Everyone will have gone in to a sex education class with preconceptions. That is, if you ever attended a sex education class: one of the many issues writer Cressida Peever lists in explaining why she wrote Sex Education is that the classes weren’t made compulsory until this year! My experience of sex education was the typical run-down of STIs, contraception, and puberty, all delivered by a straight-talking NHS nurse. Freshers’ week at university brought with it compulsory workshops which explicitly dealt with consent and facilitated student discussion. So, I came in to the Edinburgh Fringe Preview of Sex Education thinking that I had actually received a pretty good education on sex in my teenage years, and that perhaps I was in a relatively fortunate and unique position.
The play unapologetically puts across its message about the need for reform and open discussion in sex education, and for the inclusion of consent, pornography, and equality in the curriculum of a Year 11 class. The well-researched dialogue of teaching assistant Rebecca, played with confidence by Madeleine Pollard, highlights how these topics, often considered only auxiliary to the standard ‘birds and the bees’ curriculum, are of paramount importance in teaching teens to enjoy sex healthily, rather than merely be wary of it. I began to wonder if I had been projecting my present awareness on to what I knew when I was 15, and realised that at school consent really hadn’t been broached as a topic that left any lasting impression. I started to see the important conversation that this play is prompting.
While the discourse around the important new additions to the curriculum was pleasing and thorough, there seemed to be no ‘in-between,’ as it was mainly met by – in the words of the more informed Mim – ‘lairy’ banter in the classroom and stunned silence. I wondered whether there could have been a more nuanced presentation of the students really absorbing the information they were being exposed to.
The student characters were a varied, if somewhat cliched, bunch, ranging from clued-in Mim to Patrick, who took a lot of convincing that anal sex is not ‘normal’ (heterosexual) sex. Between the teachers Rebecca and Dr Talbot, whose characterisation was developed strongly throughout by Jon Berry, there was just the right amount of awkwardness to reflect the clash of their different approaches to teaching sex education. I enjoyed how the more adult characters were not exempt from the many parallel processes of learning taking place and interweaving during the play.
With a week still to go until they would take the play to the Edinburgh Fringe, and in a very tight stage space, the actors pulled off an impressive performance with very few hiccups. Sex Education gave a fast-paced, funny presentation of classroom dynamics that left me feeling slightly nostalgic about school, and envious of Rebecca and Dr Talbot’s students, having missed out on the kind of sex education lesson they received. In light of walk outs from sexual consent workshops in York and elsewhere in 2016, Sex Education brings home how important it is to give school students the right information at the right time.