Young NCB’s Jack Welch considers how worrying gaps in sex and relationships education – especially for LGBT+ young people – are leaving many in the dark.
In many schools, there is an almost unwritten guarantee that some classes are slotted into timetables as an afterthought and will have no bearing on the life choices made by pupils.
Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education is sadly a perfect example. Even since the time I left secondary school in 2009, little has changed, it seems, in the standard of teaching of vital life skills and emotional maturity necessary to make smooth transition to adulthood.
January, saw the publication of the Sex Education Forum’s (SEF) new ‘Heads or Tails’ report, where findings from a sample of over 2,000 11-25 year olds, revealed the urgency of improving sex and relationships education (SRE) across England. The Parliamentary launch of the report was chaired by Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, who agreed with the need to provide statutory SRE and PSHE and for there to be a higher standard of learning within classrooms.
What makes for an interesting comparison is looking at changes over time. The percentage of 16-25 year olds who rated SRE as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ has changed very little over the years, with the figure standing at 34% in 2008 and only decreasing to 31% in the 2015 survey.
Only for those under the age of 14 had steps been taken to provide education on relatively new issues facing the UK, like female genital mutilation (FGM), with 40% of younger pupils having learnt about FGM at school, compared to 22% across all age groups. Despite this, failures to educate pupils on subjects around consent and identifying abuse will have a significant social cost if young people are not confident enough to make informed choices about their bodies and not enabled to report dangerous individuals when they feel exploited. With 53% responding that they could not recognise when someone is being groomed for sexual exploitation, it only compounds the findings from the Ofsted report in 2013, which found that PSHE in many secondary schools only serves to emphasise the ‘mechanics of reproduction’, as opposed to areas around healthy sexual relationships and staying safe. Although ‘the mechanics’ may be more likely to be covered at school the Sex Education Forum survey still found that 16% leave primary school without having learnt correct terminology for genitalia.
The launch event in Parliament also gave an opportunity for myself and others invited in the room to find common ground on failures such as inadequate training for teachers and that learning is very much heteronormative - where classes promote heterosexuality alone - and many of those who question their sexuality or identify as Trans are not sufficiently accounted for. In previous recommendations the Sex Education Forum has called for inclusive education and ensuring teachers are more than able to teach the subject with confidence, without feelings of embarrassment or prejudice on certain topics, but in reality this is still not widespread. It is a tragedy to witness the casual use of homo/transphobic slurs without any thought of the consequences or impact it has on those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or Trans, or confused as to their sexuality. All this because of outdated curriculum standards.
In a country that is still coming to terms with the extent of child sexual exploitation and where technology is enabling new cruelties like revenge porn, not giving pupils the basic knowledge around consent or what constitutes a healthy relationship is making a generation enter adulthood in the dark. With many of these problems occurring well before the age of 18, it is time for the Department for Education to take a decisive stance on this subject and make SRE fit for the modern world.