Personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) has been an element of the National Curriculum for UK schools since 2000, yet only some aspects are compulsory: sex and relationships education (SRE) is not a necessary requirement, should this be the case?
After an alarming Ofstead report in 2013 revealed that less than two thirds of schools provided age-appropriate SRE for their pupils, an inquiry was launched from The Commons Education Committee. It is becoming increasingly clear that children and young people in the UK should be receiving more information regarding their own sexual health, including safe and positive relationships, rather than just the biological facts of reproduction.
As it stands, sex education in schools does not show a great deal of social concern. The insufficient curriculum requirements simply put our pupils in good stead to pass their biology GCSE, unless of course they are wrapped up in an unhealthy sexual relationship during their exam period. The FPA’s SRE factsheet explains: “The sex education elements of the National Curriculum Science Order are mandatory for all pupils of primary and secondary school age. These cover anatomy, puberty, biological aspects of sexual reproduction and use of hormones to control and promote fertility.”
With the increasing prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among young people, teaching children about safe sex and the prevention of STIs should surely be an absolute minimum. Although most schools cover this to illustrate an interest in SRE, there is so much more information that children as young as primary age should be exposed to: puberty, menstruation, contraception, abortion, safer sex, HIV/AIDS and STIs should all be covered, as recommended by the Department for Education in 2002. It is essential for young boys and girls to know about puberty before it begins; otherwise all kinds of awkward confusions occur, not to the mention embarrassing questions that occur on the playground because some parents aren’t liberal enough with their chat about “the birds and the bees”. The SRE curriculum also calls for the needs of all pupils to be met, regardless of ethnicity or sexual orientation, which brings up a whole new debate regarding the discussion of LGBTQIA in PSHE sessions, and considering that relationships are barely discussed in school as it stands, this could be a long way off, unfortunately.
Perhaps, here in the UK, we can learn something from our Scandinavian friends, who have a very mature and focused approach to sex and relationships in schools. In Sweden, the birth rate among 15-19 year old is 5.2 per 1,000 women, compared to 19.7 per 1,000 in the UK; this statistic blatantly illustrates a wide knowledge gap in regards to safe sex between these two nations. So what are they doing differently? SRE has been compulsory in Swedish schools since 1956 in primary and secondary schools, therefore children are used to discussing sex: they know and respect each other’s bodies. Age appropriateness is taken seriously, but it doesn’t get in the way of what is being taught, unlike here in the UK. A Swedish animated video aimed at three- to six-year-olds showing dancing sexual organs may seem odd to a reserved, British audience of adults, but it immediately makes children comfortable about body parts that they may find mysterious or confusing, and enables them to learn essential information about them. Giving young children this information head on is a very mature approach to sexual education: here are the body parts, aren’t they colourful and fun, now let’s be open and mature and talk about it. Done. Maybe we should be brave and embrace the same attitude in this country.
During the time that sex and relationships education would have had the most impact on my life, I was attending a single sex school. Being in a classroom of girls in their early teens made for many a giggly PSHE/Biology lesson, but once the jokes and laughter settle, I was able to openly ask questions without the fear of male judgement. Although I’ve painted an idyllic scene here, where the conversation is tampons and sanitary pads galore, a fundamental factor was missing: a male opinion. I obviously don’t know what a boys’ SRE class would entail, but considering how much we hated boys at the age of twelve, I can hazard a guess. I feel as though young people would benefit from single sex and mixed sessions, allowing children to voice their opinions and questions with more confidence among their own gender, but also to have group discussion regarding consent and healthy relationships with the views of both genders in mind.
The key issue in the neglect of SRE in the National Curriculum is that fundamental ideas are not being discussed. The promotion of healthy relationships, and what healthy relationships are, is something that children may not learn at home and it is therefore the duty of the education system to help them, and to prevent them from falling into unhealthy relationships themselves. Conversations about consent do not occur to a sufficient degree: one in three 16-18 year old girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school in the UK (Yougov, 2010). This terrifying statistic illustrates that young people simply do not understand consent, it must be discussed. This needs to become a compulsory item on the curriculum.
More funding needs to be directed towards training teachers so that they are better equipped to discuss difficult and intimate topics with their students. Giving SRE statutory status within the National Curriculum will encourage such an objective and would enable pupils to understand these essential issues of life before they encounter them, giving them a much better chance at avoiding and preventing unhealthy sexual relationships altogether.
Written by Tender Volunteer Annabel Murphy
Annabel is a 19 year old student at the University of Manchester studying English Literature. After completing her first year of university studies, she is spending four weeks at Tender in order to gain some experience in the charity sector and learn about the importance of the work done here.