Last week the government ruled out the possibility of introducing compulsory sex and relationships education in all schools.
David Cameron blocked calls to make SRE a statutory part of both primary and secondary teaching and provide specialist training for teachers required to deliver it.
The recommendation was made following a report by the Education Select Committee last year which itself followed a 2013 Ofsted report which found that the PSHE and SRE was inadequate in 40% of schools and pointed out that too much emphasis on the “mechanics” of sex and not enough on the emotional and psychological side, could leave young people “vulnerable to inappropriate sexual behaviours and sexual exploitation.”
The campaign for mandatory SRE had the support of four parliamentary select committees, five teaching unions, the Children’s commissioner, the Chief Medical Officer, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, two royal societies, six medical royal colleges, as well as Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, International Development Secretary Justine Greening, Business Minister Anna Soubry and many other Conservative MPs.
But still no dice. Why? In an article in the Telegraph an unnamed official was quoted as saying: “It’s largely to do with this notion that if we start focusing on PSHE we’re moving away from the rigour agenda.”
This is patently ridiculous. Sex is part of life, whether you’re having it or not, so how on earth teaching kids to understand it, negotiate it, and make safe, healthy, personal choices about it, could be viewed as somehow not rigorous in terms of its role in preparing children for life is quite beyond me.
Cooking is taught in schools because the government has finally recognised that lack of information about healthy eating is leading to long-term health problems across the nation. But sex? What problems could possibly arise from a lack of decent sex education? Here are just a few…
- A 2010 YouGov survey revealed that almost a third of 16 to 18-year-old girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and that 71% of 16-18-year-olds of all genders say they hear sexual name-calling with terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a daily basis or a few times a week.
- Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales every year. 90% of these people knew the perpetrator beforehand.
- One in six pregnancies in the UK is unplanned and almost a quarter of pregnancies in the 16-19 age group are unplanned. Researchers found that receiving sex education mainly from school lessons was associated with a lower likelihood of unplanned pregnancy.
- A 2014 study showed 52% of young LGBT people report self-harm either now or in the past. 44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide.
- In 2013 Childline counsellors revealed they were receiving more than 50 calls a day from children upset by pornography.
Now, OF COURSE I don’t advocate teaching five-year-olds about anal sex or showing primary school-aged kids pictures of BDSM. But something has to be done to try to tackle these (and many, many more) issues. Age-appropriate SRE, designed by professionals in the field of sexual health (physical and mental) rather than by unqualified and under-resourced teachers or religious groups bent on misinformation could be the answer. And it’s not just me that thinks so. 87% of parents and 88% of teachers supported the call for enhanced and compulsory SRE.
Right now SRE in English schools looks like this:
- Sex education is only compulsory from the age of 11 onwards.
- PSHE classes cover sexuality and sexual health but the exact content is determined by the school. The classes are often taught by teachers with little knowledge and no expertise in the area.
- Biology classes cover STDs and reproduction.
- Sex education is not mandatory in schools not maintained by their local authority ie private schools and academies.
It’s just not enough. Sex is such a huge and integral part of human life that failure to properly understand our experience of it can have a knock-on effect to so many other areas of our lives. Whether we as individuals engage in sexual activity or not is irrelevant. Asexual folks frequently describe the judgement and ridicule they face on account of people’s ignorance and unwillingness to reject narratives that define what “normal” or “natural” sex is.
Sex is a basic instinct (at least in an anthropological respect) and we can’t ignore that. But we are also capable of making rational choices about it and empathising with other people’s personal experiences of it… if we are empowered to do so.
SRE should go far far beyond teaching kids about condoms and half-heartedly letting them know that “no means no”. For me, comprehensive sex education doesn’t just tell kids the facts, it also teaches them how to use those facts to make informed choices and, crucially, communicate those choices. It covers consent (both the no and the yes) and tackles the differences between porn and reality without being prohibitive. It discusses sexual preferences, different genders, fantasies, fetishes, and kinks. It empowers young people to explore their sexuality without fear. It teaches them to understand and negotiate other people’s desires. It lets them know that sex is different for everyone and they don’t get to define what’s OK and what’s not for anyone other than themselves. It doesn’t just list the laws on sex, it elaborates on why they exist and what they mean. It dispels the idea that what you do with your body should EVER be somebody else’s decision. But it also explains that consensual situations in which you do allow somebody else control are still OK if they were your decision.
Better sex education would have helped investigators on the Oxford and Rotheram sexual exploitation cases get to grips with the power the perpetrators were able to wield over the young girls they abused. Better sex education would have helped enable those girls to sooner recognise the attention of the abusers for what it was and to seek help.
Better sex education would allow people to watch porn and not feel they had to try out everything they’d seen on screen (or pressure others to try it). Alternatively, it would help them negotiate the experimentation process with partners who genuinely did want to try these things.
When you give people only facts, all you’re really providing them with is an awareness of choices. But when you equip people with emotional tools and communication skills alongside these facts, you empower them to actually make those choices.
Currently schools that teach sex education must inform parents (which I’m generally inclined to see as a good thing since parents also have a responsibility for the health and emotional education of their child) and they have a right to prevent their child participating.
This is seen as a particular issue in faith schools and consequently a subject which a lot of people find difficult to broach because nobody wants to be seen to be trying to stifle freedom of religion. Personally I find it very difficult to be sympathetic to any individual whose personal interpretation of their faith demands that they attempt to keep someone in ignorance. And I struggle to see how giving people access to scientific facts, fostering their emotional intelligence, and allowing them to develop communication skills could go against anyone’s will, deity or otherwise, assuming that will was also for people to live safe and loving lives. When the stakes are this high, there has to at least be a conversation. Doesn’t there?
The way it appears to me is that the (largely white male) powers that be in the Conservative government are so afraid to actually talk about these issues and address the ridiculous awkwardness that seems to come with the subject that they have shut it down altogether. That must surely be the problem. Because to deny the importance of sex education isn’t just baffling, it has the potential to be genuinely damaging and dangerous – as the figures above show.
Maybe if he’d had better sex education himself Mr Cameron would be able to see that talking about sex needn’t be scary at all… providing you the knowledge and the emotional maturity to engage.