Trigger Warning: talk of consent and FGM.
The Department for Education (DFE) released new guidelines for sex education (RSE). The guidelines have not been updated since 2000, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. Young people increasingly experience sex and relationships with the added complexity of technology, social media and easy access to pornography. New, updated, and relevant guidelines are certainly needed, at least to address the changes in the last nineteen years. Additionally, the likelihood is the vast majority of us experienced sex education that for the main part focused on pregnancy, STIs, and how to prevent them. Whilst these aspects of sex education are critical, young people are often left with gaps about healthy relationships, consent, pleasure, LGBTQ+ sex and relationships, to name a few.
Relationships and sex education or RSE (formerly SRE) will be statutory in secondary schools by 2020, and relationships and health education will become statutory in primary schools. Although sex education will not be mandatory for primary schools, the DFE recommend that primary schools do tailor sex education to the needs of the children. Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, stated that:
“Although sex education is only mandatory to teach at secondary, it must be grounded in firm understanding and valuing of positive relationships, and respect for others, from primary age.”
Primary aged children will be taught about relationships, physical and mental health and staying safe online. Children will learn about the links between physical and mental health, healthy relationships and how to report abuse. Secondary schools will have to provide a more comprehensive sex education than the earlier 2000 guidelines. This includes how stereotypes can be harmful, mental health, keeping safe online and sexting. The dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM) emotional and physical, as well as signposting for support, will be included. Young people will learn about healthy relationships, domestic violence, consent and staying safe online.
The new guidelines have received backlash from both those who think sex education is not the place for school and those who think sex education needs more. Controversy over the inclusion of LGBT rights in the classroom was demonstrated following protests when a primary teacher in Birmingham taught about LGBTQ+ relationships, a school which serves a predominantly Muslim community. Additionally, Clive Ireson, the head of the lobby group ‘Association of Christian Teachers’, argued parents need the right to withdraw their children from sex education. The director of the ‘Partnership for Jewish Schools’ argued that it’s hard to justify why schools should teach young children details of sexual relationships. Dr Katherine Sarah Godfrey-Faussett, started a petition, with concerns that the new RSE should not be mandatory, as it could be harmful to young people psychologically, physically and spiritually. This petition gained 100,000 signatures and was debated in parliament. Parents will be able to opt-out their children from sex education, until three terms before the child’s 16th birthday. At this point, children will be able to choose if they wish to receive sex education.
Various charities and figures in education argue that the new RSE does not go far enough. The co-director of ‘End Violence Again Women’ coalition, Rachel Krys, argued there needs to be mandatory teaching on sex and sexuality, gender stereotypes, consent and the law and LGBTQ+ equality. At a conference for a National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, there was a concern many schools were not promoting LGBTQ+ equality or tackling prejudice. The head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, said that children should learn that same-sex relationships are normal. There are also questions raised about the effectiveness of the new RSE: if parents can opt their children out, how many young people may miss out on important knowledge? Where will young people learn about healthy relationships and sex; is that the role of the parents? In the final three terms of school, will there be time for sex education when exams are going on? Is teacher training sufficient in teaching sensitive content, giving young people the ability to make informed decisions? Despite these questions, the new guidelines are good progress.
There are persuasive arguments for comprehensive sex education. Countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium all have low birth teen rates, reporting fewer than 4 per thousand babies born. The sex education in these countries teaches children that sex is healthy, normal and positive. The statistics, also, around sexual violence and FGM demonstrate why comprehensive sex education is necessary. In 2017, it was reported 20% of women and 4% of men experienced sexual violence, although because of under-reporting it could be higher. Data from 2017 found that those aged between 16 to 24 were significantly more likely to be victims of sexual violence. The prevalence of sexual violence and the most vulnerable age group highlight the necessity in young people being prepared to understand the law surrounding consent. Furthermore, it is estimated that 137,000 women are affected by FGM in England and Wales. Teaching young people about the risk and relevant support networks could support victims.
Furthermore, it is widely reported people in the LGBTQ+ community are at a higher risk of poor mental health, experiencing suicidal thoughts, self-harm, substance and alcohol misuse and depression. The prevalence of mental ill health in the community has been linked to homophobia, discrimination and isolation. The RSE aims to teach children respect and tolerance, an important step in tackling prejudice. Additionally, the RSE guidelines in no way suggest schools are to teach about LGBT sex, rather safe sex practices and healthy relationships that are applicable to all sexualities. Whilst this does not exhaustively demonstrate the arguments for better, more comprehensive sex education; the links between positive and comprehensive sex education and low teenage pregnancies, the worrying statistics about sexual violence, FGM and mental illness within the LGBTQ+ community: it is a clear something needs to change. Mental illness, the harm of social media and the recent focus on the prevalence of sexual violence all need solutions. Education may not be able to solve all these issues, but it is progress to better prepare young people than the previous sex education.