Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education

Practice example 7: Lets talk about sex and relationships: Working with children and young people who are looked after

Many young people tell us that they really want to talk to someone whom they can trust about sex and relationships. Good quality information on sex and relationships enables young people to develop self-esteem, to explore values, attitudes and beliefs and also to make informed decisions about their behaviour, personal relationships and sexual health. Consequently, they are able to develop social skills, including assertiveness and negotiation, which can also be used in other aspects of their lives.

However, many looked-after children and young people who are looked-after may have experienced many traumatic events, including neglect and sexual, physical and emotional abuse, often perpetrated by their parents and carers. Some young people will have experienced violence and sustained attacks; some may go on to perpetrate further violence against others and through self-harming. This may distort their understanding of sex, sexuality and personal relationships, resulting in low self-esteem and inappropriate sexual behaviour. Their damaging experiences may mean they lack the necessary skills and confidence to negotiate and sustain positive personal relationships.

Young people who are looked-after often miss out on education on sex and relationships, either at home, in care or at school, because of their disrupted experiences. The UK has the highest rate of unintended pregnancies in western Europe and, in some areas, up to one in four teenage young women leaving care have a child, or have one soon after leaving. They have often themselves suffered poor parenting, have no appropriate role models and have received little or no preparation for parenthood.

We found that those working in the field are still apprehensive about working on sex and relationships with young people in their care, particularly in residential settings, often because they fear allegations of misconduct from the young people, and/or disciplinary proceedings. They want to be clear about their role, able to maintain professional boundaries, and able to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to do this work. A range of professionals who work with young people have told us that they want training on sexual health, sexuality, delivering informal sex and relationships education, parenting and childcare skills, unintended pregnancies, legal issues, confidentiality, contraception, reproduction, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. As well as working with young women, they are also keen to develop effective work with boys and young men, with young people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, and with gay, lesbian and bisexual young people.

Let’s talk about sex and relationships is about communicating about sex, sexuality, relationships and sexual health with children and young people who are lookedafter, and is targeted at the wide range of professionals working with this group: social workers, foster carers, residential social workers, Looked After Children nurses, children and family teams, leaving care teams, family placement teams, Connexions advisers, learning mentors, school (health) nurses, genitourinary medicine clinic staff, health visitors and so on. The training promotes a multidisciplinary and partnership approach to working in this field.

The course is part of a larger project initiated and developed by fpa (formerly the Family Planning Association) and the National Children’s Bureau 2001-03, and funded by the Department of Health (Teenage Pregnancy Unit). The outputs of this project were: a training manual called Let’s make it happen: Training on sex relationships, pregnancy and parenthood for those working with children and young people who are looked after (S. Mackie and H. Patel-Kanwal, fpa/NCB, 2003); a Training the Trainers dissemination programme across England; and an evaluation report.

User participation in planning, delivery and evaluation

The course was piloted with Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster children and families teams in 2000, and all comments fed into the final design of the course. fpa runs the course across England as part of its training function, and all participant evaluations are incorporated into the ongoing improvement of the course.

To develop this training we worked with many sources, but very closely with research with young people themselves, done by:

Other key stakeholder participation in planning, delivery and evaluation

The course, and the training manual, of which it is part, has been developed with an expert multidisciplinary steering group; there was a full evaluation report in December 2003.

Learning aims and outcomes

Specific learning aims and outcomes have been developed for each training course. You should refer to the training manual for further details.

The training manual describes in detail the various methods used in the course.

Integration between university and practice curricula

This training manual can support students in their practice-based learning.


This training manual has been peer reviewed and the course within it has been evaluated in writing and verbally by course participants.


Mackie, S. and Patel-Kanwal, H. (2003) Let’s make it happen: Training on sex relationships, pregnancy and parenthood for those working with children and young people who are looked after, London: fpa/NCB. Corlyon, J. and McGuire, C. (1997) Young parents in public care: Pregnancy and parenthood among young people looked after by local authorities, London: NCB. Haydon, D. (2003) Sexual health, teenage pregnancy and looked after young people: A resource for professionals working with young people in or leaving care, Barkingside: Barnardo’s.

Further information available from Teenage Pregnancy Unit, 580D Skipton House, 80 London Road, London SE1 6LH (MB-Teenage-Pregnancy- Unit@doh.gsi.gov.uk).