Sexuality education in Denmark’s school curriculum: tensions between policy and practice

Most European countries have some sort of sexuality education in schools, although the policies and practices related to this take various forms, according to the specific historical, socio-cultural and political contexts.

In the case of Denmark, there is an almost 50 year long tradition of compulsory sexuality education in public schools. This is combined with a strong cross-party and public support for teaching issues such as sexuality, relationships, sexual health, rights and gender in primary and lower secondary education. “The Danish approach” is probably best described as open-minded and pragmatic, rather than moralistic. It is said that “young people have sex – let’s make sure they are best equipped for the challenges this might bring them”. In this respect, concern about the relevance of sexuality education in public school is rare. On the other hand, school practices are often criticised for lagging behind the intentions of national curriculum policy, for being out of touch with the needs of the pupils, and for being based on heteronormative and exclusive pedagogical approaches.

The campus of the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University (photo: Søren Kjeldgaard)

A characteristic of school-based sexuality education is that it navigates between, within and across a private domain – normally considered the business of the family – and a public domain – normally considered the business of the state. This is the challenging space occupied by teachers. They have to address issues that are elsewhere thought of as personal and sensitive, and they are expected to do this in the public space of a classroom – where pupils, colleagues, headmasters, parents and other stakeholders, in principle, are looking over their shoulders while doing it. With this in mind, it is easy to understand that teachers in Denmark, as well as in many other countries, find sexuality education challenging.

In the case of Denmark, it is even more problematic, because the topic is not a systematically integrated and mandatory part of teacher education, despite the fact that the formal curriculum is highly ambitious in its approach to the topic.

According to the national curriculum, sexuality education is included in the compulsory topic of Health, Sexuality and Family Education, which targets the entire age group of pupils in primary and lower secondary school (ages 6-16). The curriculum is informed by critical educational theory and the principles of critical health education, emphasising democratic, socio-ecological, participatory, inclusive and positive approaches to health and wellbeing in school (Green & Tones 2010; Simovska & McNamara 2015). As such, the aim of sexuality education is for pupils to develop their critical thinking and their abilities to promote (sexual) health and wellbeing for themselves as well as for others (described by the concept of action competence, see for example Jensen & Schnack 1994 and Simovska 2005).

Structurally, the curriculum defines sexuality education as a cross-curricular topic integrated within subject teaching and, therefore, without a specified timeframe in the school timetable. Teaching is organised as a combination of planned and spontaneous lessons (prompted, for example, by pupil questions or current debates in the media); each approach is considered to have a unique potential for learning. Furthermore, teachers are expected to collaborate closely with school nurses and external actors in the local community. In the highly decentralised Danish school system, the individual teacher has the flexibility to develop his or her own sexuality education curriculum based on the statutory aims and learning outcomes of the national curriculum, ideally with the involvement of pupils.

All of the above suggest high expectations towards the professionalism of teachers and their enactment of sexuality education as a critical educational practice. However, my research into the processes of curriculum enactment indicate that there are multiple versions of sexuality education and multiple ways of taking on the role as “sexuality educator”, some, perhaps, more professional and critical than others. There seem to be at least two common denominators characterising the processes of enactment.

Firstly, it appears that teachers and school principals attach little importance to the formal curriculum. Relatively few teachers have extensive knowledge of the content of the curriculum, and they rarely use the curriculum as a starting point for planning. Instead, they get inspired by teaching resources and appear to be, to some extent, steered by their own personal beliefs in relation to the purpose and content of the topic. These beliefs are not necessarily grounded in critical pedagogical ideals.

Secondly, my research indicates that sexuality education is approached as the individual responsibility of the teacher. Teachers work a great deal on their own and collective meaning making on the purposes, pedagogies and challenges of sexuality education seems to be limited in schools. This, together with low priority from school management, indicates that the culture of sexuality education in the Danish public school is characterised by individualised practices and a low degree of joint professional reflection and interaction.

Against this background, my study illustrates an important tension in relation to how professional and personal judgement is valued in the enactment of sexuality education in the Danish public school. Perhaps the ambitions of the national curriculum is not followed up by equally ambitious cultures and structures at school level? And perhaps this, along with the absence of professional development of teachers, presents a serious challenge when it comes to fulfilling the critical pedagogical potential of the sexuality education curriculum in practice.

About the author

Line Anne Roien has a MA in Education and is a PhD fellow at Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. She is in the last year of her PhD study, researching how school based sexuality education is framed, enacted and supported in curriculum policies and practices in the Danish public school. Line has extensive experience with the field of school based sexuality education and has, in this respect, been involved in public school teaching, pre-service and in-service training of teachers and school nurses, development of teaching materials, campaigns, local and national policies etc. In 2013-2014, the Danish Ministry of Education appointed her as chair of the committee responsible for the latest revision on the national curriculum for “Health, Sexuality and Family Education”. Line was recently a visiting PhD student in the Faculty of Social Sciences.