Professor Adam Balen is Chair of the British Fertility Society Fertility Education Initiative
Families don’t always look like they used to. Over the last decade, a lot has changed. The need for new strategies in fertility education for children is now.
People are commonly delaying starting a family until their thirties when they are already at a disadvantage in terms of fertility. And modern families – people who choose to parent without a partner, same-sex parents, transgender parents, people who actively choose not to have children – have traditionally been neglected in personal, social, and health education.
Listen to young people – this is what we need in sex education classes
Our research shows that adolescents know little about fertility but would like to know more. They need information, but it must be engaging and accessible enough that they can integrate knowledge of fertility into their lives.
Young people need to understand what is right, what is wrong, and what is private. They need to know about modern families, as well as societal and cultural differences and non-conventional routes to parenthood.
More than unplanned pregnancy and STIs
Until now, the focus of sex education has been on preventing unplanned pregnancy and avoiding sexually transmitted infections. Efforts have been made to take a rights and gender equity based approach, but reproductive health knowledge is just too poor for this to be effective. Young people deserve better. Given that reproductive rights are enshrined in human rights policy, there is a moral imperative to improve this aspect of their education.
It’s normal to worry that your genitals aren’t ‘normal’
The British Fertility Society’s Fertility Education Initiative believes that young people should understand human fertility and have detailed knowledge of human reproduction. Teenagers must know about male and female reproductive health as well as developing an awareness of how their bodies are developing to become ready to have children. They also should be told about the whole reproductive life cycle, from puberty to menopause and the causes of infertility.
They need the knowledge to understand what affects their reproductive health, for example smoking, sexually transmitted infections, being overweight and, of course, the effect of age on fertility.
It will also be important to note that IVF and other reproductive technologies are tremendously powerful, but they also have limits. There is never a guarantee of pregnancy and although success rates are always rising, IVF shouldn’t be considered a fall-back option for all.
Working with parents
Schools need to involve parents. We are really interested to understand how they are currently communicating. Parents want to be consulted and they want the right to withdraw their child from sex education. Schools must work with parents to set the boundaries and understand what will ultimately meet the needs of their children.
Parents are unlikely to have had education about fertility themselves and so we think schools should be sharing the same information that they are giving students. This will need to include additional support and guidance as to how to discuss these issues at home. Parents should be invited to a meeting to explain how the classes will be delivered, what will be said and how to support their children in learning the right information from the best sources.
Obviously ethnic and religious diversity should be taken into consideration. Yet all young people have access to online information and have the same needs for education around sex, relationships, and fertility. Where conflicts arise, schools need to skillfully manage their relationship to parents so that each parent’s concerns and needs are acknowledged.
Parenthood one of the most universally desired goals
Parenthood is one the most universally desired of adulthood goals yet education does not address future parenthood desires, avoidance of reduced fertility, or the signs of reproductive disease. Young people are not told about the technologies that can help modern families, including LGBT people, to achieve parenthood. This has to change, now.
Our young people deserve to have the knowledge and tools to make positive decisions about sexual intimacy and reproductive health. That means changing the face of relationships and sex education as a matter of urgency.
About the Fertility Education Initiative
The Fertility Education Initiative (www.fertilityed.uk) was set up in response to a growing debate and concern amongst fertility, health and education professionals about the lack of knowledge of age related fertility decline in the UK.
In April 2016, a national conference was held at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) to discuss this issue, with over 200 senior figures from health, education and government. From this, the Fertility Education Initiative was formed.
The Fertility Education Initiative is a special interest group of the British Fertility Society, in partnership with the RCOG and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health (FSRH), Sex Education Forum, Brook, Sexpression, Teenage Pregnancy Knowledge Exchange, Infertility Network UK, British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Marie Stopes and Public Health England.