In Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) it is vital to cover different methods of contraception. Here are our key things to know when teaching about contraception.
Key things you need to know before teaching contraception to your students.
Teaching contraception in schools is not a new phenomenon. We all remember the condom and banana lesson in science, and the ghastly photos of sexually transmitted diseases posted up around the walls of the classroom with no real information about how to prevent this from happening to you.
Research shows that young people who have been taught effective relationships, sex and health education (RSE) are more likely to use contraception when they first have sex (Kirby, 2007). Fortunately over the past decade, the teenage pregnancy rate has more than halved with those aged under 16 seeing the biggest percentage drop; this is around a third of what it was ten years ago (Bradford, 2023). This has also coincided with an increased focus on teaching effective RSE.
The new statutory guidance for RSE requires teaching about the full range of contraceptive choices and facts about pregnancy but also highlights that we have a duty to ensure that we teach about contraception’s role within healthy relationships, as well as equipping young people with the knowledge of how to access contraception.
It’s important to note that whilst reducing teenage pregnancy remains an important focal point of contraception lessons, we must consider the links between contraception and healthy relationships to enable young people to have the confidence to have these important discussions.
So how do ensure that young people are being taught the right information in the right way?
A safe learning environment
Contraception (and sex in general) can be a tough topic for some young people to discuss. There is so much to learn and the fear of being laughed at for not being “in the know” about sex can prevent students from asking vital questions that will equip them with the knowledge they need. Therefore, it’s so important to make sure the classroom environment is a safe one, built upon the foundations of respect, trust and empathy. We need students to feel they can ask questions and be confident they will come away from their RSE lessons with the right information. Find more tips on how to create a safe learning environment here. They also need to know where they can go for support outside of the lesson, whether that’s back to their teacher or to their GP – more on that later!
Contraception subject knowledge
All educators have all experienced the dreaded moment when you are asked a question you can’t answer. We should definitely normalise that it’s okay to not know everything – we are human after all! Yet, it doesn’t hurt to read up as much as you can on the different methods of contraception so that you feel more confident in delivering this subject. There are 15 methods available on the NHS and it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each so that your students can make informed decisions knowing they have been given up to date information.
Finally, be prepared for contraception myths to crop up. It’s our duty to debunk some of the myths around things such as unsafe methods of protection, using two condoms and douching after sex. There are some great statistics on contraception methods on the Contraception Choices website (link at the end of this blog) that will support your knowledge of the effectiveness of each method. For instance, we must highlight that barrier methods (condoms/dental dams) are the only protection that works against STIs and that using a barrier method alongside another form of contraception would both reduce the risk of STIs and pregnancy.
Teaching inclusive RSE
It’s crucial that young people understand contraception to be a mutual responsibility in their relationship. Research shows that women tend to take more responsibility for making decisions around contraception e.g. researching side effects. They are also more likely to be responsible for organising contraception such as stocking up on the pill, having coils fitted and managing side effects (Kirby, 2007).
We must enable young people to feel confident in discussing fertility issues with their partners in an open and honest way, and we can model that by taking an inclusive approach to RSE in school and opening up the discussion to all students.
With so many methods of contraception now available, it’s also important that we highlight that young people must choose what suits them and their lifestyles. Linking back to creating a safe environment in which to discuss these topics, no student should feel pressured to use a particular contraception method because their friends are. Equally we must emphasise that contraception can affect people differently (e.g. libido, skin, weight loss/gain); therefore it is very much a personal choice and nobody should be shamed by making a decision that is right for them. As teachers, we should not show a preference for one particular method of contraception, but aim to give students as much information as we can. We must avoid making assumptions that students are sexually active, but do stress that it’s important to talk about contraception and know the different methods.
Finally, we must acknowledge that heteronormativity is woven into contraception discourse.
Most of us are used to discussing male vs female condoms for example. Being aware of our language around bodies and relationships will support all students to feel involved in the conversation and ensure that everybody is receiving the correct information no matter what their gender or sexuality.
Our Tips for Teaching about Contraception Inclusively
Whilst this is not an extensive list, here are some tips to teaching an inclusive lesson on contraception:
- Refer to body parts without gendering them e.g. people with vaginas/penises
- Refer to specific organs wherever possible rather than using terms such as ‘the female/male anatomy’
- Instead of using ‘biological sex’, say ‘sex assigned at birth’.
- Refer to condoms as ‘internal’ and ‘external’ rather than ‘female’ and ‘male’.
- When discussing hormonal birth control, discuss how they work for people with ovaries (instead of ‘only for women’).
- Avoid making assumptions about heterosexual couples and use terms such as ‘partners’ rather than ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’.
Contraception’s anti-black and racist history
The troubling history of contraception, including its anti-black and racist routes, is not widely discussed and is rarely taught in schools.
The introduction of the contraceptive pill was a modern medicinal triumph and one that liberated women who were finally free to have control over their bodies. However it’s important that we are aware of the difficult history of the contraceptive pill trials of the 1950s that led to suffering and death for many women (Pendergrass & Raji, 2017).
Sadly, inequalities in sexual health for minoritised ethnic communities remain prevalent today. Fortunately the Naz project, a sexual health charity working to address sexual health inequalities in Black, Brown and Global Majority communities, was formed in the early 1990s and have been working since to make changes to these communities. As educators, it’s important that we are aware that ‘minoritised ethnic communities are disproportionately impacted by poor HIV, sexual and reproductive health compared to their white counterparts’ (Naz Project) so that we can better support our students and address these inequalities.
Link to relationships
We know that contraception is everyone’s responsibility and that to achieve a healthy sexual relationship, it is something that must be discussed in a supportive way. Therefore it is imperative that our lessons on contraception encourage discussion and questions so that young people feel empowered to make decisions about their sexual health but also recognise that this is something their partner should care about in equal measure. Contraception is not only about keeping themselves safe, but others too and the more we talk about things, the healthier our relationships.
Students of different faith backgrounds and/or their families can sometimes be reluctant to engage in conversations about sex and contraception. The new guidance states that ‘in all schools, when teaching these subjects (RSHE), the religious background of all students must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that topics that are included in the core content are appropriately handled’ (Department for Education, 2021). Discussing with all students how contraception links to wider topics of RSE such as healthy relationships, consent and ethics can be a good tool to engage all students in conversations. It’s also important to acknowledge different views by using terms such as ‘some people believe that’ so that all students feel represented.
Giving students the opportunity to ask questions at the end of the lesson via an anonymous question box or open discussion is a great way to ensure all students leave knowing that they are able to approach their teacher for advice. Revisiting the topic at a later stage is also beneficial to remind students of the key information you covered and to surface any unanswered questions they may have.
Students also need to know where they can go to access contraception and we must address common misconceptions around this e.g. parents will be informed if they visit their GP. Make sure students know that they can visit their GP for free, confidential advice if they are over the age of 13. If they are under 13, the NHS states that other services may need to be contacted, especially if the doctors believe that they or another person is at risk of harm. However, this is something that would be discussed during their visit. It’d also be useful to signpost them to their nearest sexual clinic too and explain the differences between what a GP and a sexual health clinic can support them with.
Bradford, S. (2023) Conceptions in England and Wales: 2021, Conceptions in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics.
Department for Education (2021) Relationships and sex education (RSE) and Health Education, GOV.UK.
Kirby, D (2007) Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Naz Project: Sexual Health: BAME (no date) NAZ
Pendergrass, D.C. and Raji, M.Y. (2017) The bitter pill: Harvard and the dark history of birth control: Magazine: The Harvard Crimson, Magazine | The Harvard Crimson.