This week, Yusuf Patel, founder of ‘SRE Islamic’ warned MPs at the Commons Education Select Committee that sex and relationships education (SRE) should not be taught to schoolchildren. The reasons he gave were, and I quote, “when research has been done with child abusers a lot of the time they say that they were able to groom children based upon the pornography culture and getting children to realise that some things are normal at that age. They then jump on to that. Some of the resources . . . before a child has the ability to understand their own sexuality, they do veer into discussions around sexual relationships and intercourse at a very premature age, before puberty.”
It’s a statement that says more about Mr Patel’s education than anything else, but the unfortunate thing is that he is not alone in wanting to get rid of SRE in schools.
1. A recent survey of more than 1,700 parents of children aged five to 11 which was carried out by the website babychild.org.uk found that 59% did not agree with the fact that sex education is taught to young children.
2. Yet, 47% of those parents who rejected sex education for young children admitted that their child had asked them questions about sex when they were just four or five years old.
3. And when asked ‘How did you react when you were asked about sex by your child?'; 38% admitted to feeling ’embarrassed, 32%, ‘didn’t know what to say, 13% redirected their children to their partner for them to deal with it and 7% just ‘ignored the question.’
4. If parents can’t, or won’t, respond to their children’s perfectly natural curiosity about the human body and where babies come from, the responsibility falls on schools to provide answers to those questions. Although SRE is far from perfect and there are marked differences in what is taught, and how, research into SRE shows that children and young people who learn about sex at school are less likely to become sexually active underage than those whose family and friends are their main source of information (Wellings et al, 2001)
5. The current guidelines on SRE state that both primary and secondary schools have to teach pupils age-appropriate lessons about the biology of sex through their science lessons. Schools are also required to have a written policy on sex education which must be freely available to parents. Aspects of sex and relationship education that are related to the national curriculum for science are compulsory from age 11 onwards, but parents can withdraw their children from all other parts of sex and relationship education if they want.
6. Research by the Department for Children, Schools and Families which was published in October 2014, found that parents who were initially apprehensive about primary school children receiving sex education, changed their minds once they were informed about the content of the curriculum. When they understood that the information being given was entirely age appropriate, the majority of parents in the study did not believe any parent should have the right to withdraw their child from SRE. In fact they felt that to do so would potentially disadvantage the child for life and rob them of fundamental life skills. Some also felt that their children would be stigmatised if withdrawn from lessons.
7. It’s difficult to be precise about content because government guidelines are pretty vague and the supplementary resources used by schools are not standardised. As an outline, at Key Stage 1 (5-7 years), the national curriculum for science states that children should learn that ‘animals, including humans, move, feed, grow, use their senses and reproduce’ and should be taught ‘to recognise and compare the main external parts of the bodies of humans and animals’. At Key Stage 2 (7-11 years), schools are required to teach ‘the life processes common to humans and other animals including nutrition, movement, growth and reproduction’ and ‘about the main stages of the human life cycle’.
8. There is no requirement in national curriculum science at either Key Stage 1 or Key Stage 2 to teach children about the sexual organs, sexual intercourse, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, or same-sex relationships. However, before children make the move to secondary school, they should be taught about changes in the body related to puberty, as well as when these changes are likely to happen, what issues might cause anxiety and how they can deal with them. Although many parents balk at this information being taught to primary level children, some girls now get their first period when they are just eight or nine years old, so these issues have to be tackled early. Children should also know how a baby is conceived and born.
9. At secondary level, 86% of parents agree that sex education is important, but there is a conflict between what parents and young people want SRE to focus on. Young people want more information on issues issues like body confidence, how to avoid peer pressure to have sex, what love means, sexual attraction and how to behave in a relationship. In contrast, 65% of parents believe that contraception is the most important topic, followed by puberty (49%), homosexuality (48%) and sexually transmitted infections (47%).
10. It’s clear that sex and relationship education could be improved. A survey of almost 22,000 children and young people by the UK Youth Parliament found that 40% of respondents described their SRE as either poor, or very poor, and a further 33% thought it was average. A staggering 43% of respondents said they had not been taught about personal relationships at school all. Similar results were found by a 2011 Brook survey of over 2000 young people, in which 47% of secondary school pupils said their school’s SRE did not meet their needs. Unfortunately, unless parents get behind SRE and start supporting schools in their efforts to protect children from the very real dangers of sexual ignorance, it’s unlikely that the government is going to stick its neck out and move sex and relationships education beyond the mechanics of sex to incorporate equally important issues such as relationships, body confidence and saying no to unwanted sex.