We’re delighted to share with you the following interview with Melonie Syrett, a UK relationships, sex and puberty educator, who has years of experience in this field and a well-honed understanding of the evolving needs of young people, their teachers, families and communities.
Jane: In your time teaching Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE)* and advocating for quality Relationships and Sex Education, and Puberty Education in the UK, what are the three things that you felt were particularly important to teach young people?
Melonie: Wow, to narrow it down to three things is very difficult.
- How to know your own feelings and voice them clearly and unapologetically.
- To know your body and its processes and to feel confident when speaking about them to others.
- To make decisions based on your feelings and to know you can always change your mind, at any point.
Jane: What was it that alerted you to the need for menstrual education, and then creating the ‘Rethink Periods Campaign’ specifically?
Melonie: I didn’t choose to lead PSHE and Sex and Relationships Education – it was given to me after my first year as a teacher, I think because no one else wanted to lead it! Once I had been on a few courses I started to love teaching all of PSHE. I also saw how poor the standard of PSHE teaching was and quickly realised that the once a year ‘sex talk’ didn’t teach any skills and provided very little understanding for a child around how and why their bodies would change.
I spent years in my first school trying to improve PSHE as a whole and moved into teaching the Year 6 students their Sex and Relationships education, even though they were not my year group, because I just felt that it was criminal to move into secondary education not knowing about puberty! I did the same in my second school, learning from the mistakes of the first and got a bit further into success and then in my last school I really got there! We taught 6 sessions on Relationships and 6 sessions on Growing up – a whole term dedicated to puberty, menstrual education, sex education and more!
This led me to leading other schools and it just highlighted the issue that this education was regarded as ‘soft skills’ and not of any value in primary and largely in secondary schools. I tried so hard to make a difference whilst working in schools – writing curriculums, training staff over and over, speaking at conferences, holding workshops and more – it was when I stepped out and went into private consultancy that I was asked to write the materials for the project that would become ‘Re:think Periods’.
Jane: Can you tell us more about the Rethink Periods Campaign and other menstrual education projects you have worked on?
Melonie: City to Sea are a charity that aims to reduce plastic waste in the oceans. They commissioned me to write a series of primary and secondary school lessons and teacher guidance around reducing the shame and stigma that permeates periods with the ultimate aim of reducing flushed plastic waste. I was delighted to be asked as it was a way for me to support young people and their teachers in understanding and managing menstruation, reducing stigma and taboo and even looking at celebrating this rite of passage. It was a little later that they let me know the materials had been fully funded for UK wide menstrual training, and they are now affiliated with the WEN (Women’s Environmental Network).
Working as part of the Real Period Project, I have been involved in many exciting Menstrual Education projects. I created the educational materials and activities for ‘My Period’ Cards, which were commissioned by Hey Girls. We created Period Friendly Bristol Guidance for schools and a Healthy Schools Period Friendly programme. I trained Girl Guide and Brownie leaders and Youth leaders in confidently supporting young people with periods and led an online menstrual charting webinar for adults.
I spent a few years leading accredited training for teachers, nurses, teaching assistants and external agencies in PSHE including a real focus on high quality puberty education and spent some time developing materials for local authorities to roll out across their boroughs. I’ve also spent A LOT of time supporting schools with specific problems around puberty and sex education which has allowed me to really provide high quality menstrual education with the children.
Over the last few years I have been running sessions for mothers and daughters that I developed that support the mothers and then their children in understanding puberty and menstruation before coming together to honour and celebrate this special time. I also mentor women who want to start this work themselves.
Earlier this year I published a book ‘How to support your daughter through puberty – a practical guide for mums’ as I really want to see open conversations and reduction in embarrassment and shame around this area, as well as having girls and women really understand their bodies more.
I also ran the South London Red Tent for 4 years before I moved out of South London!
Jane: What are you working on now?
Melonie: I’m in the middle of training some women in holding Women’s Circles, ceremony and ritual. I am also putting the pieces together to form a ‘foundation’ or ‘training school’ based on women supporting women.
Jane: Where would you like to see menstrual education in 5 or 10 years time?
Melonie: Oh, ideally I would love to see the highest quality menstrual education in primary schools. I’d want to see confident young people getting their first bleed and going ‘oh right, I know what this is’…getting their pads out and feeling great about managing their bleeds, and having a sense of pride at their menarche. I also want to see confident teachers who have had excellent training and have worked through their fears and embarrassment – and it not being just the PSHE teacher or the year 6 teacher, but a whole systemic change!
Melonie became the UK’s first ever Chartered Teacher of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) in 2012 and has spoken in Parliament and on the BBC News about the importance of high quality Relationships and Sex Education, including puberty education. She created the educational programme for City to Seas ‘Rethink Periods Campaign’ which was rolled out across the UK and spent many years training teachers and creating materials for schools and organisations such as ‘Hey Girls’, ‘The PSHE Association’ and ‘The Sex Education Forum’. She is the author of ‘How to Support your Daughter through Puberty – a practical guide for mums’, the first in a series of ‘How to’ books. She trained in womb massage and other healing techniques and works with women to help them understand their menstrual cycles and phases of life, supporting them with whatever comes up during that inner journey. Her aim is enable reconnection to the body and its processes and open, authentic dialogue. Melonie works with Emily Stewart as part of The Real Period Project. She also makes drums.