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Supporting young people’s sexual wellbeing

Supporting young people’s sexual wellbeing

Policy-makers, professional and public audiences interested in young people’s learning about sex and sexuality often approach discussions with strongly-held and sometimes conflicting views. Research at Sheffield Hallam University has helped to better inform discussions in government, in schools and in public. Findings have been used in Parliamentary debates, and by national organisations lobbying for continued or improved provision in personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE). Research has also led to increased understanding about homophobia and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) wellbeing.

The research programme

PSHE learning programmes help children and young people acquire the knowledge and skills they need to manage their lives. With funding from the Department for Education, the University’s Centre for Education and Inclusion Research (CEIR) has examined these programmes and found that classroom-based provision supporting young people is uneven. Prioritisation of ‘core’ subjects in the curriculum is at odds with professional understanding that young people’s wellbeing directly links to how well they perform at school. Curriculum demands have increased pressures to justify the benefits of PSHE to young people.

The research recommends managerial and development support for professionals to address enduring taboos and fears about supporting young people’s sexualities. As part of the first national study of its kind to examine school-based sexual health services, research highlighted a tension between teaching and health-based approaches to supporting young people. For example, the common focus on a sex-negative, risk-reduction agenda in school-based sex and relationships education (SRE) inadequately engages with young people who express interest in learning about sexual pleasure.

Other research focusing on LGBT wellbeing has provided insights into the prevalence and impact of heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia in aspects of the lives of LGBT people. In one of the first studies to examine homophobia and transphobia in youth work settings as well as schools, research findings identified LGBT invisibility in formal teaching curricula, and differing professional perspectives on how to address these issues. Evidence also shows that current anti-bullying discourses can divert attention away from prejudicial practitioner attitudes towards LGBT identities and relationships, and tend to focus on the individual rather than the societal level.

Another study explored experiences of LGBT communities, and their role in LGBT life and wellbeing. It identified the importance of perceived ‘safe spaces’, connections with other LGBT people, and peer support, to aid identity validation and the avoidance of self-censorship in public spaces. Research findings also showed that LGBT health inequalities are linked to problems about health service access due to fears about prejudice from professionals, and a lack of suitable sexual health promotion materials.

The impact

Research evidence has had national reach, informing policy and practice development on PSHE and school-based health services. The study of PSHE was funded to inform government policy and has guided work in this area. It was cited in a Parliamentary debate by Schools Minister Nick Gibb in March 2011 and shaped a proposed Children and Families Bill amendment. National organisations have drawn on evidence to argue for the statutory inclusion of PSHE in the curriculum. This research has also informed briefings for Parliament on the Education Bill in 2011, particularly about the need for training for PSHE teachers.

Nationally, findings about the nature and impact of homophobic and transphobic bullying have helped to raise awareness and improve support for LGBT young people. For example, a specialist article commissioned by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy drew on research findings to suggest that individual counselling may not be the most appropriate or appreciated form of support for LGBT young people, arguing that broader inclusive education practices would be more beneficial. This research has also been reproduced in teaching materials and cyber-homophobia resources. Where approaches addressing homophobia and transphobia have required justification, for example by public and voluntary sector organisations, this research has often been used as evidence.

The research has also contributed to public interest and debate about homophobia and transphobia in schools, via interviews and in discussions on BBC Radio Manchester and BBC Radio Sheffield. An article in Pink News (Europe’s largest online gay news service) in November 2011 reporting these findings was the ‘most read’ and ‘most discussed’ item on the site at the time, with 109 reader comments and 624 Facebook ‘likes’. This debate also featured in international media coverage including the Huffington Post in the USA and a subsequent letters debate about LGBT (in)equality in the Sheffield Star.

Finally, the research into LGBT communities has improved knowledge about the meaning and experiences of UK LGBT communities, and implications for LGBT wellbeing. There has been supportive and enthusiastic feedback about the project from LGBT community members, and interest in the gay, regional and international press. The highly over-subscribed final project event led to very positive feedback from 80 attendees, with comment such as “inspiring” and “brilliantly informative”.

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