October 22nd, 2008
Tomorrow the Minister for Education Jim Knight will be reporting his recommendations for sex and relationships education (SRE) in the UK.
Currently in the UK SRE is not statutory. While schools are required to cover contraception and sexually transmitted infections (usually within a science class setting), additional aspects of feelings, emotions and questions about sex are not currently mandatory.
Our SRE guidance is specific enough to tell teachers, parents and school governors what should be taught, but educators complain they don’t give enough information to let schools know exactly how to put them into action.
The result of SRE guidance that isn’t always easy to follow and where schools aren’t required to enforce by law has been haphazard teaching within the UK. Some schools deliver fantastic, innovative and supportive SRE lessons which are specifically tailored to the needs of young people. Other schools are not so good at sex education, while some faith-based or more conservative schools restrict sex education completely.
Research suggests that teachers would like to deliver better SRE and feel it is important. However, they often feel uncertain how to do this, disempowered and overworked within the school setting, and concerned about what to teach and how to teach it.
Studies with parents indicate they usually want to discuss SRE before the school does, although they often don’t know how to talk about sex to their children. Nevertheless parents generally admit SRE is important for the wellbeing of their child.
Teenagers have repeatedly stated they do want SRE to be delivered within schools, they would like SRE to move beyond biology to tackle feelings, emotions and how to manage relationships, and are often uncertain how to negotiate their way through our increasingly sexualised culture.
My experience of talking to teenagers about sex as both an educator and agony aunt, as well as offering training and support to teachers, parents and healthcare providers has repeatedly reminded me how parents and teachers are often not given the right support or information to deliver positive messages about sex. Many fear if they raise issues of sex and relationships they will either encourage sexual behaviour or start a conversation with a young person that they don’t feel able to handle. Meanwhile teens and children constantly tell me they want more information and consistently ask for clarification on the many questions about sex, relationships and the body they have.
The general climate in the UK at the moment is that teens definitely want sex education. Teachers are ambivalent about it, and parents are often more positive about it if they are reassured that talking about sex won’t lead to sexual activity. Until now the political response to this issue has been to encourage parents to become more involved, to recommend only the basics of SRE are implemented by law, and to run shy of making SRE statutory.
So hopes are high for what tomorrow may bring.
Rumours suggest that Mr Knight will recommend SRE focuses more on the ‘R’ – relationships. There are indications that outside agencies may well be utilised to deliver SRE within schools. Whether parents will still be given the right (as they currently have) to opt their child out of SRE is unclear, as is whether this choice will be transferred to children rather than parents. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for statutory SRE, I’ll be over the moon if we get it – but I’ll also be very shocked if we do as there is a very vocal opposition to sex education in the UK that have a fair amount of political power (particularly in the right wing press).
SRE opponents argue that having sex education available in schools has resulted in our increase in teen pregnancies, STIs and underage sex. This argument is persuasive as we can all see the problems facing our teens. However it falls down as it’s based on the assumption that all schools offer SRE to the same degree. Our problems arise because SRE isn’t delivered in a uniform manner, and because young people are living in a highly sexualised culture. This means they are exposed to many sexual messages (lots of which are inaccurate, unrealistic and unhelpful), but they have no information on how to manage this information.
I know that many practitioners, educators and campaigners have been lobbying Jim Knight over the past few months and all we can hope is that he has listened to this and considered what the evidence tells us here. Which is this. Children are more likely to delay sexual activity and practise safer sex if you offer them sex and relationships education tailored to their individual needs of children and teenagers; covers more than biology and includes information about feelings, emotions and life skills; and encourages confidence and assertiveness.
I am hoping that by tomorrow SRE is going to be statutory. That would make a massive difference to the lives of teens and children in the UK. If this does happen then we are going to need to offer a lot of help and support to teachers since SRE lessons don’t always come easily to them and clearly you want to be an enthusiastic and confident teacher to deliver such important messages.
I’ll be talking about Jim Knight’s plans tomorrow morning at 7.45am (GMT) on ITV’s early news show GMTV. We may get a few more clues from Mr Knight then about what’s about to happen with SRE. However we won’t know for sure until after 9.30am (GMT) tomorrow when the recommendations will be made public.
Join me tomorrow when I report back on what the future is for SRE in the UK.Tweet