Sex and relationships education in schools

What children should be taught about sex and relationships, by whom and when, is a matter of persistent political debate.  There are currently two Private Member’s Bills before Parliament on the subject, as well as an Education Committee inquiry in progress.  The matter was raised during the passage of the recent Children and Families Act and has been discussed by the Youth Parliament – and this is only the debate in Westminster.

Concerns have also been raised about the quality of what is taught.  In May 2013, Ofsted published a report which stated that sex and relationships education (SRE) in England required improvement in “over a third of schools”:

In primary schools this was because too much emphasis was placed on friendships and relationships, leaving pupils ill-prepared for physical and emotional changes during puberty, which many begin to experience before they reach secondary school. In secondary schools it was because too much emphasis was placed on ‘the mechanics’ of reproduction and too little on relationships, sexuality, the influence of pornography on students’ understanding of healthy sexual relationships, dealing with emotions and staying safe.

What must be taught

Local authority schools in England are obliged to teach sex and relationships education (SRE) from age 11 upwards.  Academies and free schools, the majority in secondary education in England, do not have to follow the National Curriculum and so are not under this obligation unless their funding agreement contains clauses requiring SRE to be taught. If they choose to teach SRE they must have regard to the Government’s SRE guidance. Parents, however, are free to withdraw their children from SRE if they wish to do so.  The only exceptions to this are the biological aspects of human growth and reproduction that are essential elements of National Curriculum Science.

Guidance

This position provides the basis for wide-ranging controversy.  One central strand concerns the Government’s guidance on Sex and Relationships Education.  The guidance was published in 2000, the year that broadband internet was first introduced to UK homes.  The dramatically changed world that children now inhabit, of social media and smart phones, was unimagined.  In late 2013, there were a series of calls, across parties, for this sex education guidance to be updated.

Supplementary, but non-statutory, guidance has recently been published by the PSHE Association, the Sex Education Forum, and the sexual health charity Brook, on teaching some of these issues.

Compulsory SRE?

However, this has not held back the opinion that SRE, often within a broader, statutory programme of personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), should be compulsory. (PSHE is currently non-statutory; maintained schools are expected to teach it, but are at liberty to set their own curriculum.)  The two Private Member’s Bills currently before Parliament, from Caroline Lucas and Diana Johnson, advocate increased statutory provision for SRE, through inclusion in statutory PSHE and inclusion on the National Curriculum respectively.

The Government has previously rejected proposals to increase SRE provision on the grounds of parental choice.

During the passage of the Children and Families Act, in response to an amendment to ensure that sex and relationship education be made available to all children across the country, the Minister Edward Timpson stated that the Government “do not believe that the right of parents to withdraw their children from sex and relationship education should be diminished in the way proposed.”

The content of SRE

The position of SRE on the curriculum is not the only source of controversy.  The content of SRE also raises concerns.

To cite a recent example, it was highlighted during the Education Committee’s inquiry that the supplementary guidance published by the PSHE Association, the Sex and Education Forum and Brook includes a link to a ‘traffic light tool’ on the Brook website, which is designed “to help professionals assess whether children and young people’s sexual behaviours are healthy or unhealthy.”  Under ages 13-17, ‘green behaviour’ includes:

consenting oral and/or penetrative sex with others of the same or opposite gender who are of similar age and developmental ability

In evidence to the Committee, Sarah Carter, a trustee of the Family Education Trust, stated that this guidance maintained that:

consensual sexual activity from the age of 13 is normal behaviour and development, whereas the law states that the young people should wait until they are 16 at least, never mind if they are ready or not.

Brook defended the tool, stating in written evidence to the Committee that it was:

not designed for SRE, but [was rather] a safeguarding tool for use by professionals to understand more about the sexual behaviour and development of young people and to respond appropriately to different behaviours.

Brook added that in schools they “would expect young people to be taught about the age of consent,” and in further evidence cited organisations that supported the guidance, including the NSPCC, Barnardos, and the Royal College of GPs.

Whatever one makes of the controversy, it highlighted the delicacy of SRE not just as a matter of broad principle – whether children should receive it or not – but as a matter of debate about its content, and anything connected to its teaching.  Articles in the Telegraph and the Guardian quickly picked up on the debate.

Views on what constitutes acceptable sexual behaviour vary widely; if SRE were to be made statutory, might it be only the first stage in a protracted battle over what was taught?  Or would statutory status provide the impetus for a resolution to concerns such as these, and the raising of standards?

What next?

The Education Committee will report early in 2015.  In its final evidence session, the schools Minister, Nick Gibb, supported the Government’s 2000 guidance, pointing to a review by the Government in 2013 which judged it to still be “very pertinent,” although in need of improvement relating to online issues.  He also supported the supplementary guidance developed by the PSHE Association and others as of “very high quality.”  The use of these two pieces of guidance, he stated, “if schools adopt it and implement it, it will result in very good SRE education in schools.”

It remains to be seen whether the Committee will recommend stronger action from the Government, either statutorily or through some other mechanism.  Whether or not it does, the debate over SRE seems unlikely to go away.  Both in itself and in links to broader concerns – for instance the impact of pornography or the heightened potential for abuse if children are uninformed about what constitutes a valid relationship – the views it provokes are fierce.  If this Government or its successor did decide to move towards change, the debate might only be beginning.

Robert Long