This policy brief provides the rationale for implementing formal sexuality-education programmes in school-based settings in Europe and Central Asia.
Sexuality education delivered within a safe learning environment and alongside access to youth-friendly health services has a positive and lifelong effect on the health and well- being of children and young people. It is important to stress that children and young people need both informal and formal sexuality education. The two should not be opposed; they complement one another.
While schools are key providers of formal sexuality education, it is critical that options for non-school- based sexuality education should exist, especially to reach the most marginalized and vulnerable young people, but also as a supplement to school-based sexuality education.
“School settings provide an important opportunity to reach large numbers of children and young people with sexuality education before they become sexually active, as well as offering an appropriate structure (i.e. the formal curriculum) within which to do so.”
All young people will become aware about feelings, sexuality and relationships during their school career. As such, schools play an important role in guiding and supporting children and young people for their future social roles and responsibilities, such as forming respectful and gender-equitable relationships, becoming and being pregnant, and fulfilling their roles as mothers or fathers.
Schools have the opportunity to reach large numbers of children and young people from diverse backgrounds via trained adult professionals. School leaders have a responsibility for promoting and protecting children’s and young people’s sexual health and well- being long before the onset of sexual activity. Age-appropriate sexuality education engages children and young people in developing knowledge and skills, building self-esteem and empowerment, and challenging harmful
gender norms. Sexuality education also teaches about values such as equality, respect and tolerance. The demand for sexuality education comes from learners themselves and they want to be active participants in the learning process.
Schools are effective structures for the teaching and learning of tomorrow’s citizens. The school curriculum is designed to address the educational and social-emotional needs of children and young people in an age-appropriate manner. The formal curriculum is a long-term and sustainable way of imparting information and the best environment to challenge the root causes of gender inequality and gender-based violence in society.
The school ethos influences the learn- ing environment of the school by teaching health literacy, values such as respect, acceptance, empathy and appreciation of diversity, gender equality, and life skills such as decision- making and coping with challenges.
Schools bring together professionals from various fields (teachers, administrators, nurses, psychologists) and disciplines. This provides an opportunity for comprehensive and integrated approaches to learning. With the appropriate training, teachers can become skilled and trusted sources of information. Teachers of sexuality education are in need of continued professional training and support from school management, teachers’ unions and parents. Given the necessary policies and staffing, schools can be safe spaces for open discussions with professional adult support, using the opportunities and benefits of group dynamics offered by the classroom setting.
Safety in the classroom should be supported by policies that prevent gender inequality and discrimination, have a positive approach to young people’s experiences, respond to their expectations about sexuality and relationships, and are consistent with the curriculum.
The school is part of the community and as such can effectively liaise with community-based social and health services such as youth-friendly health clinics, counselling services and youth clubs. To be most effective school-based sexuality education needs to be coupled with access to information and counselling services, contraceptives and commodities.
The majority of governments in Europe and Central Asia use national policies to protect the rights of child- ren and young people to access information related to their health and well-being. Countries as diverse as Albania, Estonia and Germany have specific policies in place that ensure child and youth-friendly services, for example, age-appropriate formal school-based sexuality education.
In the majority of countries, the state’s responsibility for meeting children’s and young people’s rights to inform- ation and protection is shared between various ministries responsible for education, health, social protection, youth, sports, family, gender issues and justice.
Countries vary in the manner in which school-based sexuality education is mandated by law. In the Netherlands, for example, education on sexuality and sexual diversity is mandated as a core objective in the 2012 Law on Education Goals. However, schools retain great freedom in the way in which they develop sexuality-education lessons. In several countries of Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, the
Republic of Moldova and Tajikistani, the protection of adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health and the right to school-based sexuality education is clearly enshrined in legislation on public health or reproductive health and rights; governmental bodies, health and educational institutions are mandated with the working out of curricula.
Age-appropriate sexuality education should be introduced at the beginning of the school career to complement informal sexuality education in the home. Sexuality education is based on a building-block model with built-in repetition and more in-depth study of certain topics at later stages. Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway have introduced age-appropriate sexuality education at preschool age, in other words before the age of six.