Comment: Sex education is letting British teenagers down
Max Biddulph of the University of Nottingham explains how the UK’s approach to sex education is failing pupils.
The UK government has been heavily criticised after rejecting a recommendation for statutory inclusive sex and relationship education in schools. This comes after Office for National Statistics figures recently revealed that in the 12 months to March last year, 30% of female rape victims were aged under 16, a quarter were 14 or younger, and nearly 10% were nine or younger.
Despite MPs’ calls for sex and relationship education to be mandatory in all schools, its “non-statutory” status – couple with the fact that many schools are emerging via the process of “academy-isation” – means that currently schools embrace sex education with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Consequently, it is almost impossible for the subject to be taught at a consistent level across the UK.
The case for making sex education compulsory seems to be more compelling than ever. And in the wake of high-profile child abuse cases in Rotherham and Rochdale, calls have been for a greater discussion of issues of consent for all young people, and young women in particular.
Issues highlighted in recent research undertaken by the Sex Education Forum into young people’s experience of sexual education shows there needs to be more focus on the safety around the exchanges of digital images between pupils – with discussions needed on the impact “sexting” has on young people.
It is also important to evolve the understanding of “relationships” to include same-sex relations – with young gay and bisexual men particularly poorly served by school sex education classes, in part due to low levels of knowledge around safer behaviour and HIV.
Facts of life
Prior to the government’s decision on sex and relationship education, four different chairs of House of Commons Committees – education, health, home affairs and business – wrote to education secretary Nicky Morgan, saying personal, social, health and economic education, which includes sex education, was a “crucial part of preparing young people for life”.
“It can provide them with the knowledge and confidence to make decisions which affect their health, well-being and relationships, now and in the future,” said the joint letter.
In her reply to Neil Carmichael – chairman of the education select committee – Nicky Morgan defended the lack of change. She implied schools are either not ready, or do not have the expertise to deliver such classes – with Ofsted finding that 40% of personal, social, health and economic education teaching in schools is less than good.
But strangely, governments have never held back on introducing educational initiatives in the past. In fact, the mandatory nature of the changes often provides a powerful imperative for implementation. A good example is the curriculum reforms in the 1990s, which foregrounded literacy and numeracy.
Beyond the banana
In a lot of ways, sex education is still stuck in the past – when it sought to “regulate the moral and sexual behaviour of citizens in accordance with reoccurring social agendas”. This includes encouraging a heterosexually envisaged future, stable family life, the prevention of “promiscuity”, and stemming sexually transmissible infections and “unplanned” pregnancies. Unfortunately, this isn’t really representative of the age we live in now.
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Influenced by the ideas of the eugenics movement, early sex education also sought to encourage “good breeding” to “strengthen the nationhood”.
As the situation stands, it seems as though Nicky Morgan is caught in a trap between her own personally supportive position and the potential challenges which might emerge from certain faith groups – who have a vested interest in protecting a more conservative concept of “sexuality”. So if sex education was to become compulsory it could create confrontation and a conflict of values.
We need to look deeper at our society and the moral meanings that are attached to sexuality, sexual behaviour and sex and relationship education. Because it is society at large and young people specifically who continue to pay the price for inadequate, patchy sex education. Instead of being seen as “contaminating knowledge”, sex education should be seen as a facilitator of individual growth and empowerment. Sexuality, arguably, is a central experience of being human after all.