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Too much, too soon? How parents are being misled about sex education

July 20th, 2009

Dr Petra

You may remember last October when the Sex and Relationships Education Steering Group reported back on their review on sex education in the UK, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families responded.

At the time the press were predictably negative about suggestions that sex education might become statutory in 2010, begin from five years old, and remove the option for parents and schools to opt out. As these were recommendations they were up for discussion and review. The media reacted as though they were imminent and unhelpfully implied very young children would be corrupted with condom demonstrations and frank discussions of sex. Unsurprisingly parents were upset and concerned about this issue and felt they were being sidelined.

It’s a pity we are unable to talk about this area without hysterics, but it seems parts of the UK media are determined to take a very specific angle on sex education.

This probably explains why the right wing press have eagerly lept on yet another anti-sex education story today.

Five year old students to get ‘compulsory sex education’

Parents ‘will have no say’ over sex education in schools

Parents fury as nanny state rules on sex lessons

This fury was sparked by a report Too much, too soon from the The Family Education Trust (FET).

Their report covers a range of complaints mostly aimed at the government and the charities Brook and the Family Planning Association. The document does link to evidence but does so selectively. For example it cites the Lancet 2001 study by Wellings et al as an indicator that there is ‘high levels of regret’ with early sexual experience, but does not clarify that ‘early’ means under 14. Instead it implies all underage sex is experienced as problematic by young people.

The report places as much weight on peer reviewed publications as it does emotive quotes from newspapers. It does not seem to be able to differentiate between editorials and research. Numerous statements are made about what’s right and wrong with sex education but are rarely backed up by evidence. While a number of allegations against ‘the sex education industry’ are listed. These are not explained or proven. Nor is it made clear exactly who, or what the ‘sex education industry’ is – only that it exists to undermine parental control.

The gist of the FET report is parents were not consulted in the original government review, and the moves towards statutory sex education are part of a deliberate plot to exclude parents and harm children.

Scary stuff.

But let’s take a look at these claims more closely.

While the FET are right that parents weren’t directly consulted in putting together the proposals for transforming UK sex education, it is not correct to claim parents were ignored. If you read the review and response documents listed above you’ll notice the consistent references to parental involvement. It is made very clear that sex education will not be happening without parental involvement, nor will it be a replacement for parental support.

Moreover, the government (through Parentline Plus) did survey parents about their views on talking about sex with young people as part of the DCSF Time to Talk campaign. So it is incorrect for the FET to imply that parents have not been talked to by the DCSF about sex education in the UK.

Since October a committee has been overseeing the consultation, and while a number of people were specifically approached to give information, nobody has been stopped from submitting their ideas. The FET imply that parents have been excluded, without noting that anyone who wanted to respond proposals for sex education could do so.

I do agree the government could have done more to include parents and to reassure them about what the proposals for sex education will involve. It certainly would have helped to make it clear exactly what will be covered for children in different age groups, and to stress how parents will be involved.

Yet I suspect that would be pretty difficult in a media climate that simply doesn’t want to share those messages. The media could explain that parents will be told what SRE will involve, that stronger dialogue between home and school will be fostered, or parents and schools will work in partnership (as the policy recommendations state). Or they can continue with the ‘children as young as five to be taught condoms’ or ‘parents will have no say in sex education’ angle they currently favour.

Despite the claims from the FET report there is little evidence to suggest parents will be excluded. I’d urge you to read the review and response and see how often parental involvement is stressed.

So what do the FET recommend? Despite the report focusing on parental exclusion, there is very little within it to explain what parents might do or how they could be involved in working with young people.

Instead we are told what’s not okay (homosexuality, sex outside marriage, promoting pre marital sex). The FET report stresses that parents, and only parents, should teach their children about diet, exercise, alcohol, drugs and sex. They argue (although produce no evidence to prove) that if the school does this then parents would abdicate responsibility for covering them. They provide no evidence that this has ever happened in practice.

Quotes from four parents are given in Chapter 6 of the FET report. Unsurprisingly these are all negative and we’re not told who the parents are or how their quotes were selected. This contrasts with the wider published evidence which shows most parents are positive about sex education, the only thing they worry about is being prevented from giving it or not notified about what schools may be covering. The FET report fails to declare the former issue.

The FET are adamant that young people cannot and should not have a say in what they are taught in relation to sex and relationships. Instead we’re told “the only truly safe and healthy choice is to follow a clear moral code that keeps sexual intimacy within the context of a faithful and lifelong marriage” (p. 41).

The report continues this theme in Chapter 11:
“Contrary to the prevalent view among sex educators, young people do not need to learn about a wide range of ‘sexualities’ and sexual behaviours; they do not need detailed information about the full range of contraceptive methods; and they do not need to be presented with a menu of sexual options from which they can make ‘informed choices’ when they feel they are ‘ready’ to become sexually active. Modern sex education is characterised by a lack of honesty, a lack of modesty, a lack of any moral framework worthy of the name, and a lack of respect for marriage as the proper context for sexual expression. Yet it is these missing elements that children and young most need to learn – both by word and by example”. (p.44)

This is not supported by any evidence, it’s an opinion. One that many will share, but it’s not made clear it’s just someone’s idea. Throughout the remainder of the report there are generalisations about what works for sex education – modesty, restraint, and telling young people if they have sex before marriage/when young they will regret it. It is not made clear whether this advice is aimed at parents or teachers, or both. Indeed the statements are instructions on what should be done, but no information is given on how to implement suggestions.

The problem with stating sex is best in marriage and should be saved for this time does little to help young people who have been sexually abused or raped. It doesn’t help those who feel they want to experience sexual pleasure but not intercourse. It neglects to tell us how much of the planning for sex education and indeed sex education campaigns in the UK are based around delay messages as much as they advocate choice.

The FET’s views are not in line with many people in our modern, secular, commercialised, sexualised culture. They do have a point that sex has been cheapened in many ways, but how realistic is it to suggest the answer is to tell all young people they must wait until marriage?

It’s reasonable for anyone to express concerns about parental involvement in school based sex education. What is unreasonable is for the media to report as fact that parents will be excluded by the proposed changes. The FET are speculating, but this is not made clear in press coverage.

Journalists covering this story, and experts supporting the FET’s case should have asked:
- What is the FET’s agenda?
- How realistic are the ideas they suggest?
- How does the research cited in the FET’s report compare with other evidence on sex education?
- What actual proof is there parents are going to be excluded from delivering sex education?
- How does the FET’s report compare with the review and response from the government on sex education?
- How can parents be empowered to understand the proposed changes?
- The FET allege there is a ‘sex education industry’, is this a fair claim? What implications does this have for sex education in the UK?
- Does the media agree with all the proposed ideas set out by the FET (for example that sex should only be within marriage)?

There was clearly no checking of the assertions raised by the FET’s report, or comparison with the government’s review or response.

This is a problem because it implies parents are being excluded, even prevented from talking to their children about sex. It implies there’s an industry of people promoting sex education for nefarious and personal gain, who do not have any interest in the welfare of children. We must be vigilant around such media coverage as it’s easy to be fooled into thinking parents are being shut out and children are at risk.

Our children are at risk, but from scare stories in the press, and a media that seems committed to scuppering any attempts to make sex education available to all who need it – and that includes parents.

You might be interested in a slightly different take on this FET report on Tessera’s excellent blog Too much too soon – fear and loathing in sex education.

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