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Relationships and Sex Education at Boarding School

14 February 2019

Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) takes on a different quality at a boarding school. Students spend weeks at a time away from their parents, and without families to act as a sounding board when lessons are over. They spend the evening hours with their friends, as well as all of their daytime hours, and the combination of raging hormones and close proximity to other adolescents can lead to a lot of opportunity for experimenting with your sexuality. This makes it even more important to ensure that students have planned opportunities for RSE in a safe and inclusive space.

I myself went to Bedales, which is by all accounts a very liberal boarding school – we called the teachers by their first names, and there was no uniform.  There were, however, very strict rules about sex and drugs, as detailed in this article in the Independent from 1993.  And indeed, while I was at the school at least one student was expelled for having sex on the premises and one was expelled for smoking marijuana.  We did have RSE lessons, and they were mainly taught in small groups.  With the passage of time I can’t remember all of what I was taught, but a few key incidents have stayed with me: 

  • The time the teacher asked us all to write down our biggest fear about sex and relationships on a piece of paper and put them into a box, to be answered later.  True to her word, she then answered all of our questions, and I can still remember what a relief it was to get the answer to a difficult question without having to ask it in front of my fellow students.
  • The time that a boy put his hand up and asked how you could make sure that the condom didn’t fall off during sex. I don’t remember how the teacher answered, but I do remember everyone laughing at him and his look of embarrassment as they did so.
  • The time that someone thought it would be really funny to stick a sanitary towel on the back of another boy’s jumper - and then laugh at him until he realised what had happened and took it off.

Thinking about my education as a whole, I can see that some of my knowledge about RSE also came from other lessons.  My Spanish teacher was keen on us learning to discuss relevant social and political issues in Spanish, and so encouraged us to watch Spanish news every day.  One of the topics she chose for us to learn to discuss was abortion.  This meant that for a time in my late teens I was more aware of the intricacies of abortion law in Spain than I was of that in the UK. I also wonder if talking about such a complex subject in another language could be seen as acting as a kind of distancing technique – as by concentrating on finding the right words to explain your thoughts on a subject it can make it less personal. 

My Latin teacher was a big fan of the poetry of Catullus, and she would often read us an excerpt from one of his poems as part of a lesson.  When discussing his poetry we would talk about such topics as same-sex relationships, love and betrayal,which some might say are more the subjects of a traditional ‘RSE’ lesson than a Latin lesson. For those unfamiliar with his work, he wrote a series of poems to his lover, who he called Lesbia in the verses. She was said to have been modelled on the poet Sappho, who lived on Lesbos, from where the word Lesbian originates.  An example of his work is this beautiful poem, known as Catullus 5:


Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum,
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.


Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise:
When that brief light has fallen for us,
we must sleep a never ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.*


At the time I didn’t think anything about these lessons, but when I look back, I do wonder if the teachers in question deliberately chose to discuss such things to try and improve our RSE.  This is especially possible in the case of my Latin teacher, who had an additional role as a live-in housemistress in the girls’ boarding house.  At a boarding school the teachers are not only acting in loco parentis during the day, but also during evening and weekend hours as well. This means they have a very significant part to play in educating the children in their care, and the RSE curriculum will be one of several tools that might be needed.  

In my current role as a Sex Education Trainer I am always interested to see examples of cross-curricular RSE teaching, and I take the opportunity to highlight them to teachers that I train whenever I can.  One very good example is the Sex and History project, which uses ancient artefacts to introduce and discuss modern themes such as pornography, body image and gender identity.  The project is directed by two professors from Exeter University, one of whom, Rebecca Langlands, also went to Bedales.

I count myself as fortunate to have attended a school that really did try to provide comprehensive RSE (within the confines of Section 28, which was active at the time). Many of my peers were not so fortunate. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 ushers in statutory Relationships Education in all primary schools in England and RSE for all secondary schools - independent schools included. September 2020 is the start-date for mandatory provision. With this date getting ever closer I’m looking forwards to working with colleagues to support independent schools to be ready for this exciting change – helping to ensure that all children are taught high quality, comprehensive RSE - in any language!

I'll be delivering a workshop at the Countdown to Statutory RSE conference for Independent schools on Wednesday 27th March - if you deliver RSE in an independent school currently then I hope to see you there. 

Dr Eleanor Draeger, Senior RSE Trainer, Sex Education Forum


*Translation by Rudy Negenborn, reproduced with permission from