uncomfortable with the idea of their young children learning genital names in an educational setting. Cultural norms, religious beliefs, and personal values vary widely, influencing parental preferences regarding what and how topics related to sexuality are addressed in early education. Introducing the genital names without the support of parents and guardians could cause conflicts with and between home and school.
Developmental Appropriateness: Critics argue that introducing genital names at too young an age may be developmentally inappropriate and potentially confusing for children. They suggest that focusing on broader concepts such as body boundaries, personal safety, and self-respect may be more suitable for early childhood education. There is also the risk that it may not be appropriate for pupils with certain ALN/SEND at a certain time, or that the resources don’t take into account their individual needs.
Respecting Family Dynamics: Education systems must respect the diversity of family structures and dynamics. Some parents prefer to address topics related to sexuality and anatomy within the family unit, tailoring discussions to their child’s individual readiness and comfort level.
Risk of Misinterpretation: Critics caution that discussing genital names in early education may inadvertently sensationalise or overemphasize the significance of genitals, potentially leading to misunderstandings or discomfort among children and parents.

Finding a Middle Ground:

In navigating this issue, finding a middle ground that respects diverse perspectives while prioritizing children’s well-being is essential. Educators and policymakers can consider the following approaches:

Consult with parents and experts: Engage parents, carers, and experts in child development, psychology, and education to gather insights and perspectives on the issue. Work with the community to develop an approach that works for your school, not because a scheme dictates it.
Plan for individuals: Do not take a blanket approach to teaching. Consider whether every pupil is ready and what reasonable adjustments need to be put into place for certain pupils.
Provide opt-out options: When permitted by the curriculum, offer parents the opportunity to opt their children out of specific lessons or discussions related to genital names, respecting their autonomy and preferences.
Emphasise sensitivity and inclusivity: Approach discussions about genital names with sensitivity, inclusivity, and cultural awareness, acknowledging diverse perspectives and beliefs within the community.

The debate over whether to teach genital names in early childhood education reflects the broader discourse surrounding sexuality education, child development, and cultural sensitivities. The review of RSE in England may provide additional transparency around this issue, but until then, we have to use our professional judgement and work with all stakeholders to ensure that our children get quality RSE and are safeguarded against harm.

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