My daughter had her first sex education lesson aged 10 – she (and I) were shocked

Georgina Fuller with daughter Jemima
Writer Georgina Fuller with her daughter Jemima - Georgina Fuller

“How was your day?” I ask my just-turned 10-year-old daughter, Jemima, after I pick her up from primary school. “Hmm, not fun,” she says, pulling a face. “Why’s that?” I ask.“We had our first PSHE [personal, social, health and economic] class and it was really embarrassing. They talked about boobs and private parts. Two girls ended up crying and the boys kept laughing.”

A bit of further digging reveals that she was shown detailed diagrams of male and female reproductive systems with labels showing the correct terminology, including the word “vulva”, which I didn’t even really learn about until embarrassingly recently. My daughter tells me this made her feel uncomfortable and I can quite understand why.

This lesson, I learn, was about changes to their body during puberty and covered both boys and girls. I suppose it is, of course, all natural, but my daughter was quite shocked to see pictures of developing bodies. The girls sat on one table and the boys sat on another.

Over the next few lessons, this group of nine- and 10-year-olds (she is in Year 5) will be covering menstruation, baby development in mammals and the development of an embryo/foetus during pregnancy. All important stuff, of course, so I’m not sure why hearing about this first lesson has given me the ick. Perhaps I’m just being a prude.

“Can you ask if we can be taught separately from the boys next time?” my daughter asks. I message a few other mums I know with children around the same age. A teacher friend assures me that everything they are learning in Year 5 is age-appropriate. It is, she says, all on the national curriculum. Another, echoing my thoughts, says that she wasn’t prepared for the level of detail in the class. “Do they really have to know all of that?” she messages. “I’m not sure I even know all that.”

Another friend, who has Scandinavian roots and practically grew up in a sauna, tells me her kids learnt all about this stuff years ago from a biology book and numerous conversations. “What are you worrying about?” she asks.

What indeed? And one who has a daughter in Year 6 says that “they’ve already had a lesson on the perils of penis pictures in her class”.

Georgina Fuller
Fuller: 'My main sources of information were Judy Bloom and Jilly Cooper'

I don’t really remember any sex education at primary school. My main sources of information were Judy Bloom’s Forever (I still can’t hear the name Ralph without sniggering), Jilly Cooper and pinching my big sister’s copy of Just Seventeen.

My mum, a teacher at a local secondary school, prided herself on being quite open with us but I don’t remember her talking in detail to us about the birds and the bees. She mentioned “the curse” and bought me a box of sanitary towels when I was about 14 and then, when I got my first proper boyfriend at 17, put me on the pill. And that was about the extent of it.

I’m slightly at a loss as to how to continue things with my daughter. I am not usually the sort of parent to contact the school about anything much but I felt compelled after our conversation to get in touch with her teacher. I asked her if the next lesson topic, menstruation, could be taught separately.

I think the onus is probably on us, the parents, to arm ourselves with as much information as possible. Dr Martha Deiros Collado, the clinical psychologist and author of the Sunday Times Bestseller How to Be the Grown-up, advises talking about sex and consent early on. She explains that it helps to empower children to make more informed decisions and safeguard themselves. And that using correct names for body parts helps them to understand different forms of potential abuse. She said it’s we adults, with all our shame and fear around discussing sex, who are causing the problem and believes that delaying these conversations doesn’t equip children but makes them more vulnerable as they don’t have the language, skills or knowledge to protect themselves.

Ouch. I feel seen, as they say.

I resolve to keep a close eye on what my daughter is being taught and an open dialogue with her about all things sex-related. Times have, I realise, moved on considerably since I was a child and the world has changed so much. Although my instinct is to protect and cocoon her for as long as I possibly can, she needs to know she can speak to me about anything. I just hope she feels suitably prepared for the next lesson on menstruation.

Knowledge is power, and all that. And perhaps if I had learnt about it properly when I was younger, I would be a bit less of a prude now.