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Philippa Taylor

Sex and Relationship Education: should it be compulsory in schools or not?

Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at CMF. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.


The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

The Government has just announced major changes to Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in all schools, from age four.

Currently SRE is compulsory in council-maintained secondary schools but not Academies, free schools or primary schools, although in reality, most academies and free schools do provide SRE lessons.

The pressure on the Government to make changes has been building. Last week a new amendment, Clause 5 (NC5), was tabled to the Children and Social Work Bill which would require ‘Relationships Education’ to be taught in all state-funded schools and would abolish the current parental right of withdrawal. Today, the Government tabled its own amendments to this Bill, announced in a press release here.

Also last week the Local Government Association (LGA) said that sex education should be compulsory in all state secondary schools and that, in the absence of quality SRE lessons, too many pupils are leaving school lacking crucial knowledge about the risks of picking up sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Hardly surprisingly, the LGA’s call is backed by the Family Planning Association (FPA) and the Sex Education Forum.

In November 2016 the Chairs of five Parliamentary Select Committees wrote to the Education Secretary Justine Greening calling for SRE and personal, social, health and economic education to be compulsory in order to help tackle sexual harassment and abuse of pupils in school.

The drive to make SRE compulsory seems unstoppable, and one that makes apparent sense given that ‘the overall numbers of STI diagnoses in those aged 15 to 24 years has risen considerably in the last five years’, according to Public Health England.

The LGA cites figures of 78,066 new STI cases among 15-19 year olds in 2015 and 141,060 new cases for 20-24 year olds. They say this needs to be recognised as a ‘major health protection issue’ that should be tackled through SRE in schools.

But does making SRE compulsory really make sense?

Well, according to the logic of the LGA STI’s are caused by a lack of compulsory SRE!

Clearly that is not the case but can it still somehow be argued that compulsory SRE will lead to a fall in new cases of STIs or sexual harassment and sexual abuse?

First, contrary to most media messaging, the vast majority of pupils in school do receive sex and relationships education, much of it delivered by specialist teams funded and provided by local government. Whilst already compulsory in state schools, it is only Academies and Independent Schools where it is not compulsory, and the majority of them take this area of education just as seriously as every other element of the curriculum and every other school.

And yet, despite widespread SRE, and despite over £250 million being poured into cutting teen pregnancy rates over the last 40 or so years, the number of STI’s among young people continues to rise faster than any other group.

Why? Because STI’s are not caused by a lack of sex education, they are caused by promiscuous sexual behavior.

So looking logically at the facts and stats, it surely makes more sense to conclude that it is sex education that is not working, so making it compulsory is simply imposing a wider duty to do something that manifestly doesn’t work.

Which is just what a recent, and large, Cochrane study found: sex education programmes do not reduce pregnancy and STIs among the young. In fact, they have no effect on adolescent pregnancy and STI rates.

‘As they are currently designed, sex education programmes alone probably have no effect on the number of young people infected with HIV, other STIs or the number of pregnancies…said lead author of the review, Dr Mason-Jones.

The primary issue is not compulsory vs non-compulsory, but what is the basis of and thinking behind the sex education going into our schools.

The organisations driving compulsory sex education (the FPA, Sex Education Forum and British Humanist Association etc) champion ‘non-judgemental’ sex education, with no discussion of context such as  marriage, family life, fidelity or exclusivity, or that there is any ‘right or wrong’. It’s all about individual choice – with consent of course.

Add to this the almost farcical recent comment by FPA Chief Executive Natika Halil:

There’s still a huge amount of stigma around sex and sexually transmitted infections and, without statutory SRE in all schools, many young people don’t get the information they need and aren’t consistently taught skills such as how to negotiate the use of condoms with a partner.’

Ignoring her deliberate language of ‘young people’ rather than the more accurate ‘children’ and ignoring the fact that most children do receive (often very explicit) SRE at school, it is obvious that young people live in a highly sexualised society. Sexual imagery plays a very large part in our culture today and sexual images are used in nearly all areas of advertising and the media, in fashion and dress, in order to generate interest and make money. Information about sex is everywhere!

Moreover I fail to understand why she thinks STIs should not be stigmatised – should the messaging really be that STI’s are perfectly acceptable, nothing to be concerned about and ‘normal’?

But perhaps Halil really meant to say that children need to be properly taught how to handle relationships.

In which case, I would fully agree with her. But the problem is that most current SRE gives no help in this! Context-free SRE, based on condom mechanics, does not help children to handle relationships.

Which brings me to the new Government proposals outlined today, which will make teaching sex education compulsory for all schools.

First, there are a couple of welcome proposals. One is that it will no longer be called SRE but RSE – relationships and sex education. This may be word games but it is also messaging about priorities and is something CMF has called for because it puts relationships first and places sex in the context of relationships.

Second, schools will be able to teach RSE in line with their faith.

However, although it is proposed that parental withdrawal will be maintained for secondary schools, it will not be permitted for primary schools, where there will be no opt out at all.  Even for secondary schools the opt out provisions will be limited (only for the ‘sex’ part) and probably only up to age 15.

The root of long-term parental concerns about making sex education compulsory has partly been because of the kind of material that teachers would be required to teach and the likelihood that children will be exposed to unsuitable materials that sexualises them (see this booklet for some examples). Added to that, approaches based on encouraging young people to exercise self-control or chastity, and encouraging parents to be involved, have attracted very little support and indeed often outright opposition.

Meanwhile opposition to making RSE compulsory, especially from age four, remains.

Sexual intimacy is something valuable and worthy of respect (1 Cor 6: 13-20). The most important thing is not for children to learn the proper names for parts of their anatomy at primary school but to develop the character of children so that they learn self-restraint and the importance of marriage for family life, stable and loving relationships, respect, love and care, as DFEE guidance from 2011 states.

If this can be taught under the new Government proposals then it will be a positive development, however there will be a lengthy political process before that becomes clear and pressure for ever more explicit sex education will remain.  Meanwhile concerns about making RSE compulsory, especially from age four, remain.

The education of our children is a crucial issue. Sex education is an ideological battlefield on which a war is being waged for the hearts and minds of children, from an ever younger age.  The continued danger is that, with plausible sounding arguments, a government-funded strategy of undermining parents and pulling down traditional moral standards may well still win this war.

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