Sex education and the SEN student

This week is sexual health week and the theme is consent. Sexual abuse is more prevalent for those living with physical or learning disabilities so sex education is is even more important. 

In 2015, after an investigation from the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, figures revealed that there had been 4,748 reports of sexual abuse in England against adults with disabilities two years prior.

This is a drop in the ocean compared to the wider, unreported cases of sexual abuse in the disabled community.

Why are figures so high? One answer could lie in the classroom. Sex education is a topic that many teachers may shy away from. When additional learning needs are added into the mix, it can make the subject even more taboo.


“There is an aspect of fear from professionals. We find that there are a lot of concerns, not from the parents, but schools are really concerned about what the parents are going to say,” explains Rebecca Buckle, education and wellbeing co-ordinator at sexual health charity Brook.

Encouraging improved learning and confidence in teachers to deliver Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is the first step to ensuring young people are safe – in and out the bedroom. The first step to safeguarding young people is ensuring they’re aware of their bodies.

Credit @BrookCharity on Twitter

RSE is crucial in any school, but the shocking fact is some SEN schools don’t touch on the subject and this can cause alarming results. “This is very important information that young people need to know. Brook delivered a session around contraception with a group of young people with SEN who were 16 and it became apparent, immediately, that they had absolutely no idea what a penis or what a vagina was,” Rebecca remembers.

For me, for a young person to get to 16 and not understand what a penis or a vagina is, and not be able to name it, that’s really concerning because from a safeguarding point of view how is that young person supposed to express if something is happening to them?”


There is no denying that sex education has never been fun for either teacher or pupil. Did you enjoy those awkward interactions in school? We didn’t think so.

Historically, teachers discussing sexual health portray it as negative with scare tactics on unwanted pregnancy and infections. Changing the face of RSE and making students feel comfortable is key.

Credit @FPACharity on Twitter

Encouraging positivity and a non-judgemental space will encourage improved learning. Rebecca, who works with SEN schools and colleges across Teesside, explains: “We talk about the key themes that should be there in any healthy, positive relationship, including sexual relationships, too. We talk about consent, trust and communication, and this allows us to lead onto how to stay safe and happy.”

Attitudes to sex and relationships in the disabled community need to be brought into the modern age, too. Unfortunately, some parents or members of the community may not feel it right to see an SEN student as a sexual being.

However, everyone deserves the right to a happy, healthy and enjoyable sex life and it’s imperative that the right education is readily available, either through in-house  teaching or external support from sexual health charities like Brook or FPA.


“We should stop seeing students as having special educational needs and respect that they are teenagers, they are growing, they are exploring and they are developing in all aspects of their life and they are sexual beings – as we all are,” says Rebecca.

Providing a safe and informative space to learn and explore RSE will prevent young people from finding wrong, or disturbing, information and advice online.

Rebecca adds: “It is much better if it is done in a really positive, supportive, and beneficial  way that teaches that sex is a really positive thing. Sex is often turned into a negative, something that is dangerous or frightening or people are going to get exploited or get an STI.”

Credit @srhweek on Twitter

Getting support from sexual health charities could be the answer to providing RSE with ease. For those who don’t feel confident discussing the birds and the bees it’s no failure: there are training schemes available for teachers or services on hand to provide educational assemblies, tutors and sessions for pupils.

Even the government has acknowledged the importance of RSE – making it compulsory in all schools from 2019. The government is calling children from the age of four to be taught about safe and healthy relationships. From a friendship to a sexual relationship there is a lot to learn.

Rebecca encourages the movement and advises schools to continually revisit RSE. “Young people will only take in certain information if they are actually ready to absorb that information. If you’ve got pupils sat in that classroom who are not sexually active and are so far from it,  they’re not going to take in any information about the services or support; some might but you need to do it repeatedly. You have to provide an opportunity for that young person to access that information when they’re ready.”

Sex and relationships shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet or whispered in hushed voices. Disabled or non-disabled students have the right to understand healthy relationships and be sexually positive, regardless of ability. It’s the role of a teacher to guarantee this education is available.



FPA the sexual health charity

The Sex Education Forum

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