…and finally the government agrees. All the evidence says the decision is long overdue – and over 70% of adults agree, as a recent survey by charity Plan International UK reveals.
UPDATE: WITHIN AN HOUR OF THIS ARTICLE BEING PUBLISHED, THE GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCED AGE-APPROPRIATE SEX EDUCATION WILL BE COMPULSORY IN ALL UK SCHOOLS. Read about the decision here, or read on for the countless good reasons this decision was made
Young people in the UK today are growing up in a vastly different world to the one conceivable to the majority of their parents. Most of them have immediate, 24 hour access to the internet through mobile phones, and very many are likely to have been exposed to online pornography before they leave primary school.
In a 2014 survey of 1,000 16-24 year olds, commissioned by BBC Three, the results revealed that over a third of respondents first encountered porn accidentally. Many also said it gave them unrealistic expectations of sex, while a significant number said they initially watched porn to fill in some of the gaps left by sex education in school.
This needs to change.
Traditionally, schools focus predominantly on the biological aspects of SRE (Sex and Relationship Education), skipping out several important areas, which are either left to peers, parents, or more often than not, online sources. These include the dangers of pornography and sexting, identifying violent and abusive relationships, the issues around consent and different sexual orientations. Perhaps even more worryingly, provision of SRE was only mentioned in 1% of all Ofsted reports carried out in England last year, suggesting it is barely a concern at many schools, putting student health and wellbeing at risk. The word ‘pornography’ was mentioned in just a single Ofsted report in 2016. This is despite Ofsted’s own 2013 report that over than a third of schools in England are failing to provide pupils with age-appropriate sex-and-relationships education.
In response to Ofsted’s revelations, the British Humanist Association (BHA) argued that the findings suggest SRE should become compulsory in all schools. They claim there is a “substantial and growing consensus” that age appropriate sex and relationships education should be a statutory requirement in English schools. They cite “unequivocal evidence” that, taught well, it can:
- Delay the first time young people have sex
- Ensure safe and consensual sex
- Reduce teenage pregnancies
- Reduce sexually transmitted infections
- Prevent gender-based bullying and discrimination
Currently, SRE is obligatory for state-funded secondary schools under local authority control, but parents are allowed to opt children out of the classes. In addition, it is not mandatory in academies and free schools, meaning thousands of pupils could be missing out on even the most fundamental aspects of SRE. A recent survey commissioned by the charity Plan International UK, polling 2,000 adults, highlights the changing attitudes across the UK towards mandatory SRE in all schools. The results found that:
- 75% of Britons want children to be taught about the impact of pornography, while just 7 per cent were opposed to the move.
- 71% want lessons on sexting.
- 86% think sexual consent should be taught in schools.
- 82% want SRE lessons to cover violence and abuse in relationships.
Plan International UK’s chief executive, Tanya Barron, said: “Children today can be exposed to all sorts of sexual imagery on a daily basis which we know to be causing harm… It’s clear that the UK public – including parents, feel that educating our children about issues such as sexual consent, different sexual orientations and the impact of pornography is important.”
Barron continued: “Parents are simply demanding that their children’s education reflects the 21st century reality of their lives… Children themselves, girls in particular, are telling us that they feel they need improved, age-appropriate mandatory sex and relationships education to help them navigate these difficult issues.” –
This has brought immense pressure on the government and education secretary Justine Greening to address the issue, especially after parliament voted against legislation to make SRE compulsory in all UK schools in January of this year.
This seems absurd when three-quarters of young people believe compulsory SRE would make them feel safer, according to research conducted by charity Barnardo’s, and nearly one third of teenage girls having experienced sexual violence in their relationships, according to research by the NSPCC.
A 2016 parliamentary report also found that almost a third of 16 to 18 year-old girls had experienced unwanted touching at school, while 70 percent of 11-15 year olds in England alone said they believed sex education should be compulsory, and an enormous 94 percent said they wanted to learn about the risks and consequences of sharing pictures with people online or on social media.
Conservative MP Maria Miller, who heads the Women and Equalities Committee, last year wrote to Education Secretary Justine Greening to demand a change in policy.
“Parents and children know they need help and that is why I want compulsory lessons at school to help children better understand the signs of an abusive relationship, issues such as consent and the harm that is done by sexting and underage viewing of pornography. Evidence given to the Women and Equalities Select Committee on sexual harassment in schools clearly indicates abusive relationships are spilling over from the offline world into everyday school life”.
“Better relationship education can help children handle these pressures better”, Miller concluded
Several attempts to change the law through private members bills in the Commons have so far been frustrated, but ministers are being lobbied to amend upcoming legislation. Greening has said she is looking at the issue, but made no commitment or legislation promises.
The Government’s most recent guidelines on SRE were released in 2000 – long before smartphones, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, sexting, cyberbullying and the sea of easily accessible online pornography currently available. The landscape has dramatically changed in 17 years and, clearly, it is time SRE in the UK was overhauled to recognise that. Not only must it be improved, updated and delivered more rigorously but, most importantly, it needs to be made compulsory in all schools in the UK.
Parents know it. Pupils know it. Teachers know it. When will the government catch on? (Answer: approximately one hour after this article was published!)
You can support the SRE Project here, promoting age-appropriate sex education in schools across the UK, and Digital Awareness UK, who are in schools every day inspiring young people to be safe and responsible online.
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.