Press release: Early onset of puberty raises questions for teachers and parents

  1. The Schools Health Education Unit, Exeter has carried out some research about puberty for Pillarbox productions in connection with a recent TV programme for Channel 4, as part of the series "Sex from 8 to 18" in the "Generation Sex" season. Items about puberty were included in a series of surveys using its Health-Related Behaviour Questionnaires (HRBQs) in primary and secondary schools.
  2. A total of 9011 pupils took part in the surveys, of which 6696 were processed from secondary schools, of which 3753 were female, of which 1741 were in year 10.
  3. The estimate for the mean age of menarche, assessed as the age in whole years for a first menstrual period in those Year 10 females who had had a period was 12.7y; the eventual average for all females is unlikely to exceed 13.0y.
  4. Primary schools: in Year 6 of the same term, 5% of females said they had had a period (N=1874, females=869); for Year 5, the figure was 3%. These figures are similar to those derived by back-tracking from the recollections of older pupils.
  5. Previous recent estimates from a number of European countries suggest that the mean age of menarche is declining, and was approaching 13y in the early 1980s. Even a conservatively corrected estimate from our data is less than 13.0y. [USA figures are said to be stable but already average less than 13y.]
  6. We cannot conclude with complete certainty that the estimate from this work is significantly lower than the other estimates from recent decades. Nonetheless, the data are very suggestive of a further fall in the mean age of menarche since the 1980s. Confirmation from an older sample and/or longitudinal study would add to our confidence in the data.

Dr. David Regis, Research Manager at the Schools Health Education Unit, commented:

"We were very interested in these figures that came from this large sample. There are implications for children, parents and teachers here."

"It's not just the girls who reach menarche early that need to discuss puberty. Early menarche could happen to any girl, and it would be better for them to have got some idea of what might happen to them before it actually does. Boys too need to be coached about their own development, and also how to react to their peers who may develop earlier, later, or in a different way to the majority."

"Parents will welcome support or even a lead from schools on this."

"As far as teachers are concerned with this research, the range may be more important then the average. That is, it doesn't really matter what the average age the first period is, if you are getting significant numbers of girls experiencing their first period earlier in Key Stage 2, then you need to prepare all girls for this.

"We have kept these puberty questions in our surveys since our work with the programme, and we sometimes meet with a comment from primary school teachers: 'we don't like the period question being used in Year 5 (9-10 year-olds), because we don't do sex education until Year 6'. The fact that a proportion of girls start their periods before then means that at least some of the issues must be discussed earlier. Parents and teachers take note!"

"Teachers won't be pleased to be given something extra to worry about, although it is part of planning they will be doing in any event. I wish there were fewer demands on teachers so that the health education curriculum won a better share of time and energy."

Notes for Editors

  1. The Schools Health Education Unit is an independent research unit in Exeter, and was until 1997 part of the University of Exeter.
  2. School Years and Stages:

    Key Stage One = Years 1, 2

    Key Stage Two = Years 3, 4, 5, 6

    Year 3 = 7-8 years

    Year 4 = 8-9 years

    Year 5 = 9-10 years

    Year 6 = 10-11 years

  3. This is not national data. The accumulated data from hundreds of school surveys over the year, involving tens of thousands of young people, is a valuable resource of information and provides many opportunities for research. However, it comprises the 'accidental' collection of schools for that year, from diverse but select parts of the country, and is not a random sample selected for the purposes of providing a nationally representative picture. Nonetheless, we do know that the Schools Health Education Unit databanks can provide figures similar in range and pattern to those derived from random/stratified samples.

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