The teaching of sex education in British schools remains a divisive topic at the forefront of media attention as the Government considers its position on whether or not the teaching of Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) should become mandatory in England and Wales
At the moment, all maintained secondary schools must provide SRE. This means that Free Schools and Academies, which are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum are excluded from this requirement, and primary schools can choose to provide it depending on the decision of their governing body. The National Curriculum contains a mandatory component on the teaching of reproduction as part of the science curriculum, but parents have the right to withdraw children from the teaching of SRE as part of Personal, Health and Social Education (PHSE) teaching, a right laid down by the Education Act of 1996.
The Government’s initial investigation into the state of SRE in England and Wales found that a third of schools did not provide adequate sex education, often with too much focus on the mechanics of reproduction, and little emphasis on the importance of relationships.
Obviously, as time marches on, the relationships and the pressures on young people change over time. The age of internet communication has brought with it new social problems that could not have been predicted when the idea of sharing information with computers was first postulated. The first generation of people growing up with access to the internet have access to explicit sexual imagery and obscure fetishes that their parents went in ignorance of. The government’s review of whether or not SRE should be compulsory, one might therefore argue, comes several years too late.
The fundamental question at the heart of the current Parliament Select Committee is whether or not all children have a right to SRE, and whether all schools should therefore be required to provide it. Last week the committee took views from witnesses representing both interdenominational and faith schools to try to answer this question.
Faith schools often have moral standpoints on sex and relationships laid down with the code of their religion. A interesting point raised is that students attending the school, and therefore followers of that religion, may feel that SRE which doesn’t take into account faith views to not be applicable to them, which was a reason raised by both the Catholic (Philip Robinson, Religious Education Adviser, Catholic Education Service), and Islamic (Yusuf Patel, Founder, SRE Islamic) representatives as to why SRE should not have a mandatory curriculum, allowing schools the freedom to teach within the confines of their faith. It was also suggested that if parents felt their children could not be taught SRE viewpoints consistent with their own religious views would feel pressured to withdraw them from the lessons.
This point was rather eloquently put down by one of the questioning MPs, Siobhain McDonagh (around 10:10am for those watching the video), who enquired as to whether the faith viewpoints on alcohol and drug misuse education as part of PHSE was a concern to parents whose faiths had particular teachings on the subject. The response of the witnesses was that it would be hard to argue against an education on the dangers of alcohol and drug misuse, even if a faith had strict prescriptions against their use. Naturally a comparison to the potential dangers of sex was drawn, and to which neither faith representative could voice an argument against in this context.
Ultimately, the only way to find out if compulsory SRE improves the quality of SRE delivery, and as a secondary outcome improves our unplanned pregnancy rate, rates of STIs and sexual assaults, is to implement and carefully evaluate what the effect on these outcomes are. In the meantime, as professionals, we just have to do our best to educate the young people who cross our paths, and provide them with the best service possible.