It’s a grey, chilly day in Gnesta, a small, unremarkable town just north of Stockholm, but things are warming up in one of the classrooms of the local school.
Kaspar, 14, and his classmates are immersed in their studies of sex och samlevnad. He tells me he’s been learning about sex and relationships in four hour-long classes a week for more than a month.
“It’s always fun to learn new stuff,” he says breezily, leaning on his elbow. “It’s useful. For some it’s hard to talk about sex. Sex is pretty private. If you talk about it a lot, it becomes easier.”
Sweden has a long and established history of sex education. It has been compulsory in schools since 1956, and pupils here at Frejaskolan – an average state school with 700 pupils and one particularly committed sex education teacher – are in the middle of an exhaustive eight-week course.
Sex och samlevnad extends beyond sex to include alcohol, mental health and other subjects covered in the UK by PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education).
Not all Swedish schools will spend quite as long on the subject as they do in Gnesta – some get through it in four or five weeks – but the course is a great deal more comprehensive than what is on offer in most English schools, where sex education still not a statutory requirement and is often delivered in a single “drop-down day” at the end of term.
The UK birth rate among 15- to 19-year-olds is 19.7 births per 1,000 women, while in Sweden the figure is 5.2 per 1,000.
Kaspar and his classmates have already had age-appropriate sex education at primary school where they learned about snopp and snippa – children’s names for their body parts. Snopp and snippa achieved global fame this year when a Swedish children’s educational video aimed at three- to six-year-olds and featuring cartoon dancing penises and vaginas went viral.
But for these 14- and 15-year-olds it’s getting a bit more serious. Jessica Holmström, a science and maths teacher who has won an award for her equality and sex education work, starts the session with a short animated film about the issue of sexual consent.
“It’s as simple as tea,” the voiceover says. “If they don’t want to drink it, don’t make them drink it. If they say ‘no thank you’, don’t make them tea.
“If they are unconscious, don’t make them tea. Unconscious people don’t want tea, trust me on this. Whether it’s tea or sex, consent is everything.”
QotD: “Swedish sex education has time for games and mature debate”