“Everything Netflix’s Sex Education Gets Wrong About UK Schools”
Across two seasons, Netflix’s Sex Education has successfully addressed many sticky issues of sexual health and identity – yet one aspect that continues to provoke confusion is just how inaccurately it portrays U.K. schools. Created by Laurie Nunn, Sex Education season 1 premiered on the streaming service in 2019. The show became an immediate hit, garnering over 40 million viewers and dominating social media soon after its release. It was rapidly renewed for a sophomore outing, which was released in January 2020.
Sex Education stars Asa Butterfield as Otis Milburn, a sexually repressed 16-year-old just starting his final years at school. Despite his myriad issues, Otis displays a keen aptitude for dispensing sexual and romantic advice to others. After successfully aiding school bully Adam with some of his emotional and (viagra-induced) physical issues, Otis and Maeve Wiley, the local bad girl/secret genius, partnered up to run a sex therapy clinic for profit. Sex Education has accurately (and meaningfully) shed light on everything from asexuality and pansexuality to Vaginismus and the process of abortions. Despite that, Sex Education‘s portrayal of a supposedly British school has a distinctly American feel.
Nunn (who is British) has said that this strange hybrid of the two cultures is a deliberate choice. Speaking to Radio Times, Nunn explained, “I’ve always been really influenced by American film and TV shows; they played a really big part in my own teenage years, so that was always something I wanted to come back to… It’s definitely set in Britain, but we’ve made a very conscious choice to have that American, throw-back nostalgia, John Hughes feel to it.” Still, while the American influences in Sex Education may be intentional, they also make the show’s portrayal of the British school culture very inaccurate.
For starters, there is not a single glimpse of a uniform. While the characters of Sex Education are said to be in sixth form, which largely forgoes an official dress code, that shouldn’t go for the remainder of the school. Instead, the students of Moordale High are free to don whatever fashion they so wish. Even dyed hair and jewelry, which many U.K. schools forbid beyond basic stud earrings, are on full display. That is as true for traditional public schools as it is for the more affluent institutions that Moordale seemingly represents. Beyond the school itself, trailer parks like the one that Maeve lives in do exist in the UK, but aren’t a common fixture, and in general British houses tend to be a lot smaller than those highlighted in the show.
Lockers are also a very American tradition, frequently seen in such high school classics as The Breakfast Club and Mean Girls. However, lockers are considerably less common in U.K. schools (though some do have them), with students generally carrying their belongings around with them instead. Similarly, there is a jock culture in Sex Education that is more prevalent in U.S schools. While there are sports-related activities and clubs, and students who noticeably excel in them beyond many others, the majority of U.K. schools would not have the facilities to cater so aggressively to them – especially an Olympic-size swimming pool. Letterman jackets like the one that Jackson wears everywhere are simply not a part of school life in the U.K.
Then there’s the high school prom. While schools in the United Kingdom do have occasional dances, they’re not much like the one that Sex Education depicts. More colloquially known as “school discos,” they are generally far less formal affairs. There would be no limos, no corsages, and more likely a cheesy DJ than a live rock band (with the exception of graduation balls, where students get properly dressed up in black tie to celebrate the end of their school careers). That being said, Otis himself does label the event “an appropriated American tradition.” This could serve as the show’s overall mantra. Simultaneously channeling the works of John Hughes and remaining wholly British in other ways has allowed Sex Education to have cross-Atlantic appeal, and stand out as wholly unique.
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