The government has announced that sex and relationships education will soon be compulsory in all English schools. Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, says that children from the age of four upwards will be given lessons about healthy and safe relationships, and that sex will also be taught when children reach an appropriate age.
However, parents will still retain the right to refuse to allow their children to participate in such classes. Up until now, sex education has only been a compulsory component in schools that are run by local councils; free schools and academies did not have to follow the national curriculum, and were therefore under no obligation to teach SRE (sex and relationships education).
Current sex education is “outdated”
In fact, the vast majority of schools do tend to teach the subject, but the announcement by the government simply means that schools throughout the system will now be obliged to do so. Particular emphasis will be given, in age-appropriate lessons, to healthy relationships and issues such as online pornography, sexual harassment and the dangers of sexting.
The focus in primary schools will be more on staying safe, and how to build healthy relationships, while in secondary schools sex will also become a topic for discussion, according to the Department of Education. Discussions on the kind of subjects that children should be taught in the lessons, and at what age, are also set to be held by the government, and later in 2017 there is expected to be a public consultation on the issue.
The Department of Education says that the new curriculum could be up and running in schools from as early as September 2019. Greening told the BBC in an interview that, while sex and relationships education is already taught in schools, it is not currently a mandatory part of the curriculum, and many youngsters are thus leaving school ill-equipped to cope with the modern world and unprepared for the very modern challenges that are being faced by young people. These include sexting, sexually transmitted infections and cyber-bullying.
Greening says that mandatory education in relationships and sex will now be introduced in all secondary schools, but that all primary schools will also have classes on relationships education. She added that the current guidance on sex and relationships education, which was introduced eight years ago, was now outdated.
Concern for sexual health
The Local Government Association has welcomed the announcement, following a campaign for sex education to be compulsory in all schools. The chairman of the community wellbeing board of the association, Izzi Seccombe, says that the current absence of such education in free schools and academies is resulting in problems being stored up for later life, as well as causing a ticking time bomb in relation to sexual health. Seccombe says that the Association believes that making sex and relationships education compulsory in every school will have a significant impact, and could reverse current trends, by ensuring pupils are ready to enter the adult world and take better care of both themselves, and their future partners.
Criticism from Pressure Groups
However, the announcement has not been entirely positively received, with criticism from some that the influence of parents is weakened by the move. The chief executive of the organisation known as Christian Concern, Andrea Williams, says that children, particularly children of primary school age, should have their innocence protected. Williams says that schools should work more closely with parents to ensure that their need for knowledge of certain things is looked at correctly, particularly given that every child is likely to be different. She suggests that such education should be delivered on an individual basis rather than delivered wholesale by the state.
The announcement was also slammed by the Safe at School Campaign, which the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children is responsible for running. Antonia Tully says that the state is incapable of safeguarding children in the same manner as their parents, and that this announcement effectively tells parents they are not fit to introduce and teach the concept of sex to their own kids.
The objections of these two pressure groups would arguably carry more weight if all parents were actually educating their children in sex and relationships issues; but despite the criticism, the news has been welcomed by school leaders, charities, local authorities and MPs, who have been calling for the subject to be compulsory in all English schools.