Knowledge and scenes in the regulation of school sex education policies

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Trends in the genealogy of the policy process relative to the definition and implementation by the government authorities of a Sex Education policy in Portugal, between 1993 and 2009.

The study of the introduction of sex education in schools in Portugal (Figueiredo, Barroso and Carvalho, 2010) has highlighted a set of characteristics such as:

A process that takes place in several “deliberative” and “non-deliberative” scenes

Deliberative scenes are dominated by Parliament and the Government, which issued various regulations produced in the background of the most wide-ranging controversies and disputes, linked to political-ideological party thinking. The main decrees were put into laws and resulted from parliamentary initiatives, in general from parties from the left, and were to a certain extent linked to the discussion of broader laws on voluntary interruption of pregnancy. With respect to the Government, there was a certain continuity in the content of different measures and the kind of actors involved despite alternating between the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the centre-left Socialist Party (PS); this was the case in particular when it came to the running of the projects and programmes, as well as non-governmental associations requested to collaborate in an array of initiatives. An exception to this continuity was in 2002 during a coalition between the PSD (social democratic) and the CDS (Christian democratic). It should be noted that at the local level, schools individually played a considerable role in this process insofar as the implementation of these policies allowed for the development of different local dynamics (at least in experimental form) within the project of each school. As such, a deliberative dimension is implied here as it pertains to organizational and instrumental aspects, which impact the content, relevance, coverage and continuity of actions.

Turning now to non-deliberative scenarios, it is non-governmental organisations (especially the Family Planning Association) that occupy various spaces both on a macro level (participation in national coordination structures, influence in working groups), as well as on the ground at local levels (teams supporting schools or activists linked to movements supporting or contesting the different measures implemented).

Finally, a special note regarding the important roles played by some media outlets during the most intense moments of the public debate: they give expression to organised opinions, especially those that contest the very existence of Sex Education policies or at least what some consider their more “radical” aspects.

An important discursive dimension

The quantity and diversity of decrees and the intensity of the debates did not lead to an effective sex education policy at national level. The discursive dimension of the policy varied throughout the process with respect to both the identification of problems and the representation of solutions. In the first case, one can see permeability in the alteration of the social topics emerging in Portugal over the period under analysis, such as: illegal abortion in the 1980s; Aids in 1980/1990; issues of gender identity and discrimination of minorities based on sexual orientation in the first decade of the 21st century. In the second case there was a process of successive semantic reappraisals in the very definition of the policies, between “health education” (a topic that constituted a much broader program geared, above all, to issues of “sexual and reproductive health”, the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and family planning) and “Sex Education” (which is a specific program that places emphasis on issues of sexuality and affectivity in the development of the personality of children and the young, as well as the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation). The discursive dimension of the policy under analysis becomes, in general, more evident insofar as different governments considered this to be a delicate issue and only intervened reactively in the wake of legislation passed by Parliament. This explains the caution of the various governments in most of the initiatives taken and the emphasis given to consultation and the need to base decisions on specialised knowledge.

Competition between different advocacy coalitions or discourse coalitions

The diversity of guidelines and the greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm shown in the development of this policy during the period under analysis do not derive solely from the alternating of the parties in government or the correlation of forces in parliament. In truth, throughout the process (at different moments and under different circumstances) individual and collective actors have organised themselves into associations or opinion movements of shared beliefs, values, ideas, common objectives concerning the question of whether there was truly a need for Sex Education; and if the answer was affirmative, then the question turned to its content and the way the program was administered. In moments favorable to the public context, these actors constitute “advocacy coalitions” (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993) [1] in their attempt to influence and manipulate sex education policies at different decision-making and implementation levels. This impact might be felt on a national governmental level in working groups, committees and Ministry of Education offices or within the various political parties of members sitting in parliament. Or their influence could be exercised on a local level, in schools and among teams of teachers.

But even when policy circumstances were not favorable they tried to impose their vision of the reality on others in a bid to construct or frame the debate, to persuade, manipulate or exercise power, thus constituting a “discourse coalition” (Hajer, 2005) [2]

Clear examples of these kinds of coalitions (advocacy or discourse) are found in the network of actors organised around the Family Planning Association, or the movement to fight against the sex education policy, in the debate that was covered by the media in the light of an article published in 2005, in the Expresso newspaper, criticising a publication recommended by the Guidelines for Sex Education in School (which we mentioned earlier).

A hybrid regulation with bureaucratic and post bureaucratic methods

As happens in other contexts and with other policies (see for example the Report of Orientation 1, Public Action 1, of the Portuguese team of the Knowandpol project) the government authorities’ control over the definition and implementation of the sex education policy relies on different modes of regulation, in line with the scenarios in which they are carried out and the symbolic effect intended.

On the one hand, use was made of “post-bureaucratic regulation” methods patent, above all, in the creation of committees, projects and networks as a way of organising public intervention, open to the participation of experts and representatives from non-government organisations. Furthermore, schools are granted a margin of relative autonomy, encouraging the flexibility of solutions in line with the respective “educational projects” and the characteristics of the local backgrounds and resources, with particular emphasis on articulation with health services and participation by local development associations. On the other hand, from the administrative point of view, the existing bureaucratic structures continued to be given priority (namely the decentralised bodies of the Ministry of Education), with their systems of centralised control and their dependencies and universal formulas of action. It is pointed out that the use of “modes of post-bureaucratic regulation” results not only from an “instrumental” need, but also from the search for a rhetorical effect that will enable the illusion of action to be maintained.

In the first case, the objective is to create structures and modes of organisation that allow the incorporation of knowledge obtained from actors and organisations with experience in the domain of “Sex Education” or in the domain of “health education ” in the definition of policies and, above all, in the support for implementation. These topics are “sensitive” from the social point of view and “innovative” in the Ministry of Education policies, and at the start they were “unknown” to their staff. Despite undergoing a reinforcement of staff with technical training and accumulated knowledge in this field in the Ministry of Health and in the Ministry of Education, the ministries always suffered for an absence of social legitimisation that experts could offer in the coordination of the ministerial programmes and therefore this new staff was pushed into the background. They were important as regards knowledge and management of the dossiers, but they were not delegated power to make decisions.

In the second case the intention is to show that a wide range of points of view were taken into account and the “rationality” of decisions is defended, grounding them on both the knowledge of experts and the experience of the practitioners. As for “bureaucratic regulation”, it is translated into the centralisation of the policy decision, whereby the coordinating structures are directly dependent on the minister or secretaries of state, and the implementation is controlled through the hierarchical line of the different levels of the education administration.

A policy informed by knowledge produced in the health and education sectors

All throughout the policy process under discussion, there was great interdependence between the Health and Education sectors, where the developments in one sector affect the other. Although there are moments of coordination between these two sectors (such as the setting up of CAN) and moments of conflict (such as the creation of the PPES programme), there is always a certain tension that is linked to the domain of the knowledge. Interestingly, the teachers considered themselves less qualified than the health professionals, and tended to delegate the activities connected to Sex Education to these professionals. This interdependence of knowledge creates of ties between the central Health administration and the non-government organisations, at first only the Family Planning Association, but progressively extending to others. These ties are fuelled by mutual interest: the administration benefits because it mobilises knowledge for the system (schools, teachers) that it only partially possesses; the NGOs benefit because they obtain resources that allow them to sustain themselves and deepen this very same knowledge. While the NGOs obviously have a relationship that applies pressure on the Ministries to adopt active sex education policies, this pressure is exercised through subtle influences (requests for hearings, opinions), where their own knowledge is brought to the fore, instead of being based on strategies of mobilising public opinion (there are no demonstrations or other kinds of public actions) against the policies of the governments. We see, therefore, a relationship that is based more on agreement than disagreement, and which is only broken when the administration is publicly brought into question concerning the policies it implements. During these moments tensions rises to the surface and there are moments of clear hesitation between the maintenance or abandonment of these ties with the NGOs.

A policy agenda conditioned by different factors

As mentioned above, the most significant moments in which the sex education policy is “put on the agenda” (agenda setting) are linked to the parliamentary debate and subsequent vote on the decriminalization of voluntary interruption of pregnancy laws, and at times took place at moments in which there was a change in the governing parties, as part of the alternation between the socialist party (centre left) and social democratic party (centre right). However, the pressure of the opinion movements and the non-government organisations also had an effect, especially when they brought the debate about this policy to the media. Also noteworthy is the influence of the World Health Organisation (OMS), namely through its guidelines about the creation and broadening of the National Network of Health Promoting Schools and in the spread of the “health education” drive in the education systems of the member countries.

[1] Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1993, p. 5) proposed that: “An ‘advocacy coalition’ comprises actors from a wide range of public and private institutions, at all levels of government, who share a set of basic beliefs (political goals, causes and other perceptions) and who try to manipulate rules, budgets and staff working in government institutions with a view to achieving aims that are in accordance with these beliefs”.

[2] Hajer (2005, p.45) proposed that: “A ‘discourse coalition” is basically a set of actors who share a social construction”. This author understood “social construction” to mean a way of lending meaning to ambiguous social circumstances and “discourse” to mean a set of ideas, concepts and categories through which a given phenomenon is lent meaning.


  • FIGUEIREDO Carla Cibele, BARROSO João, CARVALHO Luis M (2010). Knowledge and public action: Sex Education in School (1984-2009).
  • HAJER Maarten (2005), Discourse Coalitions and the institutionalization of practice, In Fischer Frank & Forester John (ed), The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • SABATIER Paul & JENKINS-SMITH Hank (1993), Policy change and learning-an advocacy coalition approah, EUA: Westview Press.

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