Making the case for compulsory sex and relationships education
Today sees the launch of a new campaign for Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), set up by the End Violence Against Women coalition and the Everyday Sexism project, and supported by the TUC. The SREnow campaign calls for SRE to be made compulsory in all schools.
You would be forgiven for assuming that in 2016 SRE would already be taught to all kids at school. In fact, the national curriculum only stipulates that the basic biological elements of sex education must be taught from age 11. Under the current system, parents can (and do) withdraw their kids from parts of sex education, academies and free schools are exempt from the national curriculum, and schools are free to use external providers, including groups who preach homophobia and abstinence as the only acceptable form of contraception.
In 2012, the TUC wrote to Michael Gove to express concern about a pamphlet being distributed in Catholic schools which claimed that “the homosexual act is disordered, much like contraceptive sex between heterosexuals. Both acts are directed against God’s natural purpose for sex – babies and bonding.”
Similarly, Education for Choice have exposed anti-abortion groups gaining access to schools to deliver inaccurate “sex education” which presents abortion myths as facts to young people.
This is a problem. In fact, it’s a monumental flaw in our education system. What we teach (or fail to teach) our kids about not just the mechanics of sex but also different types of relationship, consent, respect, sexuality, contraception, and abortion, has real consequences.
It is not a huge leap to suggest that a failure to equip kids with the language and knowledge to make good decisions about their bodies and their relationships might be linked to a slew of worrying findings about sexual harassment and assaults in schools.
A 2010 EVAW poll of 16-18 year olds found that nearly one in three girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and nearly three quarters said they heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school daily or a few times per week.
In 2015 Girlguiding UK found that three quarters of girls and young women said anxiety about potentially experiencing sexual harassment affected their lives in some way. Last year it was reported that 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three year period, including 600 rapes.
Perhaps these findings aren’t so surprising given the levels of sexual harassment faced by young women in the street and in the workplace. Just last week the TUC published new research which found that nearly two thirds of young women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Fact based, unbiased SRE for all children, regardless of what type of school they go to, is central to solving this problem.
Depriving kids of information doesn’t ‘preserve their innocence’ or keep them ‘out of trouble’. It simply leaves them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies and leaves them without the confidence to say what they do or don’t feel comfortable with in a relationship.
Crucially for the TUC and for teaching unions, the new SREnow campaign is calling for a “whole school approach” to SRE and it recognises the importance of ensuring that teachers are given the training and the space in the curriculum that they need to teach it properly. In its evidence to the Women and Equalities inquiry into sexual harassment in schools, the NUT made the case for teachers being given sufficient time and training to teach such an important subject.
“While 95% of teachers view SRE to be of equal importance to other subjects, only 20% feel they have the training and/or confidence to deliver SRE. The NUT suggests that schools and colleges consider creating specialist PSHE posts to deliver the curriculum, as well as affording it more space on the curriculum”
NUT evidence to Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry into sexual harassment in schools, July 2016
Too often sex education is something that is tagged on to an already packed curriculum, often with an external provider coming in to teach it on just one day. Any child that happens to be ill on that day misses out altogether.
The case for compulsory SRE for all kids is clear. The evidence points to better outcomes for kids who are provided with good SRE at school. At the beginning of this year four key House of Commons committees wrote to former Secretary of State for Education calling for sex education to be made statutory in primaries and secondary schools but the government was steadfast in its commitment to maintaining the current, abysmal status quo.
If the government is serious about tackling sexual harassment and violence against women and girls, it must put an end to this shambolic and piecemeal approach to sex education and commit to quality SRE for all children now.