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Sex Education

Peter White discusses sex education with Cathy Wright from New College, Worcester, and Lucy Emmerson of Sex Education Forum. Plus, a day in the life with MP Marsha de Cordova.

Last year the Children and Social Work Act became law, requiring all schools provide relationship and sex education from September 2019. As part of this process, the government has been calling for evidence from individuals and organisations in order to update its guidance for schools. So why have representatives of the visually impaired community seemingly not participated in this process to date? Is this a sign that all is well for the estimated 70 per cent of visually impaired students in mainstream education?

Peter White hears from a student who thinks not. He is also joined by sex education teacher Cathy Wright from New College, Worcester - one of the few remaining schools dedicated to teaching visually impaired students, and Lucy Emmerson from Sex Education Forum to discuss.

Marsha de Cordova is visually impaired and joined the still small but growing band of MPs with a disability when she was elected as Labour MP for Battersea in last year's general election. She's since added to her workload by gaining a quick promotion to become Shadow Minister for Disabled People. Our reporter Tom Walker spent a day with her in parliament.

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Transcript

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH – Sex Education

 

TX:  27.02.2018  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

 

PRODUCER:            GEORGINA HEWES

  

White

Good evening.  Tonight, how to solve the challenges of teaching sex education to visually impaired students.  And one day at work in an environment definitely not geared to blind and partially sighted people.

 

Clip

Walker

I can’t imagine being able to find my way round here ever.

 

De Cordova

Well that’s why I’ve got my sighted assistant because they take away that stress.

 

White

We’ll be following in the footsteps of Marsha de Cordova as she gets to grips with the Aladdin’s cave that is Parliament.

 

But first, I come from the era where sex education was little more than one lesson on human reproduction, with much confusing talk about things like gonads and gametes which bore very little relevance to what we really wanted to know about.  For a totally blind child, like me, it was all a deep mystery and you’d like to think that we’ve moved on a bit since then.  But as the Department for Education closes a consultation exercise on the subject it looks as if there could still be a long way to go. 

 

Jordan is in his last year at a mainstream academy in southeast London and he feels he got little from the sex education classes he attended.

 

Jordan

I did sort of one session annually with each class, it was all very generic, same old, same old each year.  A lot of reading off generic PowerPoints, asking very, very generic questions.

 

White

Were you offered it alongside the class as a whole, were you given any individual sex education?

 

Jordan

No, I wasn’t no.

 

White

So specifically, what did you feel you were missing?

 

Jordan

It sounds sort of a bit embarrassing really.  Things like when you’re actually putting condoms on and things like that.  Last year, was when we finally touched on that and it was in a 25-minute session, it was really, really quite basic.

 

White

And even with something as basic as that could you follow what was actually happening?

 

Jordan

Not in the slightest.  Number one, it was an external organisation that didn’t know there was going to be someone in the group that had a visual impairment, there was really sort of no accommodation – it was one person demonstrating, group of boys sitting around a table watching them do it.

 

White

Did you, at any point, kind of protest about that and say this isn’t really any good for me?

 

Jordan

I did actually.  The woman was happy enough to sort of show me but there was five minutes left at the end of session which really wasn’t long enough for me to properly engage in it and actually get anything out of it – using the example of the condom you can see the difference between the inside and the outside but it’s extremely difficult to tell by touch.

 

White

What do you think needs to be offered?

 

Jordan

I think there needs to be a kind of more practical workshop, if you like, and I think it would be more practical to do it with other visually impaired people.  It would remove the – oh gosh this is a bit embarrassing – because you’d all be in the same position.

 

White

Eighteen-year-old Jordan from southeast London. 

 

So, what thought is being given to how that exercise could have been improved for Jordan and those who follow him?  To discuss this we’ve brought together Cathy Wright, who teaches sex education at New College Worcester – one of the few remaining schools dedicated to teaching visually impaired children – and Lucy Emmerson, who coordinates the Sex Education Forum that campaigns for better teaching of the subject.

 

I asked Lucy what was the significance of the government’s consultation exercise.

 

Emmerson

Well a year ago this week new legislation was passed making relationships and sex education a requirement in all schools and that’s going to start in September 2019.  But to fully update what’s being provided in schools there needs to be fresh government guidance, the current guidance is 17 years old.  So, the government started talking to people through this call for evidence process to get views from young people, parents and professionals and that process finished earlier this month.

 

White

And coming to visually impaired people specifically, as far as we ascertain and despite our pressing the Department of Education, they wouldn’t confirm who had submitted evidence but little or none of it seems to have come from the visual impairment sector.  What’s your experience of this?

 

Emmerson

Well it is a real test of that new legislation if we can have good quality relationships in sex education that meets the needs of blind and visually impaired students.  I do hope the government will make a serious effort to get views representing all types of disabilities.

 

White

Are you surprised though that the sector doesn’t seem to have been giving evidence to the government?

 

Emmerson

The problem we have is embarrassment with relationships and sex education across the board and the quality has been poor across the board.  And then you look at particular needs within that and they get neglected.  So, we need to see that being addressed.

 

White

Let me bring in Cathy Wright, because Cathy, Jordan said he’d really relish being able to learn this subject with other visually impaired pupils, that’s what he said to us.  What are the advantage of being able to do this, as far as you’re concerned, what does it enable you to do?

 

Wright

Well partly because we have such small groups at New College that we can really gear lessons around the needs of the individual students.  So, it is much more discussion based, no place for PowerPoint really.  So, for instance, if we were doing a condom demonstration then every student would have the opportunity to actually do that with the demonstrator.  And there’s other staff in the room to help.

 

White

And yet I think you were quite surprised, weren’t you, when you started to teach this, how little there was in the way of specific tools aimed at visually impaired pupils?

 

Wright

Very much so.  So, a lot of the sex education resources, which might be really, really good, in fact a lot of them are, they are very visual, so they might be for students with a cognitive impairment and they tend to be cartoons or photo stories but they’re not appropriate for students with a visual impairment.

 

White

How do you get around that?

 

Wright

Well the resources that we’ve got at school we’ve pretty much made ourselves.  And a lot of it we do just by talking and being very, very explicit about what things look like, what things feel like and so on.

 

White

Yeah, I mean I’m interested, how much detail do you go into anatomically?  After all that’s what kids want to know isn’t it and visually impaired kids don’t have pictures to help them, unless they have a little sight.

 

Wright

No and it’s incredible difficult for them, they don’t necessarily know what their own body looks like, they don’t know what anybody else’s body looks like or feels like.  So, in science they do the biological side and they do that in quite a lot of detail with models and being very explicit.  In our PSHE lessons we tend to focus more on the relationship side and consent and the skills and the attributes that you need to have healthy relationships.

 

White

But you do have models?

 

Wright

I found it difficult to get an appropriate male model but we have got a really good female model, which I actually got from a sex toy company which is anatomically very correct, it feels right and I’ve used it really successfully with groups of students.

 

White

And specifically, on the issue of relationships and the whole business of consent and whether someone is genuinely attracted to you or perhaps doesn’t fancy you at all, how much do you go into that and how much can you actually illustrate that?

 

Wright

Again, it is quite difficult for students who can’t see.  We do quite a lot of work on consent and things like the amount of personal space that you can have between yourself and another person and the ways that you can read the signs in their voice and their body language to whatever extent you can use body language is to how far the attraction is going with another person.  The whole consent thing is really, really important and it’s something that we’ve focused on quite a lot more in the last year or so.  Making sure that students know that rather than just being the absence of a no, it’s a positive yes.

 

White

Can I just ask you before I go back to Lucy?  Are you surprised that the visual impairment sector doesn’t appear to have engaged very much with this discussion?

 

Wright

I am disappointed, I’m not surprised.  We obviously have an outreach function at school and we get queries from all different curriculum areas but we get very few queries about sex and relationship education.  Students that come to us later in school, so maybe year eight, year nine, year 10, they often haven’t really had much sex education but they don’t really know what to ask and it’s almost as if they’ve been excluded from it.

 

White

But you said you’ve had to make your own tools, you had to build your own models, shouldn’t you be pressing or making the point that there needs to be more generally available to mainstream as well as special schools?

 

Wright

Oh definitely, we’ll be contributing to the consultation I’m sure.

 

White

Well on that point Lucy Emmerson, I mean the fact is that only 2% of pupils where visual impairment is their only or primary disability at getting the kind of teaching Cathy’s actually offering, how practical is it to suppose that mainstream schools will be able to offer that kind of teaching geared to their visually impaired children, especially when they’ve only perhaps got one or two?

 

Emmerson

Well given the pick and mix quality of relationships and sex education in mainstream schools at the moment, it ranges such a lot, I’m sure the provision is very weak and is not meeting the needs of blind and visually impaired students.  And what the Sex Education Forum would like to see is a national strategy from government investing in training for staff to support really good quality provision, so we can share some of that excellent practice that Cathy’s has described, see the resources she’s made and adapted, so that other schools have got a shortcut to getting really good quality resources.

 

White

And this consultation period, it has actually now officially closed doesn’t that, does that mean that it’s too late to feed in information of particular relevance to blind and partially sighted students?

 

Emmerson

I hope not because the government will have a further process of consulting on their new guidance.  I would encourage anybody listening to this programme, who feels they’ve got something to say, to contact the government, the information’s still there on their website, and say this is what is needed.  And at the Sex Education Forum we can work with you to try and get these messages across because we’ve campaigned for this for such a long time and we will go on to try and get the quality right for all children and young people.

 

White

Lucy Emmerson of the Sex Education Forum and Cathy Wright who teaches at New College Worcester.  Your views and experiences please.

 

And for next week it’s your questions we’re after.  This is our occasional series Blindness for Beginners with a bit of a twist this time.  This is the spot particularly aimed at people who are only just losing their sight.  Giving a chance to put the questions that some of us old hands are too quick to take for granted.  To answer them we’ve invited Mike and Chris McMillan, a husband and wife team, who are both visually impaired and cover between them most of the issues you might find yourself puzzling over – how to get back into the kitchen, what’s all this about accessible computers, dealing with money, how to get a talking book machine.  The questions are endless and we’ll be led by the things you tell us you want to know about but have been too embarrassed to ask.  Have a think, I’ll give you details about how to put a question at the end of the programme.

 

Now at last June’s General Election one of the surprises of the night was the election of Marsha de Cordova.  She achieved a sharp swing to win the London seat of Battersea and she joined the still small but growing band of MPs with a disability – Marsha is visually impaired.  Like other visually impaired MPs, who’ve gone before her, she’s having to come to terms with the workload, finding her way around the rabbit warren that is Parliament and of course speaking to the House of Commons.  And she’s added to her workload by gaining a quick promotion to become Shadow Minister for Disabled People.

 

Well our reporter, Tom Walker, recently spent the day with Marsha, starting outside a primary school in her constituency.

 

Actuality

Nice to meet you, Leah.

 

Leah, very good to meet you Leah.

 

Me too.

 

Walker

It’s 8.30 on a very cold and frosty Monday morning.  I’m standing outside a primary school in the Battersea area of southwest London.  I’m with Marsha de Cordova MP and her team, who are handing out leaflets and speaking to parents.

 

Actuality

Right, okay, well have you got in touch with my office to get an appointment to come to one of my surgeries?  Okay, you call my office and we can arrange…

 

Walker

Well thankfully we’ve come in from the cold.

 

De Cordova

Right, so this is my office here and as you can see my papers have been delivered to my office.

 

Walker

Are they in large print?

 

De Cordova

Yes, they will certainly be in large print.

 

Walker

Nothing like as salubrious as the House of Commons itself.

 

De Cordova

Gosh no, no.  But it does the job for me and my team.

 

Actuality – meeting with assistant

So Sar, do you want to kick off with what we’re – what I’ve got in today?

 

Okay, so today we’ve had quite a few letters. 

 

De Cordova

So, I was born with a condition called Nystagmus, which is an involuntary movement of the eye and it causes me to be severely sight impaired.  And I actually call it my wobble.  So, I’m registered severely sight impaired.  So obviously, my vision is quite limited in the sense that I don’t see things that are far away.  So, things that are really close up to me I can read but anything at a distance then I will have a difficulty reading.

 

Actuality – meeting with assistant

…whether or not Marsha could attend one of their receptions. 

 

So, it’s an invitation?  Okay.

 

De Cordova

A lot of the post that comes into us comes in in standard font size, which is obviously quite difficult for me to read, so Sarita being my sighted assistant, will go through the post with me.

 

Actuality – meeting with assistant

… constituency…

 

De Cordova

Most of the casework that we have is pretty much mainly housing and then I would say social security and then we have immigration and then various other issues.  And then we have welfare policy.  So, we’ve got DWP questions this afternoon and so I’m currently just going over the question that I will be asking the minister today.  And my question is going to be on universal credit.

 

Actuality – meeting with assistant

… this is what – I just changed it to 20 font, what’s going on?

 

Walker

What size font do you normally need when you’re reading printed documents?

 

De Cordova

Well if I’m just going to be sat in my office reading printed documents I do it in 20, from the despatch box it’ll probably be 46.  I’m going to do a quick word count of my question because if your question’s too long then the Speaker may cut you off mid-flow which can be obviously quite distracting.

 

Okay, so let’s just go through the question and see if we need to make anymore changes.  So, despite the government claims that no…

 

Actuality – House of Commons

Thank you Mr Speaker.  Despite the government’s claim that no severely disabled person moved on to universal credit would be worse off we now know that that is not the case.  Scraping the disability premiums will have just that effect.

 

Walker

Now you’re a shadow minister you have to stand at the despatch box, what are the different challenges there from being on the back benches?

 

De Cordova

I suppose being at the despatch box means you’re going to be reading questions or you’re going to be responding to statements, so reading and giving speeches.  And so, for me, standing at the despatch box it’s making sure that I can read my papers and whilst I can use a tablet device I never want technology to fail me, whilst I’m at the despatch box, so I’m going to always be using paper.  And so, making sure my papers are printed in large print, so around font 46, and then going down and practising to try different techniques to make sure that I can read my papers from the despatch box.  And Gordon Brown used to stack books on the despatch box so that they’re much closer to him and so I’ve tried that approach.

 

Walker

Okay the pace of the day has picked up, it’s become fairly frenetic now, where are we off to next?

 

De Cordova

So now we’re going to go off to what’s called an all party parliamentary group, so the APPG on Jamaica.  And that’s over in Portcullis House.  So, we’re now in the palace but we’re going to be heading over to PCH.  Ready?

 

Walker

It can be a bit treacherous this place, I’m being careful. 

 

De Cordova

Yeah, yeah, it certainly can.

 

Walker

One thing I was going to say to you is that this place and this estate is so complicated.

 

De Cordova

It really is and you’re only like two – we’re only in Portcullis House, which is great, it’s a really good accessible space.

 

Walker

But I can’t imagine being able to find my way round here ever.

 

De Cordova

Well that’s why I’ve got my sighted assistant because they take away that stress.

 

Walker

Apart from learning your way around this building what were the challenges for you once you became an MP?

 

De Cordova

I have the additional challenge of ensuring that all my support’s in place, to ensure that reasonable adjustments have been made for me to ensure that I’m not put at a disadvantage and I can actually execute my role as a Member of Parliament effectively and also efficiently.

 

Walker

When you were a backbencher, and, in the chamber, obviously you would have had to catch the Speaker’s eye, I don’t know about you but I’ve not caught anybody’s eye for years, how did you go about doing that?

 

De Cordova

Well I obviously couldn’t catch the Speaker’s eye, so to speak, if we’re not listed on the order paper but you still want to ask a question or you still want to speak you do have to do what’s called bobbing, and generally you’re standing up and down and hopefully the Speaker will see you.  And I’ve had to be pretty reliant on hoping that the Speaker sees me.

 

So, there’s an urgent question in the chamber shortly.  So, I’d like to get back over to the palace so I can get into the chamber for that question.

 

Walker

Well Marsha, thanks very much for your time.  It’s been a very busy day.  What advice would you give to a visually impaired person who’s thinking about a career in politics, maybe even as an MP?

 

De Cordova

What I would say to anybody that wants to get involved in politics, whether that’s at a local or at a national level, that they shouldn’t let any barriers that they face stop them from doing it.  Whatever political party they are part of, within those party structures they should have support for disabled people and if they don’t then you, as the individual, will need to challenge them.  It’s important that more disabled people, particularly people that are blind or partially sighted, come forward and want to actually get involved in politics because the more of us that there are then we can break down all the barriers quicker.  My final word would be get involved, don’t let anything stop you from getting involved.

 

White

Marsha de Cordova MP, with a call to the troops.

 

And that’s it.  Don’t forget those questions for the McMillans on anything that’s causing you confusion or concern if your sight loss is relatively recent.  You can call our Actionline for 24 hours on 0800 044 044.  You can email intouch@bbc.co.uk or click on contact us on our website.  And from there you can also download a podcast of tonight’s programme and other In Touch editions.  From me, Peter White, producer Georgina Hewes and the team, goodbye.

 

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