How sex and relationships education has changed in Scottish primary schools

It is a question dreaded by many parents and caregivers: what to do when your children start asking about sex?

The school syllabus has historically offered little help, often steeped in shame and taboo.

But this has changed, and many parents now find their children learning about topics they were never taught - especially at primary school.

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This can lead to “panic”, when they are told Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood (RSHP) education is coming up, according to Megan McCrossan, a primary teacher with 14 years experience and advocate for RSHP with the EIS union.

Picture: PA Media

But some parents are reassured by being able to access lesson content online, and in any case they are no longer allowed to opt out.

“I think it's really important for children that they know what changes are going to be happening to the body,” said Ms McCrossan.

“For a lot of parents, the experience at school was when you were 15 or 16 in biology and you got a talk from a nurse and that was pretty much it.

“I think a lot of parents panic and think we’re going to be telling the children how to have sex, but it’s very much not like that.”

RSHP lessons begin in Primary 1 with body parts, and progress to covering relationships, periods, pregnancy, gender and sexuality and sex and consent among other topics.

While in the past boys and girls were given different information, now they are taught the same, avoiding “playground misinformation”.

Lisa Hallgarten, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Brook, a UK-wide charity offering sexual health and education services for young people, said it is “really vital” that children start learning about healthy relationships in primary school.

"As the children get older relationships education prepares them for puberty and all the physical and emotional changes they might expect,” she said.

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“Some girls begin to menstruate at nine years old or rarely even earlier. There is nothing more frightening than experiencing menstruation before you've been told what it is.

Primary schools can play a key role in supporting parents to educate their children and answer often “challenging” questions, she added.

The NSPCC also underlined the importance of teaching children about consent and healthy relationships.

“In the average primary school class, at least two pupils have suffered abuse or neglect, making it vitally important that children are equipped with the knowledge and skills to speak up if something is wrong,” a spokesperson said.

Zero Tolerance Scotland, which works to end male violence against women and girls in Scotland, points out there is still more to be done in improving RSHP education, and that sexual harassment in secondary schools offers proof that better education is needed in primary schools.

Teaching RSHP can be “daunting”, Ms McCrossan admits.

But while you may “squirm” later in the staff room, teachers have to model confidence in front of the children, making the lessons as comfortable as possible so they feel free to ask questions.

And after years of experience, she enjoys teaching this subject.

She has had some “very, very interesting questions” from ten and 11-year-olds, and allows herself to giggle along with the children, who she often finds enjoy the excitement of covering “taboo” subjects, and get a lot out of the lessons.


Catherine Salmond, Editor, Scotland on Sunday

‘Today we learned about masturbation, periods and boners,” my nine-year-old said as he sat at the bottom of the stairs and took off his school shoes.

This was not what I had been expecting when I asked him how his day had gone, but I loved his confidence, so encouraged him to tell me more. Cue a relaxed and at times humorous chat about the topics, all of which had been discussed in his P5 class that day as part of the school’s health and wellbeing lessons.

How brilliant is this? I thought. He is only nine, yet seemingly unfazed by what is often an embarrassing topic that, certainly back in my school days, many children would have cringed at the thought of even mentioning to their parents.

On the school run the next day I discovered that a friend of my son had asked her mum whether she had always consented to sex. The following week, puberty, mood swings and wet dreams were the topics of the day. The technicalities of reproduction are coming next.

I wish it had been like this when I was nine. How much easier would that have made my teenage years? How much better would it have been for the girl I knew who started her period with no knowledge of what was happening, petrified at the changes to her body?

Back then – in the mid-1990s – boys were sent out to play rounders while the “Tampon Lady” came in to discuss menstruation with us 11-year-old girls, prompting silence, embarrassment and next to no questions from the crowd. We went home armed with a stash of freebie sanitary towels and tampons, yet mortified to so much as have them in our bags.

Things at high school were not much better. Sex was taught as a perfunctory act that was performed in loving relationships, and none of the issues around it – consent, sexual health, abuse – were given much meaningful attention.

Pregnancy was a no-no, something to be feared – yet the various ways of preventing it were never given the attention they should have been.

I am utterly thrilled my nine-year-old son is learning about the ways of the world now and that his teachers appear to be doing it so brilliantly, stripping away any embarrassment or shame.

This can only bode well for his generation: their mental and sexual health, the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, understanding abuse and having respect for their own bodies and those of others.

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