Forms of Acknowledged Knowledge in School Sex Education Policies

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Several forms of knowledge were taken into account by policy and administration actors during the introduction of sex education within schools in Portugal (mid-nineties-2007). From the assemblage of different kinds of knowledge emerges another one providing methodological guidance to practices that create consensus on ’what works’.

The knowledge deemed most valuable for the actors involved in the regulation of sex education programs is the one considered to be the most useful. In this text we begin by affirming that local and tacit knowledge are transformed, often by the hand of the education administration, or other experts, by using approaches developed as noted good practices and resulting in explicit, communicable know-how and knowledge. To this analysis we then add the regularity with which statistical reports about the functioning of the projects were drawn up combining the knowledge of both local and state actors, under the aegis of the latter. Likewise, we note that the academic and expert knowledge becomes intertwined with the state and local knowledge. Out of the meeting of these different kinds of knowledges, which are interspersed in wide-ranging scenarios of public action in which their main actors circulate (administration, schools, NGOs and academia) emerges what we call knowledge of a composite nature, which is markedly oriented towards methodological practices and centered up on building consensus regarding what works.

Inventing good practices and processes

In this public action there is a valuing of knowledge that has passed the test of “feasibility,” and which derives from positive implementation of in “the context of practice.” The priority for “what works” comes to the fore in the valuing of learning through experience and in turning “sex education” into a specific mode of working with schools. This viewpoint seems to be common during the period under analysis even if more expressive in the documentation produced and distributed by the central administration (Ministry of Education/Ministry of Health).

In this public action there has been a palpable use of practical and local knowledge as an example of positively undertaking sex education in schools. The education administration has highlighted the contribution of the professionals from its field – primarily the teachers – in partnership with the professionals from other health sectors. The justification given for ensuring that this knowledge be given visibility emphasized that it was rooted in everyday experiences. This transformation of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge was brought about through the assessment of “good practices” disseminated in several forums sponsored by the central administration. These modalities of formalization and dissemination of knowledge helped to keep the actors focused on the projects on a voluntary basis, affording them authority and granting symbolic legitimacy. To sum up, this “creation” of knowledge came about through the showcasing of voices (or texts) of local actors, and with the goal of furthering an assessment of “good practices”.

However, one has to take into account the existence of another approach, one focusing on “what works”. In this second modality “the practices” are dealt with by technicians, or experts, from the ministries. This intervention in the construction and validation of knowledge in sex education in schools for its agents is more akin to a conventional mode of regulation centred on examining the processes and assessing “how are they doing the work”. Therefore, within the scope of RNEPS - National Network of Health Promotion in Schools (1994/1998-2002) surveys were regularly produced about “the practices” which each school should respond to, taking into account “its reality”, and reporting on the ways its Education for Health projects were “implemented.” [1] These surveys looked above all at aspects of the implementation process and spent little time on the impacts. This knowledge technology used large-scale surveys gave priority to quantitative tools which arose as a triple practice: the establishment of a specific “categorisation” for the local practices, “vigilance” or control of practices and, concomitantly, provided “protection” to the Administration in the face of attacks by groups fighting against State sponsored “sex education” in school.

Academic and expert knowledge

The last ministerial documents (Guidelines, Reports from the Grupo de Trabalho de Educação Sexual - GTES) [2], which academics and experts contributed to, gave rise to a “hybrid” knowledge. On the one hand, they contain an analytical component, including summaries of the theory and research undertaken. On the other hand, they are of a prescriptive nature, including programmatic guidelines, objectives and content to be worked on by the teachers in the schools. The knowledge mobilised comes chiefly from Developmental Psychology (or Human Development), focusing on the emergence of “sexuality in relation to the stages of development” and the consequent “adaptation” of what “sex education” should consist of in each of the phases. In addition to this “backdrop” the documents almost always have an empirical facet whereby the experience of the work in the schools is presented as if it was a test, and sex education in schools is akin to a “big laboratory”. For example, the book Guidelines for Sex Education in School (Ministério da Educação/Ministério da saúde, 2000) presents itself as an assessment of the outcome of a project of an experimental nature in five schools of different teaching levels and in different regions of the country. The report on Sex Education in Schools, released in November 2005 (based on a survey carried out in 2003) goes even one step further and uses a sample of schools that were not “health promoting schools”, as a clear importation of a certain model of research able to produce scientific proof. Likewise, the GTES throughout its mandate worked with some selected schools and took advantage of the “evidence” collected there to draw up its final report (GTES, 2007).

The empirical incursion guided by academics, or other experts, lead to the development of a justification for politicians in order to secure the continuity of the investment and pursuance of the measures in place. Such devices were obviously not immune to the unpredictability of the consequences of the action, and came to produce unexpected effects that were contrary to those that had been imagined by the experts. Nevertheless, it was outside the State bodies (chiefly in the APF) that one was able to gauge the greatest concern regarding the dissemination of the research being carried out, and the regular holding of forums to mobilise academics or national and international experts, as well as the regular production of newsletters and journals that disclosed wide-ranging practices (both in the ministry and in “civil society”). These revealed the main points where different facets of knowledge converged and were exchanged and interlinked.

From lacking knowledge to ‘substitutive’ knowledge

The assessment studies progressively extended to all the actions carried out under the aegis of the administration in matters of sex education. However, the assessment models used have proven inadequate for those who clamour for this technology: they failed to instrumentally approach the guidelines that emphasise systematic analyses and which afford a leading role to analysis of the output and the outcome of the objects assessed. There are therefore serious difficulties in proving the value of policies and projects, or even gauging their “value for money” (a quality today widely called for by multiple sectors of public action). This “problem” does not appear to be an exclusively Portuguese one. The difficulty in appraising the preventive capacity (in terms of cause-effect) of sex education programmes regarding certain risk behaviours is internationally recognised (see Kirby, 2002). In this context the “meta-analyses” arise as a kind of “substitute” and/or “complementary” knowledge of the assessor; and as a practice for the drawing up of consensual knowledge concerning the approaches centered on the production of “evidence”.

By observing the interventions on the part of the administration and/or the experts involved in the health sector in Portugal, we can sketch a wide-ranging portrait. In the education sector data is collected in the service of “prevention” and in order to focus on “processes”; in the health sector the on the other hand data is deployed in the construction of quantitative indicators of problems (e.g. percentage of pregnant adolescents). Moreover, communication where it exists is difficult between these worlds, both with respect to the joint production of knowledge and in relation to the circulation of the knowledge created in each sector. With no conjugation in the public action, disputes arise surrounding the indicators brandished by the Ministry of Health or by organisations which intervene in this sector in relation to public health “problems” (e.g. HIV). Finally, we point out the emergence of a set of studies that involve university or professional higher education organisations in partnership with international organisations (on the center of which is the World Health Organisation - WHO). These activities are often based on questionnaires asking about lifestyles and behaviours (e.g. age of first sexual relation, use of condom, etc.).

“Healthy lifestyle”: coalitions and demarcations around a cliché

An examination of materials collected on public action has led us to surmise a predominance of pragmatic reasoning regarding the knowledge in/about sex education in school: we spoke at the start of this text about the prominence given to “what works”. Following this finding we extend our analysis mindful of the composite nature and hierarchical ordering of the knowledge that circulates in this public action.

The predominance given to “what works” in the cognitive space of sex education in school, runs parallel to a shift from a biomedical vision to a psychosocial one. The use of the term “shift” is intended to imply less a completely break from the previous vision than a prolongation of an alignment between the concerns over the health of the population as a whole and the well-being of each individual, albeit privileging each individual’s “adoption” of a certain ‘healthy lifestyle’. Such a “shift” leads to a wider repertoire of knowledge viewed as necessary to furnish qualified social agents with what is necessary for the implementation of sex education in Portuguese schools. Moreover, it enables retraining of these actors along with a reworking of the knowledge used to guide those actors who deal directly with the targets of the policies. Therefore, the disciplinary knowledge deemed credible to guide public action extends from the biomedical sciences to psychiatry, psychology and even the fringes of sociological thinking. This broadening is accompanied by a repositioning and reordering of such knowledge, not so much in terms of scientific credibility but above all concerning the acuity of the specialised knowledge when faced with the task of providing each individual with the tools to embrace a ‘healthy lifestyle’. The growing focus placed by advocates of sex education in school in adopting or changing behaviours and/or in the “acquisition of skills” has undermined the priority for scientifically grounded information, predominantly in the biomedical model [3]. It bears repeating that the expansion of this way of framing the ‘sex education in school’ problem around the “competencies” accommodates central facets of the biomedical vision (e.g. that the choices made by mature youth people be “informed and safe”, the biological body will retain its strong presence, linked to the problems of public health that derive from how it is “used” in sexual practices). It is, however, equally important to add to this assertion that the knowledge generated within the biomedical paradigm is viewed as necessary but not sufficient. To begin with its delivery mechanism is by now obsolete given how easily it is today for information to be obtained by the young from multiple and more captivating channels. Furthermore, given that no content in itself can guarantee “changes” in conduct, in “safe” behaviour or in a “reduction of risks”, contributing to a “healthier lifestyle”, questions arise as to the effectiveness of this paradigm. Using the terms in vogue, what is important is that each “bio-psycho-social identity” is “well-constructed”. Hence, in the modes of action currently favoured (in school) the informative component is seen as part of a whole that contains it and goes beyond this aspect: the development of self-direction and self-control skills by youths (e.g. assertiveness, the willingness to change undesirable behaviours, knowing how to act with others). From this point of view, the key to success lies in the quality of the “interpersonal relations” constructed in each school, backed up by technologies that are mainly rooted in psychology.

We finally want to highlight the practices of demarcation of frontiers with other kinds of knowledge and with other modes of opposite thinking. The psychosocial perspective excludes substantive topics both as regards the currents of thinking that tackle sexuality and corporeity as social-culturally constituted and/or constructed objects, and as regards movements that, usually in an opposite field, prefer to restrict these issues to questions of reproduction and of a social order and Christian morality. These worlds of knowledge are not openly hostile and the terminology used invokes terms to which these groups can be sensitive and which they certainly align themselves with, such as the fight against “exploitation” or “abuse”, of the ability of each person to “adopt a position” about the matter throughout their life.

Roe (1994, quoted by Delvaux, 2008: 35) states that narratives have functions of ‘certifying’ and ‘stabilising’ the hypotheses needed to make a decision in relation to what is, really, uncertain and complex. The current narratives about sex education in school are predominantly generated inside a network of collective and individual actors who align themselves – regardless of the bigger or smaller disagreements – to the idea of public action guided by the desire of each youth to construct a “healthy lifestyle”. There is agreement around this anodyne purpose. In this background one must read the experts’ texts as the condensed version of a scientifically consensual knowledge (albeit not the only one) and in parallel certification and the tranquilisation for the political decision makers (around this mainstream thinking). They are discourses that aim to neutralise questioning of the policies to the minimum possible through the angle of values; and which strive to empower, to a maximum degree, the legitimacy of the decision maker, in the name of a composite and multidisciplinary knowledge.

[1] The RNEPS - integrated into the European Network of Health Promoting Schools – was the successor of the Health Promotion Education Programme (1993-1998) the first formal programme for Health Education.

[2] The main mission of this commission of experts (GTES, 2005-2007,Working Group for Sex Education) created by the government (Socialist Party), was to “study and propose the general parameters of the Sex Education programmes in schools, aiming at promoting school health”, pointing out the need “to define the models of application and the implementation of Sex Education in schools grounded on guidelines from a set of experts on the matter” (Dispatch no. 19 737/2005 (2nd series). The GTES was coordinated by a psychiatrist.

FIGUEIREDO C., BARROSO J. & CARVALHO L.M. [with MENITRA C.] (2010), Knowledge and public action: Sex education in school, 1984-2009, final report, Lisbon, Institute of Education, 35-43,

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